To be or not to be – part of the United Kingdom? It’s a question only the people of Scotland can answer, in a referendum to be held “sooner rather later”. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
An old friend of this writer and a distinguished South African academic – brought up in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and on the Swazi Escarpment – spent a couple of post-graduate study years in Glasgow. Years later, memories of the Glaswegian winter weather and diet could bring tears to his eyes – and no small amount of terror to his mind.
For most of the rest of us, Scotland occupies an outsized place in our respective mental landscapes. Whether it is today’s internationally acclaimed Edinburgh festival; the heroic tales of Rob Roy and William Wallace, the Loch Ness Monster, Jacobites, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Culloden; a romanticised tradition of lairds and ghillies; its superb literary tradition; the harsh history of industrialisation, the forced enclosure of grazing lands and consequent emigration of so many Scots; and, of course, that amber-coloured, universally admired, eponymously named beverage and an inexplicable cuisine, Scotland has some real heft in the world and in history. And along the way, the place also gave birth to the extraordinary intellectual tradition of the 18th century Scottish Enlightment, with men like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke – that in turn fuelled the engineering and scientific genius of men like James Clerk Maxwell and James Watt.
In the 19th century, both from economic necessity and opportunity, Scotland disproportionately was the source of the British Empire’s soldiers, administrators, settlers, explorers and business leaders. Moreover, the Scots (together with their close cousins, the Scots-Irish) became a significant source of settlers for colonial America – so many, in fact, that some scholars have argued the military traditions and enthusiasm of the American South derives in no small measure from that early and militant Scottish heritage. A vision and version of this Scottish persona comes through in romanticised form in films as varied as “Mr And Mrs Brown”, “Rob Roy”, “Braveheart” and “Chariots of Fire” – as well as just about every character Sean Connery has ever brought to the screen.
But one thing Scotland doesn’t have is actual sovereign nationhood. But it used to. And it may again, if a proposed national referendum actually takes place in 2014. Throughout its history, Scotland maintained its independence – sometimes rather precariously – against England’s Angevin kings in the Middle Ages and then on through the Tudor era; before the two lands were united, first under one crown, and then more firmly through the 1707 Act of Union. Curiously, it was that very national subjugation post-1707 that allowed the Scots to thrive within the broad scale of the British Empire thereafter.
Now, however, in response to a shove that has come from the Scottish National Party’s winning control in the Scottish parliament in its most recent election last year, Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition government has now drawn up a draft order that would permit a referendum on independence to be carried out by the Scottish parliament. This regional parliament was created by the devolution of regional authority in Scotland away from Westminster from The Scotland Act of 1998. This act, however, specifically says that the question of “the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England” is a matter reserved to Westminster, so the Scots can’t simply say by themselves that, sorry, we’re just going to give up on that 1707 thing.
As the announcement came out, probably predictably, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's deputy first minister, criticised the national government for its “blatant attempt” to interfere in a matter that should be decided in Scotland. “We were elected on the basis of our commitment to have a referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term. This is about Westminster seeking to interfere.”
In making the announcement, Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, acknowledged that the Scottish National Party had won last year's Scottish parliament election with its pledge to carry out an independence referendum by the end of the current term, in 2016. The two leaders said, “They [the SNP] have campaigned consistently for independence, and while the UK government does not believe that this is in the interests of Scotland or of the rest of the United Kingdom, we will not stand in the way of a referendum on independence. The future of Scotland's place within the United Kingdom is for people in Scotland to vote on.”
The two leaders added “Ending Scotland's place within the United Kingdom is not the policy of the UK government but we owe it to everyone in Scotland to ensure that the referendum is delivered in a legal, fair and decisive way.” The draft proposal consultation paper added “It is the UK government's view that any bill introduced in the Scottish parliament providing for a referendum on independence would be outside the powers of the Scottish parliament and, if challenged, would be struck down by the courts.” Government officials say they are keen to keep this whole thing out of the courts to avoid uncertainty and subsequent pushing and shoving over who is in charge of the vote.
Not surprisingly, Westminster politicians are also already squabbling over the proposal. One Lib Dem source told journalists “This has not been handled in an ideal way. It is right that Alex Salmond [Scottish National Party leader] should not be given a free run. But this is a risky strategy and we have to get it right.”
In legal terms, this draft order would extend the powers of the Scottish parliament temporarily to allow it to call a referendum on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. In response to this plan, Sturgeon has said the Scottish government wanted to hold this referendum in autumn 2014.
Now that the proposal has been made, it would have to be approved by both houses of the British parliament at Westminster and by the Scottish parliament. Officials said that if everyone works and plays well together, the referendum could be carried out within a year and a half. Officials have added that they want this referendum to take place “sooner rather than later”, to reduce uncertainty about the future because of its potential for harm to the economy in these lean, tough, panicky times.
Amplifying on this concern, the draft proposal consultation paper added “We live in uncertain times, with the global economic situation creating challenges for increasing investment and jobs in Scotland. The question of Scotland's constitutional future is increasing that uncertainty. It is irresponsible to allow this question to hang over Scotland, when it is in our power to end the doubts and allow Scotland to move forward with a clear constitutional future.”
While SNP leader Alex Salmond would most likely become the country’s new prime minister if the Scots go for the plan, iMaverick can think of only one person appropriate to become the new Scottish head of state – Sean Connery – the world’s best-known, professional Scotsman. Maybe he, in turn, would deign to appoint Mel Gibson as head of the Scottish national militia – he’s certainly demonstrated he has the enthusiasm for that job, especially if they get to wave their claymores and broad swords around. And then maybe there will be the job of imbongi to be filled as well – Annie Lennox or Susan Boyle anyone? DM
For more, read:
- Draft order drawn up to give Scotland referendum powers in The Guardian;
- Scottish referendum: PM's tough stance startles Lib Dems and Labour in The Guardian;
- Alex Salmond does not make Scottish independence inexorable in the Guardian;
- Salmond calls for independence referendum in 2014 on the BBC;
- Do Scots want a referendum on independence from UK? On the BBC;
- Q&A: Scottish independence referendum on the BBC;
- Explore Scottish history on the BBC;
How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh in The New Yorker (David Denby on the extraordinary lingering influence of the Scottish Enlightment)
Photo: The Statue of Robert the Bruce is seen at Bannockburn, site of a battle in 1314 against an English army, Scotland January 10, 2012. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Scotland should hold an independence referendum as early as next year, clashing with the Scottish National Party (SNP) which wants more time to rally support for a break from the United Kingdom. Cameron, who opposes Scottish independence, said uncertainty about the 300-year-old union between England and its smaller northern neighbour was creating problems for business and harming investment. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne