In thinking about this upcoming Scottish independence vote, it is pretty ironic that the archetypical British secret agent was portrayed on film by an ardent Scottish nationalist – Sean Connery, while Scotland’s great hero of the 13th century, William Wallace, was played by a misanthropic Aussie actor, Mel Gibson. These are just some of the curious ironies of the impending independence referendum-taking place in Scotland on Thursday. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
On Thursday, 18 September, Scottish voters face an historic choice. Either they will decide to initiate a divorce from the United Kingdom after 307 years and set their sails for complete independence; or they will elect to stay within the UK, but will continue to develop increasingly local, uniquely Scottish institutions of governance. At this point, the pollsters say it is now too close to call – even though some of these survey specialists are leaning towards saying the “no to independence” vote may just squeak by, by a hair. Either way, though, things will never be the same north of Hadrian’s Wall – or south of it, either.
Will it really matter all that much if independence actually squeaks by? Crucially, both its protagonists and its opponents are clear that the results will have enormous impacts on the UK and Scotland – they just happen not to agree on what those effects will be and whether they will bring forth a new earthly paradise or wreck the economy of the northern third of the previously United Kingdom and seriously diminish the international posture of the remainder.
To its advocates, independence will remove the lash of Westminster; free the bountiful creative energies of the Scots; allow for more effective uses of North Sea petroleum and natural gas revenues; provide for local control of local issues and government; and provide a real, fully-deserved and deeply longed-for home among the family of nations for the Scots. For its opponents, of course, a pro-independence vote will do none of these things. Instead, it will devastate the UK’s role inside NATO; will drive the UK out of the EU; will ravage the Scottish economy; and will actually cost the Scots much more in taxes in pounds or thistles (or whatever they call their new currency) than previously to provide even close to the same level of public services the Scots now receive as part of the UK. Moreover, the pro-independence vote will also lessen Scotland’s own engagement with the world (once the overarching framework of the UK is gone) than has previously been the case.
How did all this begin, anyway? In recent years at least, things got rolling a few years ago when the UK Parliament at Westminster agreed to a referendum on Scottish independence when the Scottish National Party gained a majority within the Scottish Parliament. That parliament had first come into being in 1999, after having first been authorised two years before that. This separate Scottish parliament was initially established in recognition of the need to divorce decisions on a wide range of local Scottish concerns from their having to be decided by the UK’s national parliament in London.
But Scottish nationalism does, after all, have some deep roots. It reaches back nearly two thousand years as the saga of Scotland first took root when the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall – and stationed legionnaires to patrol it to keep those wild northern tribes away from the more settled Roman-ruled lands that lay to the south of that wall.
A millennium later, the Plantagenet rulers of Norman England waged war for over a hundred years on the Scots with an eye to conquering them. Scotland’s early national folk heroes such as William Wallace and Robert le Bruce stem from this period. Several hundred years later, on the death of England’s Elizabeth I in 1603, her relation, James VI of Scotland became England’s James I as well as Scotland’s king, when no other more English claimant to the throne could be agreed upon. For a hundred years – with time out for Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth – the Stuart line ruled both nations – but as separate nations.
Then, at the end of the seventeenth century, the Scots – having also been bitten by the lure of Latin American gold and silver, the idea of having their own colony in the New World, and the temptations, opportunities and rewards of becoming a great trading nation – attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama, at the Gulf of Darien. This particularly poorly led, outlandishly conceived misadventure was finally abandoned in 1700, but not before that flailing effort had absorbed somewhere between a quarter and half of all the money in circulation in Scotland, leading to the virtual bankruptcy of the country.
Darien’s failure left nobles, landowners – who had already suffered a run of bad harvests – as well as town councils and many ordinary tradespeople who had invested in it, almost completely ruined financially. This financial collapse became an important factor that drove Scotland towards the 1707 Act of Union that brought England and Scotland together – even though the two were already under one crown – into one nation-state.
The Scots, now firmly part of a rapidly growing global nation, emigrated in growing numbers to settle America and other new colonies and became the British Empire’s “shock troops”, serving as soldiers, explorers, administrators and entrepreneurs. Their writers and philosophers – people like Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and David Hume – gained worldwide audiences; its scientists like as James Clerk Maxwell and Robert Stirling helped lead British engineering and science; and Scottish industry responded to international demands for its well-engineered products.
But the end of the British Empire and now, more recently, the end of the Cold War, has helped loosen the ties between England and Scotland. Increasingly, wealth and the country’s new economy have moved south to London and southeast England – and away from the de-industrialising Midlands and urban Scotland. Perhaps the fatal push for many Scots was the effect of the economic policies of the Thatcherite years – the effects of which many Scots continue to feel fell disproportionately on their part of the nation.
