On September 18, Scots will be asked to say yes or no to the following question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It is a beguilingly simple query, a model of clarity compared to, say, the 106-word essay put to the people of Quebec in a 1980 referendum that asked if they wished to break away from Canada, phrased in so convoluted a manner that many barely understood the question.
Much will hang on the Scots’ answer. Other states have recently broken up—the former Yugoslavia through war and Czechoslovakia by amicable divorce—but for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom would mark the dissolution of a state that has endured for more than three centuries, that is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and whose imperial rule once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface. At a stroke, the land of Shakespeare and Burns, Locke and Hume would lose nearly 10 percent of its people—there are 5.3 million Scots in a UK population of 63 million—and one third of its landmass. At stake is the future of Scotland and Britain, both uncertain how they would fare in the event of a yes vote, the former going it alone, the latter reduced to its three remaining constituent parts: England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But something else could be decided too, namely the changing shape and meaning of nationhood in the twenty-first century.
It’s worth noting what the referendum campaign is not. It is not a blood-and-soil clash over identity and ethnicity. The Braveheart notion of Scottish nationalism—spear-carriers, faces painted in woad, crying freedom against the English oppressor—has been extinct, even as myth, for several decades. These days you will see few kilts at the annual conference of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose landslide victory in 2011 gave it an overall majority in the Scottish parliament and, with it, the power to call a referendum on the idea that forms the party’s historic mission: independence.
Today’s SNP is avowedly of the civic nationalist variety, its focus on questions of democracy and governance. The “Nats” boast of their inclusiveness to ethnic minorities (there is a group called Scots Asians for Independence), are keen to see more, not less, immigration, and are in no hurry to be identified with their onetime sister parties in Europe, those assorted separatists and nationalists whom the SNP would now regard as insular if not xenophobic.
The difference lies chiefly in the history. The union of the Scottish and English crowns came in 1603 and could fairly be described as the initiative of a Scot, King James. The British Empire was a joint venture of the two nations, serving together as, if not exactly equals, then at least partners. Recall that the first British colonies of the New World were Jamestown, named for the Scottish monarch, and Virginia, established to honor the Virgin Queen of England. Scots were willing and enthusiastic imperialists, enlisting in disproportionate numbers to fight Britannia’s enemies and filling high posts in the East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the like.
As a result of that experience of empire, and of fighting two world wars alongside each other, the two nations have long been intertwined. Beyond the formal Act of Union that paired them in 1707, the leader of the SNP and Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, speaks of the “social union” that connects Scots and the English, the countless ties that come with friends, family, and careers that span the border. Thanks to the usual tides of marriage and the search for work, some 800,000 Scots now live in other parts of the UK, while 400,000 people from elsewhere in Britain—most of them English—live in Scotland. (The first group, incidentally, will have no vote in the referendum while those in the later category will.)
Accordingly, today’s demand for independence presents itself as shorn of even the faintest hint of anti-Englishness, once an all-too-common feature of the nationalist landscape. (A long-ago leader of the SNP, Arthur Donaldson, loathed the English sufficiently to see a potential Nazi victory as an opportunity for Scottish nationalism, a view that brought him a six-week spell in Barlinnie jail in 1940—though he was, at least, allowed to wear his kilt.) The tension is historic now, fit chiefly for commemoration as it will be again in this summer’s celebrations of the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce led the Scots to victory over King Edward II of England, which the referendum, whose date was chosen by Salmond, is rather conveniently timed to follow. Attacks on English residents of Scotland for being English still happen, but they are rare and declined by 17 percent in 2011–2012. The friction between Scots and English lives on now chiefly in the former’s self-deprecating loathing of the latter’s national soccer team, which hasn’t won a major tournament since its never-forgotten triumph in the World Cup of 1966. An ad campaign for a distinctly Scottish soda captures the sentiment well: “I had an Irn-Bru in ’66, but I don’t go on about it.”
