On a British Airways flight to London from Edinburgh we were surprised to hear the lead attendant announce that someone would be coming through the cabin with landing cards and that we should have our passports handy. The flight was only an hour and a bit in length and at the time of departure Scotland had still been part of the UK – had things changed in mid-flight? I asked as much in jest to the Scottish man next to me who said “It’s only London! There won’t be passport controls!” in a voice that managed to convey friendliness to me but annoyance about the announcement. Some years ago, the entire plane would have laughed but not today. Today, everyone recognizes that Scottish independence could happen, which is not to say it will happen. What has led Scotland to this pass is an interesting question.
Many Americans owe their citizenship to the oppression of the Scots by English rulers and their collaborators. Several of the novels of Sir Walter Scott depict the periods of Scottish nationalist struggle and the current climate certainly has its roots in this period but today’s political climate has come out of the 20th century rather than the 18th and 19th century. The serious discussion or rather the seriousness of the discussion about Scotland and its relationship with the UK came to the fore in 1997 when twenty years of rule by the Conservative Party ended in defeat by Tony Blair and New Labour. The perception of neglect from the center (that is the central government in London) was devastating to the Conservative Party in Scotland. The Scots did not elect a single conservative MP that year — Wales punished the conservatives in a similar manner. It was truly astonishing.
Almost immediately Tony Blair as Prime Minister pushed forward an agenda of “devolved” government — effectively regional government with parliaments — and the Scots began talking independence. The UK is a highly centralized country by comparison with the United States. It is divided into counties which evoke feelings of pride and allegiance (as states do). People are proud to be from Yorkshire or Somerset. However real political power in the counties is to be found in the history books. The same has been largely true of the four regions or countries as they are referred to here (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). The UK like the old British Empire is basically ruled from London.
Given that fact I wondered at the time of the New Labour triumph in 1997 why the Scots were talking about independence at all? Most of the cabinet and all the major posts were held by natives of Scotland or people with strong Scottish ties. Tony Blair has an English accent but he graduated from high school in Edinburgh. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and subsequently Prime Minister) is Scottish through and through and so was the Secretary of Defense, the head of the Foreign Office, the head of the judiciary and pretty much right on down the line. In addition, they were now getting their own parliament again so why the talk of independence? Over and over it was explained to me that “Tory rule” (the Conservative Party) and especially policies under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had snapped their collective patience with central government – period. So far it sounded like the American situation back in 1776. Secondly, revolutions do not happen without a George Washington to lead the charge and the man who sees himself as the founder of the new independent Scotland is Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and now First Minister of Scotland (a post created at the time of the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament.) Finally, the momentum for independence received a little push from the English side. The recreation of the Scottish parliament highlighted another simmering issue in British politics known as the Lothian question or in Scottish terms the East Lothian question.
The parliament in London legislates for the country. But there can be measures that apply to only one part of the country. In the US a law affecting only Colorado citizens is dealt with by the Colorado state legislators. But in the UK a government could for example vote legislation applying to England alone by ordering the members of their party in Scotland (and other regions) to vote it through. This was an irritant even before the Scots had their own parliament to deal with Scottish only matters. Now, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have their own parliaments (or assemblies) for local matters but England has no separate parliament. So there are people in England who advocate for an English parliament while others believe Scottish independence would “correct” the anomaly of Scots MPs voting on England only measures while English MPs cannot return the favour.
I lived in Edinburgh for a bit a few years ago having visited very often before then. At the time the new Scottish nationalism was quite apparent from the new Museum of Scotland to the ultra modern new Scottish parliament building to my observation that many more young men were wearing kilts on the street and not the traditional ones either. Black kilts with combat boots and Mohawk haircuts got my attention on the high street. Among my Scottish contacts I detected a new bounce in their step and pride in speaking about their future plans for Scotland. The polls in favour of an independent Scotland rose to over 50%. Alex Salmond’s SNP dream of a Scotland with its own prime minister or president (presumably Alex Salmond) seemed inevitable especially after his election as First Minister. He began pressing the issue but recently Prime Minister David Cameron began pushing back, at one point challenging the Scots to hold a referendum sooner rather than later calculating that the SNP would lose because they have not had a chance to get their ducks lined up. The SNP wanted a later timetable to give themselves a chance to bring people around. Despite the polls and hype, there are a lot of people to convince and it’s a big step.
I do not live in Scotland anymore but I still go up several times a year. My recent impression is that many Scots are feeling railroaded by the SNP which is portraying independence not only as desirable but as inevitable. Just one example is a taxi driver who despite having lived his entire life in Scotland declared he would leave if it became independent. “I don’t need an independent Scotland in order to be Scottish!” he told me. He felt strongly about being a citizen of UK and noted that people like him were beginning to speak up as shown by the latest polls in which support for independence has fallen. I checked them and found that he is right. A Sunday Telegraph poll in January of this year showed 40% of Scots in favour of independence ( down from 53% in an earlier poll). A poll published in April takes that number down to 32%. I can understand that. It isn’t just the reality of what independence might mean but looking around at who would be in charge. No doubt the incredible tales of financial mismanagement in Scotland assisted the poll results because the problem was not the government in London but the one in Edinburgh.
The Scots were originally told that an older refurbished building would do for their new parliament, then taxpayers were asked to foot the bill for a £40 million building. What a shame the final cost came to £400 million! Then there is the scandal of the tram that Edinburgh has been trying to build for at least four years! I remarked to a colleague that the tram line was still dug up in the same place as when I left Edinburgh in 2009. “Oh” he explained. “That’s because they covered it over and then had to dig it all up again.” Originally priced at £375 million, it has overrun by three times that amount and the figures are still climbing. And this for a project that many people in Edinburgh found unnecessary. To be fair the project was under the aegis of Edinburgh City Council and not the Scottish Parliament and the SNP first opposed it but now all parties are sharing the blame as no one has failed to halt it. The point is that if your lead politicians are pushing independence (= more power and control over your money) you want to be certain they are more talented than the bunch you are leaving.
Finally, there is a wider factor for Scots to consider– Europe. Alex Salmond includes European Union membership and the same currency as part of the package when he discusses the independent Scotland but European Commission pronouncements have not been helpful. If Scotland leaves the UK there is talk of requiring Scotland to apply as an accession state (like the eastern Europeans) and then having a condition of membership be joining the euro. Who will vote for independence with that catch? In the end, the Scots may go for independence and they may not. If they do, I am sure everyone will be playing Scotland the Brave.
(Scotland the Brave is a famous pipe tune. )