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Scotland's Wee Dram of Independence

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From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue "Europe Under Fire"

By Steven Erlanger

EDINBURGH, Scotland—September’s referendum on independence has clarified matters, but like a raw whisky, leaves a bitter taste in many Scottish mouths. A country—and make no mistake, Scotland is a country—has been left badly divided and even bitter. Fully 45 percent of registered voters not merely voted for independence, but more importantly, given the outcome, chose to reject 307 years of unity with the rest of Britain. They wanted to abandon a United Kingdom that feels both distant and alien to them, governed from heaving, thriving London by a plump elite of Conservatives,  and which is clearly having something of a nervous breakdown of its own.

Pressures of globalization and immigration have aggravated differences between north and south, even in the apparently settled polity of the United Kingdom. In a sense, the pressures of low growth, global competition, and a flawed common currency have weakened the idea of the European Union, while peace has made it safe for nationalism. But at the same time, identical forces have made the nation-state vulnerable, too, and safe for regionalism.

Just as English nationalism (anti-immigrant, anti-Brussels) has produced the United Kingdom Independence Party of Nigel Farage in the south, the growing weakness of Britain’s traditional parties, dominated by southeastern urbanites, has fertilized Scottish nationalism and the Scottish Nationalist Party of Alex Salmond in the north. The sense of cultural and political distance from an increasingly self-involved, more nakedly capitalist England has produced in Scotland a strong desire for self-government and for a more European-style collectivism. In short, the divisions within the United Kingdom mirror almost directly the divisions within the broader European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron shocked Britain’s allies by putting the United Kingdom at risk, by agreeing to the Scottish referendum, and then putting the European Union at risk, by promising an in-or-out referendum on British membership in the Union if he remains prime minister after the general elections next May 7. The “Brexit” (British exit from the EU) debate matters because it only intensifies Scotland’s feelings of isolation and difference. The Scots are very much pro-European. Now that they have agreed to remain with the United Kingdom, their votes will be crucial to keeping Britain within the European Union. But if the British vote to leave Brussels, which they very well may do in 2017 if Cameron remains in office, the Scots will have one more good reason to resent the rest of the U.K.—and a very good pretext to revive the idea of an independent Scotland sooner rather than later.

TWO STRIKES

The worst outcome for Scottish nationalists, they have regularly said, would be to lose the independence vote and then lose the vote on “Brexit.’’ While the Labour Party, dominant in Scotland, should in normal times win the May election, these are not normal times, and Ed Miliband is considered one of the weakest Labour leaders in terms of popularity, and one of the most ideological, since the befuddled Michael Foot lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1983.

With a British electorate now divided into at least four main parties—five, including the Greens, more, including the Scottish Nationalists and the Northern Irish parties—traditional voting patterns are much less predictive. A British system made for firm government by a single party with a parliamentary majority now seems set for either another coalition or minority rule, which is likely to add to the sense of instability surrounding the country’s future and its place in Europe and the world.

That debate, which preoccupies England, feels both dangerous and irrelevant to many in Scotland, who are more concerned with building up the local Parliament and laying the institutional groundwork for another run at independence. The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the clever, quick, sometimes brutal Alex Salmond, has quit again, disheartened by the vote against independence, which has been the driving force of his long political career. He had said that the vote would not be repeated for at least a generation, but there are already those who wonder if it might not be sooner. While remaining a member of the Westminster Parliament, he has handed over the reins of the party to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who is as fiercely nationalist as he.

Less than a month after the September 18 referendum, Sturgeon, just 44 years old, was annointed Salmond’s successor and said: “I believe Scotland will become an independent country well within my lifetime.” Given the politicization of young Scots, who were allowed to vote on the independence question at age 16, and given the weakness of Miliband and the real possibility of “Brexit,” it would be foolish to doubt her. Already, membership in the SNP has tripled since the referendum, from 25,642 to at least 80,000 and rising. Even the Scottish Green Party, which also favors independence, has more than tripled its membership to 6,000. By contrast, the Scottish Labour Party, while still calling itself the nation’s largest, can claim barely 13,000 members, and its leader has quit. 

Those concerns are multiplied by the confusion surrounding the promises made to Scots, just before the vote, by the leaders of the three main  British parties—Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. Pressed by former prime minister Gordon Brown, who remains popular within the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), especially in key working-class areas like Glasgow, the leaders of all three parties promised Scots the world if they would only stay.

