Scots will vote on independence, but many battles already won

Colby Cosh on the Scottish drive for sovereignty

Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

This has been a big month for the Scottish National Party’s campaign to secede from the U.K., which is still being oddly overlooked in this most culturally Scottish fragment of the old empire. The SNP-led government of Scotland released its white paper outlining arguments and plans for independence, including a projected Independence Day (March 24, 2016) and a date for the first general election in a sovereign Scotland (May 5, 2016). The paper, entitled “Scotland’s future,” nails down the terms of debate for the Sept. 18, 2014, referendum vote on which the fate of the union hinges.

When I wrote about the campaign in August, I observed that the Yes side had not yet garnered 40 per cent support in any major poll. It has since done so, once touching 44 per cent, but the No side is, in general, still well ahead—by anywhere from about 10 to 30 percentage points—when the Scots are quizzed. A clear and consistent split has opened up between the findings of various pollsters, with numbers from the firm Panelbase standing out as particularly Yes-friendly.

It is difficult to see why this should be so, given that the text of the referendum question has been settled (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”). Leaving aside possible differences in poll quality, a subject in which we Canadians have been receiving a series of cruel lessons, it seems as though it might make a subtle difference whether pollsters ask, “How would you vote on independence today/tomorrow?” or “How do you intend to vote on Sept. 18?”

The takeaway from the white paper, for the casual transatlantic Scotland-watcher, is that a lot of the changes one would expect a small breakaway country to be pursuing in a quest for independence have already been won—or, indeed, were never lost in the first place. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond can’t make grand promises about health care; the National Health Service has always been administered separately (and more generously) there, and the political decision-making was devolved altogether in 1999. So it goes with education, which is already managed quite differently north of the border. And the Scots, as every law student knows, were allowed to keep their own quirky legal system.

Moreover, Salmond is backing the monarchy, though he proposes to switch to a written constitution, and he wants Scotland to continue in a currency union with the rump U.K., probably because he has been warned by economists that no alternative is practical. An undecided voter might be justified in asking what is to be gained in busting up the good old marriage so late in life.

One big answer is defence savings. The Scottish National Party wants to chase off Britain’s nuclear deterrent—which takes the form of nuclear-armed subs, whose current home base lies on an inlet of the Firth of Clyde—and operate a zippy small-scale military, more like those of Canada or the Nordic nations. It is hinted that some of the extra money could be ploughed into reviving Scottish civilian shipbuilding (good luck with that, Jock).

The white paper cites the Scandinavian world quite a lot as an important mental model for the Yes voter. Norway and Sweden are, on page 152, upheld as superior to the U.K. in demonstrating that “fairness and prosperity are part of a virtuous circle.” And, needless to say, fans of Norwegian-style endowment funding of the treasury by means of oil revenue will find the paper to be positively pornographic. (Turn to pages 300-302 and 382 and knock yourselves out.)

Interestingly, there is not so much talk about Canada, which is important in the white paper mostly as a model for independent Scotland’s diplomatic representation—i.e., it suggests that Scotland can arrange to piggyback on British legations, the way Canada still does in some places. Canadians are familiar with this style of “It will all be negotiated, and greatly to our advantage, obviously” hand-waving by separatists, and there is plenty of that sort of thing in Scotland’s future.

This style of argument reveals the strategy that Salmond and the SNP intend to pursue, or continue pursuing, in the referendum campaign. Their true adversary, in proposing Nordic models and alliances as a counterweight to the status quo, is perhaps not so much England as it is the octopus of the City of London, with its coarsening, inegalitarian financier influences.

Scotland is referred to repeatedly in the white paper as an “ancient” nation, which is a form of classic nationalist mythmaking very particular to Scotland. Readers of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland, which documents several generations of Scottish antiquarian bogosity, may soon wish the historian was alive to write a new chapter. Much of what we think of first when Scotland is mentioned has a strong scent of bull. (Trevor-Roper argued, for example, that the present-day kilt was invented as a technical convenience by an English factory owner in the 1720s.)

But the Anglo-Scottish partnership is, on the whole, pretty tricky to run against, as the polls so far suggest. The cultural and even genetic ties between Scotland and the north of England run deep—so deep that, by contrast, 1314 and the Battle of Bannockburn might as well have been yesterday. On the other hand, political union has coincided almost perfectly with Scottish prosperity and greatness, with the appearance of Scotsmen as actors on the world stage from the Plains of Abraham to Hong Kong.

The emphasis of the separatists must therefore be on the current gang of hard-hearted men—led, inconveniently for the secessionist case, by a gentleman named Cameron—at Westminster. Much is being made of a Cameronian welfare reform that incorporates a so-called “bedroom tax,” penalizing council-house occupants for having what the government thinks is too much space. Oops, more awkwardness: the minister responsible for welfare is Edinburgh-born Iain Duncan Smith. The SNP is also spending a lot of energy on denouncing the privatization of the Royal Mail. The privatization, needless to say, was quarterbacked by Vince Cable, former Glasgow University lecturer and Glasgow city councillor. Ain’t those Englishmen simply awful?

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