The reality of the social union and the gentleness of the relationship mean the usual traits of secessionist campaigns are missing. The case for Yes is presented in mild, technocratic terms. Its core argument is that the Scottish parliament that the SNP now dominates—created in 1999 as part of Tony Blair’s program of “devolution,” in which areas of the UK previously governed from Westminster were given varying degrees of autonomy over their own affairs—lacks sufficient powers to govern Scotland properly. In his foreword to an updated edition of The Road to Independence? by Murray Pittock, a solidly nationalist account of Scottish politics since 1945, Salmond speaks of the “democratic deficit” that still afflicts the country. “A simple glance at how policies affecting Scotland are imposed against the will of this nation’s elected representatives shows how deeply that democratic deficit still runs,” he writes.
The key text, however, is Scotland’s Future, the white paper issued by the SNP government that over 649 pages spells out the mechanics of independence. It is short on the rhetoric of self-determination, long on the quotidian details of self-government. In a “Q & A” section, the third question—after “Why should Scotland be independent?” and “Can Scotland afford to be independent?”—is “What will happen to my pension?” There are few rousing calls to Scottish pride or the spirit of Bannockburn, their place taken by information on postal services and the administration of drivers’ licenses.
The answers Scotland’s Future supplies reflect the core goal of the Yes campaign, widely referred to by skeptics as “project reassurance.” The pro-independence campaign knows that Scots value much about their relationship with the rest of Britain and therefore seeks to soothe them that even if they vote yes, they will be able to keep everything they like, jettisoning only that which palls. So—in statements, several of which were immediately challenged—the document tells them that the Queen will remain head of state, the pound will remain the currency, Scotland will still be in Nato and the European Union, and Scots will still call be able to call on the National Health Service. They won’t lose their access to much-loved BBC radio and TV shows. Lest there be any doubt, the white paper says, “Current programming like EastEnders, Doctor Who, and Strictly Come Dancing…will still be available in Scotland.” These are the institutions that, for many, define Britain and Britishness—monarchy, the pound, the NHS, the BBC—and the Yes campaign tells Scots that they can keep the lot.
The opposition mocks this as doubletalk, the nationalists promising Scots a dual approach to cake, one in which Scots can both have it and eat it. “Everything will change and nothing will change,” says Alistair Darling, leader of the No campaign that unites the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties and calls itself Better Together. Darling was chancellor of the exchequer in the last Labour government of the UK, but has now been drafted back to Edinburgh—home of his parliamentary district—charged with no less a task than saving the union.
The Nats retort that Darling leads “Project Fear,” a phrase that, damagingly, was reported to be in use in the headquarters of the No campaign itself. Nationalists say, with some justification, that the No argument boils down to, as Scots might put it, “Ye cannae do i’.” So a long-running spat centers on Salmond’s insistence that a newly independent Scotland would effortlessly take its place as the twenty-ninth member state in the European Union. Not so, says Darling: the other twenty-eight would have to agree and there’s every reason to suspect that at least some would say no. (Spain is the obvious potential naysayer, reluctant to set a precedent that would be seized upon by separatists in Catalonia, which aims to have a plebiscite of its own in November.) The No camp gained a star witness in mid-February when the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU.
Alistair Darling can offer a dozen examples in a similar vein, all aimed at questioning the viability of a stand-alone Scotland. Edinburgh’s large financial sector won’t want to remain in a country foreign to the 80 percent of its customers who live in England: it will migrate south on September 19. Don’t assume, warns Darling, that the remaining UK will keep paying for its naval vessels to be built in Glasgow’s Clydeside shipyard: if Scotland says yes, the UK will say no. Meanwhile, from London, the UK government issues repeated alarms in a similar register. One official paper cautions that a new Scottish state will no longer be privy to the intelligence secrets seen today. Referring to the “Five-Eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangement that links the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, the document insists that “There would be no automatic right of entry to the ‘Five-Eyes’ community for an independent Scottish state,” adding tersely, “Entry is by invitation only.” It’s not only international isolation and economic ruin that loom. In February, a UK government minister warned that if Scots break away, the cost of a postage stamp will go up.