They promised much deeper devolution of powers over taxes, spending, and welfare. And they also promised to retain an outdated spending formula that gives Scots a larger per capita share of public funds than any other members of the kingdom.

Cameron was so desperate not to be branded as the prime minister who lost Scotland—and who might then have lost his job—that the satirical magazine Private Eye joked that Cameron’s last, best offer to the Scots was, “Vote no and you can be independent.” Such a joke may not be terribly funny in five years’ time.

Cameron’s promises enraged many English Conservatives, who have long argued that Scotland gets too good a deal and that Scottish members of the U.K. Parliament get to vote on English law and finances, while English MPs cannot vote on Scottish matters that have devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

For some reason, this does not seem to bother the English about the Welsh, who are less obstreperous. But talk of “English votes for English laws” pushed Cameron to announce, the morning the Scots agreed to stay, that he would move to a new constitutional arrangement to ensure that English MPs had the final say on English laws.

Given that England represents 85 percent of the population of the United Kingdom, and an awful lot of the wealth, too, the talk of a truly federal system seemed to make little sense. But Cameron is known for his agility—and for his short-term tactics, like the promise of a “Brexit” referendum, that came to haunt him later on.

STRANGE VOTES

The Scottish vote was always a strange one. It was preceded by a history of 307 years of political unity, and another century before that of a united crown. There was no fierce territorial dispute with the rest of Britain, no ethnic insurgency, no racial or religious tensions with either the United Kingdom or the rest of a barely united Europe, for that matter. Salmond even promised to keep Elizabeth as Queen of Scotland, where she is not Elizabeth II, since the Scots never recognized Elizabeth I. But ever since Thatcher imposed the ill-fated poll tax first on the Scots as an experiment, treating them as guinea pigs, the Conservative Party has been in the doldrums in Scotland. While there are plenty of Tory voters, they are not concentrated enough to win seats, and only have one Tory MP in Scotland.

For years, Labour has dominated a country that thinks of itself as more left-wing, more collectivist, more Scandinavian than the rest of Britain—which could bode well for an independent Scotland as a member of the European Union even after any British decision to withdraw. But the SLP has proved itself weak and driven by rivalries—including that long and nasty one between two Scots—Edinburgh-born Tony Blair and Brown, born to a minister of the Church of Scotland in Renfrewshire.

Under Blair, the Labour Party, with devolution, gave Scotland back a parliament, elected by a system that was supposed to ensure a coalition government. But the failures of both the local Conservatives and Labourites, coupled with the passion of Salmond and his cause, gave him and the Scottish Nationalists a shocking win in 2007 and an overall majority in 2011. He then used it to negotiate the referendum with Cameron that the nationalists only narrowly lost. Relieved by the “no” vote, Britain has quickly put Scotland aside. But as Peter Riddell, a former political journalist who directs the Institute for Government, said recently, relief “has meant that insufficient attention has been given to the extraordinary aftermath. In many ways, the SNP has regained the initiative.”

The older the voter, the more connected to the present system, and to the United Kingdom. But among a younger generation, there is less emotional connection to a purely British identity, given the European Union and freedom of travel. The chance to study through the Erasmus Programme and work all over the continent has broadened minds. If young Scots are ambivalent about being “British,’’ they can see themselves as both Scottish and European. And then there’s the ability to meet—and date—all the Europeans who come to work and improve their English. There’s a Pole or an Estonian or a Hungarian or a Czech working in every Scottish hotel, restaurant, or coffee shop. No doubt some are in kilts playing the bagpipes for tourists, too.

And the mindset is different. Nicola Sturgeon has become Scotland’s first woman first minister, naming a cabinet with as many women as men. In another sharp contrast to the rest of England, the leaders of two of the three main Scottish parties—SNP and Conservative—are women, after the woman who led Labour resigned.

Already, Sturgeon is not ruling out another referendum after the next Scottish election in 2016, if a referendum is part of the SNP’s manifesto and it once again manages to win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. By then, too, Scots will know if Britain is planning a “Brexit” referendum in 2017. If Britain votes to leave the European Union, another Scottish independence referendum could be held, and would probably have a better chance of passing.

One can imagine an independent Scotland replacing Britain in the European Union and embracing a very different political future, let alone a different currency, as one of the cornerstones of a Europe both diminished and enhanced.

*****

*****

Steven Erlanger, London bureau chief of The New York Times, has spent long stretches in Scotland recently.

[Photo courtesy of Jordi Gabarro Llop]

 

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