Dispatch

The Stay at Home Scots

The Stay at Home Scots

Read the first part of the series here.  

GLASGOW & ELGIN, Scotland – People-watching on a freezing Sunday afternoon in February outside a Glasgow shopping center is a surprisingly appropriate place to ponder the foreign and defense policy of a future independent Scotland. Most passersby just want to get out of the rain, but a small group of noisy Syrians and other Arabs were dancing around and calling people’s attention to the plight of their people. 

Propped against the wall was a placard reading "Russia & China: Stop Supporting the KILLER." Some of the protesters were waving a large Syrian revolutionary flag; one had wrapped herself in a Scottish flag. It was a little hard to work out exactly what they wanted: NATO intervention, like in Libya last year, or Britain to stay out of Syria? It must be the former, as the only ones with the anti-imperialist war leaflets appear to be Scots skulking about on the margins.

To intervene or not to intervene: that is the issue that has exercised Scots, just as it has everyone else, for years. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) famously denounced NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 as "unpardonable folly." The unpopular war in Iraq, which the SNP called "illegal," also boosted the party’s fortunes; since 2007 it has been the largest political party in the Scottish Parliament.

Libya remains a delicate topic here. In Scotland, the Libyan war — in a political sense, at least — began almost three years ago when the Scottish Government released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted for his part in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103, which claimed 270 lives. Diagnosed with cancer and said to have only three months to live, he was set free in 2009 on compassionate grounds after serving only eight and a half years of a life sentence. The United States was furious. When al-Megrahi arrived home in Tripoli, grateful crowds waved the Scottish flag. He is still alive, if not well. So when it came to bombing Libya last year, the SNP had no qualms. It gave the action its full support (but pointed out that this had been sanctioned by the United Nations).

A line can be drawn from the Libyan sands all the way to the question of Scottish independence and what that means for Scotland’s ability to participate in foreign conflicts. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s spokesman on defense and foreign affairs, has two air force bases — Kinloss and Lossiemouth — in his constituency of Moray which were recently threatened by defense cuts. After the Libya bombing commenced, he said: "If ever there was to be an argument against their closure we’ve had it in the last few days." The Royal Air Force (RAF) said that planes and crews from Lossiemouth had been at the "forefront" of the NATO campaign.

Moray is a more than four hour drive northeast of gritty Glasgow. Elgin, the main town — which sits some 20 minutes drive from the sea — has a typical British high street with all the same familiar shops. Inside the bustling Starbucks, a heavily tattooed couple drink coffee as their child waits patiently. Swirling blue designs cover half the man’s face, reminiscent of the famously tattooed Pictish warriors of ancient Scotland. A nearby church has been converted into a Tandoori restaurant, and there is a British Army recruiting office off the high street.

The big news in February in the Northern Scot was standard fare for a local newspaper: Elgin museum’s Peruvian mummy and its Ecuadorian shrunken head have been sent to "undergo craniofacial reconstruction — providing a fascinating glimpse of how they would have appeared." But beginning in 2010, the paper mobilized thousands of people to save the base at Lossiemouth, threatened by British defense cuts. Closure of the bases, says editor Mike Collins, "didn’t bear thinking about" — meaning that losing 8 percent of all local civilian employment in the area would have been a disaster.

So Collins and other activists organized a protest in November 2010; 7,000 people turned out — a huge number for a tiny place. The leaders of the protest movement then took a petition to London and, with pipers piping, presented it at Downing Street, and later secured a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron. "He knew about the campaign. He would have been blind and deaf not to have been aware of it by then," says Collins. Kinloss is now being handed over to the army but Lossiemouth will remain with the RAF. It represents more than a victory, explains Collins, as the odds of even saving one base were stacked against them.

But if Scotland votes for independence in 2014, both the RAF and the British Army will leave for good, taking the jobs with them, unless the SNP manages some special agreement or a newly created Scottish military take the bases over. For now, though, the issue of independence has not really become the topic of debate, says Collins: Locals are more interested in writing to the paper about wind turbines, which many loathe, and, he sighs, issues like "dog poo" on city streets. Still, he thinks as the independence vote looms, it will become the main topic of conversation. "A lot of people are still undecided … it could have huge consequences."

Graham Leadbitter, a local SNP councillor, insists that independence would not mean the closure of the bases. A new Scottish military would take them over and besides, he says, they would be adapted to Scottish needs. Across town, Conservative councillor Allan Wright scoffs. Like almost all members of his party, he is against independence. If it comes, the bases could just be "whisked away," he says, adding that it’s "la-la land" to imagine that they would stay and continue to provide so many jobs. "We could never afford it."

Not all Elgin businesses depend on the bases, though. A few minutes drive from the town center sits the Glen Moray whisky distillery. It employs 19 people and sells half of what it produces in the U.K. — the rest in Germany, France, and North America, says Iain Allan, the distillery’s visitor center manager.

"Everything is going wonderfully," he says, showing off the cavernous warehouses filled with casks of whisky. "We have expanded by 50 percent this year and we are planning another 50 percent."  Soaring demand from Russia, India and China especially has brought capacity out of mothballs across Scotland. When it comes to independence though, Allan is somewhat non-committal. After all, he says, Germans and others would still drink Scotch whether Scotland becomes independent or not.

Back in Elgin, I seek out the local archivist Graeme Wilson, the unofficial sage of the region, who launches into a tale of a poltergeist, which then disappeared after workmen removed skeletons from its high street haunt. Turning to the bases, he says that in the 1950s and 1960s "there was trouble over girls," but now the soldiers live inside the local communities. "There is no fighting with your neighbor who has just helped fix your car." The sage of Elgin seems relaxed about independence. "If there is independence," he says, "it will take some time to work things out. It won’t happen overnight. People are not thinking about it yet." Then he sits back and says: "Mañana is a great word!"