At the end of January these two projects, fear and reassurance, clashed in revealing fashion on the turf that matters most: money. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney—who is Canadian—made a rare journey to Edinburgh to deliver a speech on the plan outlined in the SNP’s white paper Scotland’s Future, in which an independent Scotland would keep the pound sterling as its currency. In the language of neutrality demanded of a central banker, Carney nevertheless explained that things weren’t that simple. The lesson of the eurozone crisis was that sharing a currency was fraught with risk. It could only work if the parties were bound together in a monetary and banking union. The governor’s most-quoted line was: “In short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.”
For the No campaign, that was the cue to say that the rest of the UK would never agree to a plan that required English, Welsh, and Northern Irish taxpayers to bail out Scottish banks if they failed (not a wholly hypothetical possibility, given the central part played by the Royal Bank of Scotland in the 2008 financial crisis). The point was underlined in mid-February when the chief financial spokesmen for the three main UK parties closed ranks to deliver the collective message that, “If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound,” as the current chancellor, the Conservative George Osborne, put it. Even if somehow Scotland’s neighbors could be persuaded to become partners once again, then a nominally independent Scotland would rapidly find itself bound into a new version of the very fiscal and political union with Britain it had just worked so hard to escape. This, then, was the No message in microcosm: you can’t do it and even if you could, it wouldn’t be worth it.
Yet the Nationalists strove to interpret Carney’s words as reassuring. The day after independence, they suggested, negotiations would begin to construct fiscal arrangements that would be comfortingly familiar. On the most sensitive of all questions, the economy, a message of continuity was, from the SNP’s perspective, no disaster.
To outsiders, this can be among the hardest aspects of the independence debate to grasp. The London media certainly took the No campaign’s view of Carney’s intervention, reading his declaration that the new Scotland would have to cede some national sovereignty as a mortal blow to the independence cause. But that might be to misread the kind of nationalism that has arisen in Scotland.
I visited the playwright David Greig at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, where he is working on a kind of traveling salon, the Imagine Scotland café, touring the country to stage town hall meetings on independence—with not a politician present. He plans to vote yes, but not for the old nationalist reasons:
To me, “nationalism” refers to a nineteenth-century nation-state with hard borders, an army, two houses of parliament, and a big fortress in the center of the capital city. In the 1930s we may have imagined that’s what Scottish independence would mean. The Scotland we’re willing to be born is a new kind of country, not that nineteenth-century kind of state.
Greig hopes Scotland will become a model for Catalonia and others, a state that embraces the pooling of sovereignty, as committed to interdependence as to independence.
This has defenders of the union scratching their heads. Why separate only to join together straight afterward? Besides, the United Kingdom has always been a pretty loose arrangement, especially for the Scots. Through the three centuries of union, Scotland has retained a separate legal system, separate education system, and separate churches—both Protestant and Catholic. Scotland fields its own national soccer team. Only at the Olympic Games is it subsumed into Great Britain. Given that since 1999 Scotland has had political autonomy to match that distinct legal, cultural, and sporting identity, why go to the bother of breaking away from a union that has achieved so much, especially if that break will be far from complete?
The answer is less constitutional than political, even ideological. The clue comes in the second sentence of Alex Salmond’s preface to Scotland’s Future. “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education,” he writes. It is on this ground—“compassion, equality”—that the Nationalists argue for what they believe is the Scottish difference. No one suggests it is a genetic or racial characteristic of the Scots, but rather that Scotland has developed a different political culture—different, that is, from the rest of the UK and specifically England.
For the Nationalists, Scotland has become a land of social democratic consensus, one that believes it has more in common with the high-tax, high-spend northern neighbors of Scandinavia than it does with the turbo-capitalism of the City of London. “There is a strong sense that the UK is evolving towards the US model, where you can never give enough to the top one percent,” Blair Jenkins, formerly of the BBC and now chief executive of the Yes campaign, told me when we met at the Yes headquarters in Glasgow. “A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life.” Surrounding him as we talk is the usual campaign merchandise, mugs, hats, T-shirts—and a poster declaring “Tak,” Polish for yes.
