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Free Scotland

Why the Scots want independence.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Image
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Image

Scotland’s nationalist ambitions don’t generally get international attention, but the past few weeks have been a uniquely exciting time in the long-running campaign for Scottish independence. On Jan. 25, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, and his Scottish National Party (SNP) government announced plans for a historic referendum on independence to be held in the fall of 2014, attracting coverage, comment, and curiosity from around the world.

The SNP government’s proposed question is "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" The SNP is considering whether a second, as yet undefined question should be asked, suggesting an intermediate step of devolving powers to the Scottish government without full independence. This notion, known as "devo max," has the support of a significant portion of public opinion — though this support remains unmeasurable given that no serious detailed proposals have yet emerged.

London has not responded well to this development. In a speech on Feb. 16, British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to "fight with everything I have to keep our United Kingdom together." He continued: "To me, this is not some issue of policy or strategy or calculation — it matters head, heart, and soul. Our shared home is under threat and everyone who cares about it needs to speak out." In the end, Cameron may find that this type of rhetoric will only hasten the demise of the union he has vowed to protect.

Many are wondering why, exactly, this disquiet has emerged in Scotland. After all, the union has been a pretty peaceful one since at least the 17th century. But there is indeed a strong case to be made for an independent Scotland, a case that has only grown more compelling in light of Europe’s and Britain’s latest economic woes.

Scotland is a different place from the rest of the United Kingdom, and increasingly there is no such thing as a unitary UK politics, but Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, and English politics with devolved parliaments and assemblies in the first three.

The union of Scotland and England created Great Britain in 1707*, but Scotland has grown gradually more independent over the last century. First there was the Scottish Office, a department of the UK government set up in 1885 to oversee the slowly expanding state, followed by the "secretary of state for Scotland" becoming a full cabinet post in 1926 with more junior ministers added over the postwar era. Then, in 1999, the Scottish Parliament was established, with control of most of Scotland’s public services.

The SNP was formed in 1934 and in its early days stood for full self-government. It then began to become a serious political force from the mid-1960s onward. In the 1980s, the SNP — which defines itself as a party of the center-left — was a vital part of the anti-Tory coalition against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But the SNP is also a big tent reflecting the spectrum of Scottish society, with a majority in the Scottish Parliament and six seats in the House of Commons.

The last 30 years have seen a long, slow decline in Scottish voters’ identification with and trust in the British state. In 2009, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 61 percent of Scots trusted the Scottish government to act in Scotland’s interests versus 25 percent who trusted the British government. Increasingly, Westminster’s interventions and policies — including macroeconomic policy, welfare, defense, and foreign affairs — are seen as problematic to many Scottish voters and inviting challenge. And the majority public opinion increasingly points toward wishing to have a more autonomous, distinctive Scottish political space in which the Scottish Parliament runs most domestic issues, leaving defense and foreign policy to the folks in London.

Scottish politics were once defined by a powerful collectivist and socialist-oriented labor movement and a national culture centered on traditional industries and solidarity with the rest of the United Kingdom. But this tradition has fallen into crisis in recent decades, weakened by the demise of the British Empire, the decline of religion, and Thatcher’s assaults on Scottish labor unions.

Scotland and England have evolved in very different directions over the last three decades. Under Thatcher, Tony Blair, and now Cameron, English public services have become increasingly marketized and prone to corporate influence. Scottish public services have pointed in a very different direction, championing equity and clear lines of accountability. For instance, the Scottish and English health services are now very different entities, with Scotland’s organized as one national service with targets set by the government, whereas the English system is more fragmented, being run in places by private providers and allowing profits.

In addition, British governments have increasingly misread Scotland as the ties of the union have weakened. Under Thatcher, Scots felt discriminated against by a host of policies including the implementation of a controversial poll tax in 1989. Blair was dismissive of Scottish national aspirations, calling the possibility of an SNP-controlled Scottish government a "constitutional nightmare" and urging his Labour Party to fight against it.

Cameron’s coalition government has few Scottish Tory voices giving it advice about its emerging northern problem, with only one Scottish Conservative MP and 11 Liberal Democrats. In recent months, they have displayed a mix of arrogance, ignorance, nervousness, and forgetfulness on the Scottish issue. Cameron described the prospect of an independent Scotland as "desperately sad" and said he thinks the "Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation," despite recent polls suggesting that this might no longer be the case.

Despite growing nationalist sentiment, Scottish nationalists still need to convince voters that an independent Scotland could stand on its own two feet — a task that became particularly salient in 2008 when Scotland’s two leading banks, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland had to be bailed out by the British government. Arguably, these banks’ crises were due to British light-touch regulation and the explosion of the British debt mountain. If anything, the banks weren’t Scottish enough.

What sort of currency would an independent Scotland use? Under most of the current proposals, Scotland would still be in a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom — meaning Scots would still be spending pounds. The SNP can also point to the ready example of independent Ireland, which kept its currency linked to sterling for nearly 60 years.

But the question should not be how an independent Scotland could survive. It should be: How can we continue under the current arrangement? An independent Scotland would be the sixth-wealthiest country in the world per head, the SNP claims. Today, it’s the third-richest region of the United Kingdom outside London and the southeast. Yet at the same time, one in five Scottish children lives in poverty. Life expectancy in the most deprived parts of Scotland (Glasgow and the west) is the worst anywhere in Western Europe, according to detailed research by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

An independent Scotland could become a very wealthy petrostate. Some £250 billion worth of North Sea oil has flown straight from the northeast waters of Scotland into Treasury coffers in London since its discovery, most of which would have come to Scotland. Even if peak production has passed, experts say, the North Sea fields could pump out crude for several decades. Imagine what Scots could do with their own sovereign wealth fund — the kind of long-term thinking that has made oil-rich Norway the world’s most highly developed country.

But what, then, of Britain? A Scotland-less United Kingdom might need a new name, the United Kingdom historically being the name of the union of the two crowns of Scotland and England. But the separation could be less a dramatic rupture than the gradual evolution toward a new understanding of the British state. At a recent lecture in London, Salmond, the Scottish first minister, presented a very pragmatic and flexible vision of the United Kingdom, describing a country with an increasingly divergent, pluralistic set of political systems. A more flexible arrangement would allow for Scottish aspirations — developing distinct welfare and labor-market policies — while also permitting pan-British co-operation and perhaps even some kind of political union.

That might be just fine with all but the most traditional Scottish nationalists. The SNP and most of its members are comfortable with the fact that in the age of globalization, the status of autonomous nation-states need not be narrowly defined. While the separatists’ goal is still ultimately full independence, the party is comfortable with the gradual emergence of a distinct Scottish state, statehood, and statecraft under the framework of the existing United Kingdom.

How this all turns out will depend largely on the wisdom of the British government. Will the politicians in London be able to respond to the increasingly pragmatic and flexible approach of the Scottish Nationalists? If they are able to, it is likely that Scottish aspirations can be accommodated in a much looser union that falls short of conventional independence.

If, however, they continue to act as they have done in recent months, displaying all the famed arrogance of British governments through time immemorial in dealing with troublesome revolts, then they will increase the prospects of the breakup of Britain and the emergence of a fully independent, self-governing Scotland.

<p> Gerry Hassan is a Scottish commentator and author of several books, including co-authoring The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power and the forthcoming The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. </p>