Since the referendum was first announced, support for a no vote – that is, to put aside the idea of Scottish independence – while it was first significantly in the lead, has now declined to the point where the two opposing positions are in a virtual tie. The most recent polling shows older people are more strongly in favour of the status quo as part of the UK, while a majority of younger people have moved to support for independence. Support is also strongly split along gender lines – with women more likely to support a continuation of the current situation, while men are more strongly in favour of independence.
If one listens to the rhetoric of the pro-independent forces, right below the surface to some degree it seems to be a sense that a vote for independence echoes the push for national liberation that led to independence for virtually all of Britain’s colonies throughout Asia and Africa. In response to such a view, popular, widely-read historian Niall Ferguson (born a Scot but more frequently to be found in London or the US) has written a strong plea to his countrymen and women not to forsake the United Kingdom.
As he wrote, “Let’s first deal with some common misapprehensions. This is not a belated revolt by England’s last colony. The Welsh were subjugated in medieval times; the Irish slowly conquered from the mid-1500s. But Scotland and England were united as equals. In one respect even, it was Scotland that acquired England, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. The merger of the two countries’ Parliaments by the Act of Union in 1707 was also consensual, even if the great Scots poet Robert Burns later lamented that the Scottish elite had been ‘bought and sold for English gold.’ To this day, the Scots retained their separate legal and educational systems.
“Is this a choice, then, between being Scottish or English? No. It is a choice between being inside or outside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (its full, long-winded name). Like the English and the Welsh, the Scots are British: Indeed, it was James VI who, on becoming James I of England, adopted the appellation ‘Great Britain’ to reconcile his new English subjects to having a Scotsman as king.”
Ferguson went on to wrap up his case, saying, “So what kind of appeal can be made to stop the Anglo-Scottish divorce? The answer may be an appeal to Scotland’s long history of cosmopolitanism. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume was contemptuous of what he called the ‘vulgar motive of national antipathy.’ ‘I am a Citizen of the World,’ he wrote in 1764. Hume’s account of the consequences of union with England could scarcely have been more positive: ‘Public liberty, with internal peace and order, has flourished almost without interruption.’ His only complaint was the tendency of the English to treat ‘with Hatred our just Pretensions to surpass and to govern them.’ (At the time, the English had not quite got used to Scottish prime ministers, of which there have been 11, by my count.)
“Petty nationalism is just un-Scottish. And today’s Scots should remember the apposite warning of their countryman the economist Adam Smith about politicians who promise ‘some plausible plan of reformation’ in order ‘to new-model the constitution,’ mainly for ‘their own aggrandizement.’ All over Continental Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalism was what ambitious hacks espoused to advance themselves. Scotland was the exception. May it stay that way.”
To forestall this movement towards independence, leading Tory, Labour and Liberal-Democratic Party politicians (including even ex-Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot himself) have been crisscrossing Scotland to try to hold back the gathering wave of pro-independence votes. And, of course, Alex Salmond and his co-party members of the Scottish National Party have been doing their best to counter all these visiting pro-UK politicos and preach the gospel of independence.
According to current figures, only around 4 million Scots voters – or around 7% of the UK’s total population – will effectively determine if the country is to become the place Formerly Known as the United Kingdom, rather than its current moniker. If current projections are correct, given the presence of this decision, pollsters expect up to an 80% turnout on Thursday.
For Labour, such a result would likely produce an electoral catastrophe of epic proportions in the next general election, given the fact that so much of its contemporary national electoral strength is from its Scottish constituencies. But at least initially, the Tories might not fare all that much better, given that they would almost certainly be disparagingly labelled “The Party That Lost Scotland” – thereby opening the door for a growing ascendency by other, newer (and potentially less savoury) political parties like UKIP. But no one yet really knows how the electoral dynamics would shake out in the next several years in a future election – post-Scottish independence.
As far as this new nation of Scotland would be concerned, it would almost certainly be forced to negotiate new memberships in the EU, as well as NATO. Or, as the AP reported, “In breaking away from the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland would automatically find itself outside both the EU and NATO, and have to reapply to join both, officials from those Brussels-based organisations have stressed. For the EU especially, Scottish re-entry could be a long and arduous process, with other countries dead set against letting the Scots retain the privileges awarded Britain: the so-called opt-outs from being required to use the euro single currency and to join the multination Schengen zone where internal border controls have been scrapped.
“For NATO’s admirals and generals, the current Scottish government’s insistence on a sovereign Scotland becoming free of nuclear weapons would pose enormous strategic and operational headaches, even if a transitional grace period were agreed on. A new homeport would have to be found for the Royal Navy’s four Trident missile-carrying submarines and their thermonuclear warheads, currently based on the Clyde. This ‘risks undermining the collective defence and deterrence of NATO allies,’ Britain’s Ministry of Defence has said. In what might be read as a warning to the Scots, the ministry has said a nuclear-free stance could constitute a ‘significant’ hurdle to Scotland being allowed back into NATO.”