The No campaign dismisses such talk as essentialism, an upscale cousin of the Scottish chauvinism of the past. “The idea that people who live in the south of England are less high-minded than us, almost inferior to us—it’s the height of arrogance,” Darling told me. Nevertheless, the notion that a different political landscape has developed in Scotland is hard to dispute.
For one thing, the Conservative Party—the senior partner in the coalition that rules the UK—has all but vanished as a political force in Scotland. In the 1955 election, the Tories won more votes in Scotland than any other party, but decades of decline followed, culminating in the wipeout of 1997 from which they have never recovered. Even now, of the fifty-nine members of Parliament Scotland sends to Westminster, just one is a Conservative.
The two-word explanation is Margaret Thatcher. Her program of privatization of state industries and her battles with the trade unions antagonized the strongly laborist tradition of Scotland, but she grated on middle-class Scots too. She conveyed both a tin ear and callous disregard for the country, famously testing the widely loathed “poll tax” out on the Scots a year before imposing it in the rest of the kingdom. Ever since, to be a Tory north of the border is to carry a toxic brand.
Today’s Scottish Tories have done their best to reinvent themselves—their current leader, Ruth Davidson, is just thirty-five and the first open lesbian to head a UK political party—but still they make no dent. The result is that the British prime minister, David Cameron, dares not play too visible a role in a campaign that could change the shape of the state he governs: he knows that were he to turn up in Edinburgh and challenge Salmond, the Eton-educated southern aristocrat lecturing the Scots, the Yes camp would gain votes by the crateload. Tellingly, when Cameron did make an intervention in the independence debate—telling Scots in early February “We want you to stay”—he did so in a speech delivered in London.
But this goes deeper than the absence of a functioning party of the right. Scotland has only a few private schools. Its National Health Service remains a monolith in state hands, while in England the involvement of private companies in the provision of medical treatment has long been underway. (The last major private hospital to be built in Scotland was nationalized in 2004.) Euroskeptic and anti-immigration sentiments register in Scottish polls in similar numbers to those recorded down south, but they find no political outlet or traction in Scotland. While the UK government first imposed and then increased tuition fees for college, in Scotland a university education remains free for the student, funded wholly by the state. Prescription drugs are also free in Scotland, as is personal care for the elderly.
The contrast is with a UK politics increasingly dominated by London and the southeast of England—whose marginal seats, swing districts in US parlance, can have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of nationwide elections. According to the political commentator Iain Macwhirter, “In the last 30 years, London and the southeast has carved itself off from the rest of Britain and devised a post-industrial economy based on financial services and neoliberal tax policies.” Those in turn have fed a widening inequality that appalls many Scots but that, they suspect, England tolerates.
That reference to “30 years” is significant. Some in Scotland may well have assumed the drift rightward would end with Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. But in these matters—privatization and inequality—the trend continued uninterrupted. Labour added further to Scotland’s alienation with Blair’s support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a move deeply unpopular among Scots. Many in Scotland drew a glum conclusion: if even a strong Labour government in Westminster—one headed by two Scottish-born prime ministers, first Blair and then Gordon Brown—does not make a difference, then maybe we really do need to go it alone.
Viewed like this, it is, paradoxically, Scotland that has been clinging to an idea of Britain, one that has been abandoned by the rest of the UK—at least if that idea is defined in part as the collectivist spirit of 1945. As Macwhirter writes, “Scots have arguably been more committed to the idea of Britain than the English over the last 200 years. What Scotland didn’t buy into was the abandonment of what used to be called the post-war consensus: universalism and the welfare state.”
Which is why the Yes campaign’s offer, set out in Scotland’s Future, consists as much of social policy as constitutional change. The document contains few abstractions about democracy, but promises instead “a transformational change in childcare,” the scrapping of London-imposed changes to welfare benefits, and, in the move most likely to attract international attention, the removal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system from Scotland. “We’re half an hour away from the biggest collection of weapons of mass destruction in western Europe,” Jenkins told me. “There’s no version of devolution that allows us to get rid of that.” In other words, only independence allows Scotland to fully realize the distinct political culture that has arisen there.
