On Sept. 18, an electorate of 4.1 million people living in Scotland will participate in a referendum on the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?
Behind that concise and apparently simple question lies a complex array of political, economic, social and emotive issues, many of which are still being disentangled. The pro-union Better Together campaign maintains a single-figure lead in polling and has attracted significant donations, while the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign appears to have the momentum. The result of the September vote is really anyone’s guess right now, as the campaigns move into top gear.
Politically what is at stake is the continuation of a 300-year-old union. In 1707 Scotland and England united; the United Kingdom was formed. There had been a recognizable Scottish sovereign state for over eight centuries. The crowns of England and Scotland had already been united, under James, since 1603. Political and economic union came about largely for economic reasons as the emerging Scottish bourgeoisie faced ruin after a disastrous colonial venture in Panama—the “Darien Scheme”—that left the nation close to bankruptcy. Money already was supplanting religion as a driving force. The Scots Parliament, prodded by a merchant class running scared, sought financial support from England. Aid arrived in the shape of the union.
This was no colonial, still less military conquest by England but a hastily arranged economic solution. Yet for many Scots at that time and today it felt like a humiliation. As the Yes campaign often points out, the people of Scotland were never asked about this union; indeed, the majority of the people would not have known about it until it was signed and sealed. The national poet Robert Burns caught the sentiment: We’re bought and sold/ for English gold/ sic a parcel o’ rogues in a nation. We risk forgetting that this was a time of bitterness and strife anyway; the first 50 years of the new United Kingdom saw two major Jacobite rebellions against the Hanoverian/English monarchy, ending with the routing of the Scottish forces at Culloden in 1746 and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the Highland Clearances, as hundreds of thousands of Scots went into exile, many to the Americas.
Potent though these and many more historical factors may be, the referendum debate is rooted less in half-remembered history than in the here-and-now of political and economic reality. The pro-independence Yes camp has, for the most part, suppressed any instinct to frame their pitch as an anti-English protest, while the unionists have noticeably tried to engage the language and imagery of Britishness. This is a risky strategy, since the whole of the current United Kingdom is in a period of great uncertainty about what Britishness even means. There is an extensive and angry debate in England about the place of Islam in school education and therefore, by extension, about the role Muslims should accept in society. Results of local and European elections earlier this year mirrored the mood-shift across the continent as voters swung to the right, protesting against the stuttering European project and revealing an ugly hostility to immigration.
In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a policy-light, unsophisticated, anti-European grouping, made some gains, although not as much as the rather breathless media reportage suggested. There is a striking contrast between that kind of narrow ethnic nationalism and the Yes camp’s civic nationalist view, shared by many Scots, of Scotland as a modern, progressive and independent European state. Envious glances are cast across the North Sea to the small, successful Scandinavian states, independent yet working closely together in many ways.
Even now, the momentum, creativity and vitality are with the Yes campaign, but this has yet to appear fully in the polls. Its strength is particularly demonstrated in the online arena, whereas the mainstream media show a marked bias for a pro-union stance. The No campaign, sponsored by an unlikely ad hoc coalition of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, has been characterized by negativity and scare tactics: “Project Fear,” according to some. The campaign has issued grim warnings about the apparent dangers of independence, ranging from issues of national debt (as if all other nations are free of sovereign debt) to whether or not an independent Scotland would be allowed to use the pound sterling (as if the currency belonged to London, rather than to the whole of the current United Kingdom). The London government recently was caught out when it predicted a huge cost to a putative independent government for setting up new political institutions, inflating the figure by a factor of 10 and earning a rebuke from the London School of Economics scholar on whose work the predictions were based. Even that venerable British institution the BBC—knowing that if the Yes camp prevails, it faces losing viewers to a new Scottish Broadcasting Service—frequently could pass for the media office of the No campaign.
Energy and Equality
Oil reserves and revenues always have been central to the campaigning of the separatist Scottish National Party. In the 1970s, a prominent slogan was “It’s Scotland’s oil.” The claim has been that the nation has not received sufficient benefits from the vast reserves off Britain’s coast and that the London government has squandered the bonanza. Reliable figures on the extent of the remaining reserves are hard to come by (production fluctuates according to market conditions); but there does appear to be plenty left, and there are rich new fields yet to be explored to the west. The Yes camp makes much of the Oil Fund established by Norway, contrasted with the failure of successive London governments to use the windfall wisely. Yet sustainable forms of energy production will become ever more significant. Renewables may become more important than oil production and might contribute much more to the economy. Scotland is blessed with significant wave and wind power, and a post-independence government must be ready to develop these plentiful natural resources.
The No camp, quite accurately accused of negativity and scaremongering, talks about the dangers of the break up of what they call the most successful union the world has ever seen, without quite ever explaining what constitutes that success. Many voters feel that success has not been equitably shared across the Union; child poverty and adult life-expectancy rates remain unacceptably worse in Scotland than in the rest of Great Britain. There is resentment, shared in other parts of the current United Kingdom, about the economic dominance of London and the southeast. A massive, multibillion-pound high speed rail project is proposed, linking London to mid-England but with no economic relevance to Scotland other than the proportion of Scottish taxes that will help pay for it. Scots resent being ruled by London governments they did not elect; this goes back at least to the time of Margaret Thatcher, despite a limited devolution of political control since the restored Edinburgh Parliament in 1999.
Yet there is still one key factor, which may yet emerge as decisive, that links the Scottish sense of distinctiveness with the economic story, and that is the proposed renewal of the British Trident nuclear system, at a cost estimated by Greenpeace to be more than 34 billion pounds. The four nuclear-armed British submarines, powered by Trident, are based at Faslane on the River Clyde, less than 30 miles from Scotland’s most populous city, Glasgow. Polling has consistently shown that the enormous majority of Scots oppose both the continuing siting of these vessels there and the huge cost of the upgrade. Many point to the unlikeliness of the so-called deterrent ever being used, at least independently of Washington. Others are appalled by the cost, especially when compared to what the social tax money could provide by way of health and education services. And it should be obvious to every Scottish resident that in the event of either an enemy strike to the base (by whom?) or an accident, the resulting collateral death and destruction would be deemed acceptable by London, but would be unthinkable were the base to be relocated, for example, 30 miles from the center of London on the Thames. Trident’s continuing presence in Scottish waters and its costly replacement might yet be a decisive factor in the run-up to referendum day.
No one really knows if a new spirit will blow through Scottish, and British, politics in September. The debate is becoming increasingly high-pitched, even shrill. Alex Salmond, the canny leader of the Scottish National Party and current Scottish first minister in the Edinburgh Parliament, was among the first to notice that this year marks the 700th anniversary of a fabled Scottish victory over the much larger English forces of Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn. Needing to keep the focus on the economy, and believing that he can thereby win, Salmond probably will not make too much of the emotive charge of that anniversary, but he is not likely to ignore it either. The former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also a Scot, recently suggested that the British state has not handled secessionist movements well over the years, beginning in Boston Harbor. If Scots are to regain independence after 307 years, much will depend on who makes the better economic argument rather than on the historical memories. In this we will be little different from most other independent, self-determining and adult democratic states, among whom we hope to be counted.