The response of Alex Salmond, leader of the push for Scotland’s independence, was swift and angry. ‘Foolish’ and ‘hypocritical’ were the words he used to slam Abbott for being the only Commonwealth leader to make a pointed comment about the outcome of the referendum, set for September 18, which Salmond ses as a ‘model of democratic conduct’. Abbott’s comments were not only unwelcome to the pro-separation ‘yes’ side, they were also in Salmond’s view ‘offensive to the Scottish people’.
If the Australian head of government had any qualms about the wisdom of his remarks, then I suspect they were dispelled when he received the kind of invective Salmond normally reserves for his political opponents in the Scottish parliament.
Abbott may well sense that Salmond is ‘a wrong un’, having more in common with Latin-American post-independence caudillos, who wanted to hoard and limit democracy, than with an Australian leader keen to see it expanded.
Australian leaders have had various run-ins with Britain, such as over Churchill’s strategy in World War 2, and, above all, over Edward Heath’s decision to plunge Britain into the EU on rotten terms, severing close economic and political ties with Australia without so much as a backward glance. Yet despite such vicissitudes, Australia still wishes to maintain organic ties with Britain. This was shown decisively in 1999, when 55% of Australians rejected a republic and backed the continuing role of the monarchy in Australian government and law.
Each of Australia six states rejected the republican plan. The only place which didn’t was Australian Capital Territory. Home to the political class and its media and bureaucratic ancillaries, Canberra backed a republic by two-thirds. Hectoring pundits, celebrities and gurus of various kinds turned the tide against the republican cause by their sheer, patronising arrogance. It is these type of enlightened experts who wish to re-engineer the Scottish psyche so that the country can be an exemplar in terms of global left-wing radicalism, not to mention unrealistic and costly social experiments.
They predominate in Salmond’s campaign and have put plenty off. But contemporary Scots lack the independence of spirit and dislike of authoritarianism which defined emerging Australia after 1788. These are characteristics it has never quite lost.
Early colonial rule was exploitative and the Aboriginal population fared poorly, to put it mildly, when these determined newcomers arrived in their nomadic world. But unlike other empires, Britain’s brought important civilizational advances — above all, a morality rooted in law and order. Well over a billion Indians are available to attest to that. Many Australians who hail from other parts of Asia are attracted by the nation’s attachment to personal freedom, opportunities for mobility, and a system of law that elevates the individual over the state. They also include many people of Irish origin who have cast aside absorption with their, at times, sad homeland and helped make a unique Anglo-Celtic culture in this distant land.
By contrast, Scottish nationalists reach out to communities of Irish and South-Asian origin through anti-imperialist messages, disparaging Britain and Britishness as constricting and obsolete. Despite the left-wing bias in Australian higher education, enough new Australians know enough about the continent’s history to be sure that, without the deep British influence, it would be a different and far less progressive entity.
Tony Abbott, a Rhodes scholar who shone academically at Oxford rather more completely than Alex Salmond did at St Andrews University, will know that the 1707 Act of Union was a liberation for many in Scotland. It created a fruitful long-term partnership, channelling energies in common enterprises at a time when countries on the Continent were engaged in recurring civil wars. Then again, perhaps it was Salmond’s proud reference to his father being a Stalinist while serving in the British navy which prompted Abbott to spell out his concerns about Scotland’s direction under the kind of autocrat rarely seen in the politics of Australasia, Canada or indeed the United States.
Abbott also may have known about Salmond’s endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s adventurism as a boost to Russian pride, and he may even have recalled the Scotsman’s intervention in favour of the Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo war. These excursions to the wilder shores of politics would have been career-ending but for the existence of numerous Scots who warmed to Salmond’s toxic populist brew of grudge and grievance.
Salmond suggested that Abbott had been urged to speak out at the behest of David Cameron and British officials. I suspect that Abbott, nobody’s stooge, had no need of such prompting.
He is likely to see far more clearly than a London politician (with far less limited experience of life) the threat that an adventurer like Salmond poses to already frayed Western democratic unity. I doubt if Abbott, like Cameron, he would have allowed a three-year pre-referendum campaign, nor that he would have denied a vote on to Scots living in other parts of the UK.
I also suspect Abbott is troubled by the complacent response of a callow British leader to a crisis in the Middle East in which what remains of Christian civilization risks being eliminated. The security crisis and humanitarian disaster is likely to have as much blow back for Australia as for Britain. The severity of Abbott’s comments are also likely to make it far harder for the British establishment to concede favourable terms to Salmond if he is a beneficiary of the ‘yes’ vote, above all on the currency issue. Why play along with someone who one of your closest allies has effectively described as a dangerous mountebank?
Australia won’t be isolated without Britain. But the disappearance of a country which has been a lynchpin of Western security and which, in its more lucid moments, has stood up against tyrannies seeking to supplant democracy, will impact hard on Australia. If Europe becomes one big neutral Finland in which Russia enjoys growing sway, and chaos and religious extremism turns some of its cities into battlegrounds, then the world grows far more dangerous. Restraints and inhibitions are swept away. New and uglier political rules are established.
In the 1930s, Australia was very vulnerable when the last sinister re-alignment occurred. The rise of ultra-nationalism and militarism in Japan soon threatened the very survival of Australia. She was able to turn to the USA. Sadly, America’s current leader shares some of the anti-colonialist Alex Salmond’s preoccupations.
Abbott will be assailed by Scottish cybernauts and prominent haters of what Australia has become — people like the journalist John Pilger. But he was absolutely right to speak out, and time may even show just how prescient he was.
Professor Emeritus Tom Gallagher is the author of The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, (Hurst Publications, New York University Press, 2010). Manchester University Press will publish his next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union, in October