A Country in Question: Can Scotland survive as an independent state?

SCOTLAND THE BRAVE? Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg appears on a television screen in a pub in Kilmarnock, Scotland.

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.

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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.

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John Walton
4 years 2 months ago
This may be surprising -- it was to me -- Ireland's real per capita GDP is larger than Scotland's by 10% -- even including oil production revenues. Data is from the Scots' government and was current as of March 2014.
mary glen
4 years 2 months ago
A very biased view of Scottish history, and understanding of Scotland today, resulting in an article that is more wishful thinking than reality. To ask questions and get no answers in such vital areas such as the economy is not being negative it is being responsible. When separation is accompanied by thousands of people losing their jobs, among other economic catastrophes, will David still hope to be counted as a small state?
Carlos Orozco
4 years 2 months ago
The very question is offensive. Of course it can!
Gerard Gallen
4 years 2 months ago
What my friend, fellow Scot and fellow Jesuit fails to tell us is, to what extent the Westminster Government are currently contributing to the cost of running Scotland. We already have some control over own affairs, we have always had a separate education and legal system, and we have control over certain fiscal matters, which reflect the different cultural and social outlook we Scots have compared with most of our English cousins e.g. free medical prescriptions for all, no higher education tuition fees etc. etc. and more powers are promised by all three major political parties in the form of 'Devolution Max'. Why would we want to saddle ourselves with massive defence and foreign policy costs? The Scottish National Party want to keep the Queen and keep the pound, so where does that leave 'the proud independent state'? The referendum should be held when a future Westminster Government hold a referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union and if that vote is in favour of breaking from that Union, Scotland should by right have its vote on whether she wants to remain in an isolated UK. I am writing this from Boston, Mass. which as David points out is where the secessionist movement began which led eventually to the formation of these here United States. We should note too that Boston is also the place where the 'Tea Party' began, my fear is that without the balancing and sensible contribution which Scotland makes to the United Kingdom the malignant growth of UKIP or other such mad hatters tea party groups might go unchecked. Like in any self respecting Scot I can sing 'Flower of Scotland' with the best of them but before we "send them homeward tae think again" let us think again on what exactly it is that we might be giving up. Do we really want to bite the hand that feeds us, even if it is English? To use a football analogy, one which David at least will be familiar, I'd rather keep control of the ball like wee Jinky than take my eye off it, just to bite the 'opposition' like a certain Uruguayan!
Tom Gallagher
4 years 2 months ago
This is a relatively sophisticated version of the usually highly emotional arguments, that Keith O'Brien, the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh occasionally used to advance in favour of Scottish independence. What was lacking from his stirring appeals and from this cerebral piece is any concentration on how lower-income Scots (among whom Catholics are disproportionately located) can be shielded from economic adversity in a post-British era. It has become increasingly clear even to Scots who are tired of Westminster and warm to the SNP mood music that Mr Salmond is skating on economic thin ice. He has promised expansion of state services that could only be fulfilled by massive borrowing. He wishes the monetary arrangements of his new country to be handled by a foreign land (the one Scotland was part of for 307 years). This is really pretend nationalism enabling a dedicated alternative elite to be somebodies on the world stage, people nearly all of whom have no interest in elementary house-keeping. Maybe it is admirable if a Jesuit tries to enter their orbit as Cardinal O'Brien certainly did. There is a history of the Jesuits seeking to influence the powerful and the end results were not necessarily ignoble ones. It is other orders such as the Xaverians who are the main cheerleaders for political nationalism in Scottish Catholic ranks . But unless David Stewart is content for the churches merely to be compliant props of a strongly secular order, then I think he and his co-thinkers will simply be taken for an almighty ride by the nationalists. The history of European political nationalism from 1848 onwards is that leaders of Alex Salmond's stamp expect the church to play along with whatever temporal leaders feel is expedient. . But what if you back the wrong horse, the Nationalists can't do their sums and suddenly austerity much worse than the evil Tories have ever dreamt up, becomes the order of the day. Is this so far-fetched. i don't think so. Nor, I believe,do enough working-class Scots which hopefully will ensure that Alex won't be the uncrowned king of Scotland after 18 September. It is actually lapsed Catholics and minimalist ones who are most in thrall to the nationalist project in Scotland currently. Perhaps David Stewart might ask himself - and then tell us - just why this is.
Craig Scott
4 years 2 months ago
Above commenter says England subsidises Scotland and uses phrases such as "bite the hand that feeds us". Please sir get your facts correct. The reverse is in fact true. More money is given to The UK from Scotland than Scotland receives in return. You are ignorant of that fact. Scotland can and will be a successful independent country whether naysayers like yourself and some others posted here would like that or not.

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