Moreover, a newly independent Scotland would need to find a way very quickly to organise its national government, national economic management and central bank – all while trying to restore business confidence in a newly independent Scotland. But major financial institutions such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, for goodness sake, have already indicated they would re-evaluate their continuing domicile in Scotland, should independence come to be true.
Nevertheless, for many Scots favouring independence, one of the most compelling arguments, beyond gauzy sentiment and nostalgia for the heroics of Rob Roy MacGregor, has been the economic one. One argument is that Scottish independence would better protect education, health and social welfare spending from future depredations by a Tory government, clearly bent on cutting and cutting without mercy or an end. For such proponents, the lure of continuing revenue from the North Sea gas and oil fields is the basis for a belief they can do better by going it alone. But even studies from Scottish researchers have cast doubt on such views.
The BBC reported, “Academics at Glasgow University have claimed an independent Scotland could lose more in UK Treasury support than it would gain from extra oil revenues. The university’s Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR) based their calculations on revised predictions about oil and gas production. These were produced by the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The Scottish government said the Scottish economy is on a par with the rest of the UK, even without oil.
“The CPPR report said: ‘In effect, Scotland would be giving up the net transfer from the rest of the UK implicit in the existing Barnett arrangement, of around £7bn a year in cash terms, whilst retaining its geographic share of North Sea revenues, now estimated by OBR to be between £3.3bn to £4bn by 2015-16 and projected to fall further.’ The latest forecasts suggest North Sea oil and gas revenue would provide only half the net transfer from the rest of the UK, according to the CPPR report.
“It added: ‘If this situation were to come about then it would require higher borrowing to retain the same level of public spending (assuming no changes in taxation and spending patterns or changes to Scotland’s trend rate of economic growth).’ The authors of the report commented: ‘Oil related forecasts are notoriously difficult to make and the UK government (or an independent Scottish government) only have a narrow range of influence (typically through various tax allowance arrangements), over the final level of North Sea tax revenues.’ ”
Meanwhile, if Scotland goes, it will then put enormous pressure on the rest of the UK to meet its commitments to NATO, given the fact noted above that the British nuclear deterrent is currently based at a naval base in Scotland – a situation that would be unlikely to persist forever into the future. Moreover, it would make the remaining bits of the UK rethink membership in the EU, a membership already increasingly unpopular with the English. Further, the remnant nation would have an increasingly weak ability to maintain that “special relationship” with the US, given its increasingly lessened weight in world councils. This might well even call into real question the right for the UK (or whatever it is then called) to continue to hold a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and other similarly preferred positions in international bodies. The net result might well create a little Britain that is increasingly insular, more inward looking and increasingly less interested in the rest of the world’s troubles.
Of course the results of a successful Scottish independence vote would likely not be limited to impacts on Britain. In this post-Cold War world, just as nations like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and even the old Soviet Union have split up in the wake of the collapse of communism; other would-be national entities could well take heart from a successful Scottish secession from the UK.
The most obvious one is Catalunya (or Catalonia) on the Iberian Peninsula – the core of the ancient kingdom of Aragon, and home to a long-lived autonomy or independence movement. The Spanish government has repeatedly ruled out any sort of referendum as contrary to the country’s constitution, but it would be harder to predict how such pressures would be contained in the wake of the birth of a newly independent Scotland to the north of Spain. Then too there is always the fractious nation of Belgium, already virtually cut in two along language grounds in most administrative matters, and it is conceivable it might even give heart to those in Italy who would divorce northern Italy from unending problems of the southern half of the nation.
Even if no-to-independence voters ultimately pull out a narrow win in Scotland on Thursday, it is still almost certain there will be a long round of negotiations to further devolve further significant government powers to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood – to respond to the obvious discontent over the current order, and in a recognition of a more general proposition that, increasingly, people wish to have those who wield the levers of power as close to voters and citizens as possible, rather than in a government based hundreds of miles away from where those citizens live. And that, of course, is a lesson that might also usefully be taken cognizance of by governments everywhere else. DM
A Scottish ‘Yes’ also means exit from EU, NATO at the AP;
Generation gap: Young Scots favor independence at the AP;
UK RIP? – Ditching the union would be a mistake for Scotland and a tragedy for the country it leaves behind at the Economist;
“Scots Must Vote Nae”, a column by Niall Ferguson in the New York Times;
Scottish independence: revised figures on oil income at the BBC.
Photo: Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (C) with Yes Scotland’s chairman, Dennis Canavan (2-L) on the Vote Yes campaign trail in Stirling, Scotland, 15 September 2014. Scottish voters are on 18 September 2014 are to vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years of union. EPA/STR