Some on the left of the No campaign warn that it will be a cruel irony if, by breaking away, Scotland ensures the isolation of its more social democratic ethos. For once Scotland no longer sends fifty-nine MPs to Westminster, many of whom represent safe Labour seats, then Labour’s chances of forming a UK government diminish sharply. If independence happens in 2016, then an England-dominated UK could be the land that is forever Tory. Some electoral analysts dispute that arithmetic; nevertheless it will be this country to which an independent, left-leaning Scotland might be bound in monetary, fiscal, and political union, with the UK Treasury and Bank of England together making major decisions affecting Scotland’s economy. Scottish social democracy could discover it was able to flourish more easily inside Britain than out.
It will be a greater irony still if the ultimate consequence of the program pursued by the great patriot and would-be latter-day Britannia, Margaret Thatcher, was to be the unraveling of the United Kingdom. Yet her shredding of the 1945 settlement may well be seen as a principal cause. I talked to the journalist Allan Little, who is covering the referendum campaign for the BBC. “When I grew up in Galloway,” he told me,
it was the days of British Coal and British Steel. The British state probably built your home, warmed your front room and put in your phone. It rolled the steel, it employed everyone around. Now all that’s gone. Communities like that were the bedrock of British identity in Scotland and now, like the empire, they’re fading into the middle distance of the collective memory.
The British state is a smaller presence in Scottish lives now. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Thatcher’s program was known as denationalization.
Until recently these questions have barely pressed in on Britain outside Scotland. The media and political classes in London have been lethargic, mainly because polls throughout 2013 showed the cause of independence likely to be soundly defeated. But that complacency might be ill-judged. An ICM survey at the end of January showed the gap between the two sides down to just eight points, with No leading Yes by 54 percent to 46 percent.
What’s more, the pro-independence side has some serious advantages. Salmond has a claim to being the most gifted politician in Britain, let alone Scotland: a former oil economist, he is a wily strategist and an outstanding platform speaker with charisma to spare. He is backed by an able deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. Darling is solid, trusted, and with great experience—but no one would accuse him of runaway charisma. He made his reputation putting out fires rather than igniting them. His problem is that while the SNP can call on its A-team, Scottish Labour’s biggest talents, Darling included, made their careers by leaving for London long ago.
Accordingly, the SNP has the sharpest, most effective political machine in Scotland, with campaign teams in every corner of the country. Pro-independence meetings are going on somewhere every night of the week, while as The Spectator has observed, “Alistair Darling’s ‘Better Together’ campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath.”
That lead in the ground game reflects an enthusiasm gap. “‘I’m passionately committed to the status quo’ is not an obvious rallying cry,” observes the investment fund manager and philanthropist Alan Macfarlane, a donor to Better Together. It is obviously self-serving for Salmond to declare, as he does in his foreword to The Road to Independence?, that “the momentum and direction of the people of Scotland is unmistakable.” Nevertheless, it is striking that most of Scotland’s artists, writers, and musicians are either Yes voters or leaning that way. The same is true of the young, which is relevant since the franchise for September 18 has been expanded to include those over the age of sixteen. “It’s just not very cool to be No,” says Greig.
It’s tempting to describe this as a battle of head versus heart, with the Yes campaign promising romance and pride against the pedantic legalism of No. But plenty on the Yes side see it as the other way around, with the rational arguments weighing in their favor while No tries to tug at the enduring sentiments of Britishness. Meanwhile, both sides accuse the other of intimidation, claiming that both the London and Edinburgh governments are hinting darkly to recipients of their largesse that their public statements had better be helpful—or else.
The sheer length of the campaign, which began when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were duking it out in Iowa, is thought to help the Yes side. The more a once-outlandish idea like independence is talked about, the more normal it becomes. But the No side clings to the precedent of referendums past: as polling day looms, support for the status quo tends to rise.
Privately, well-placed Nationalists reckon a narrow defeat is probable—and they insist that will be no disaster. If the Yes side gets more than 40 percent then, they say, a new process will begin—negotiations with London over greater powers for Edinburgh, for the enhanced devolution known as “devo max,” which most believe would have comfortably gained 70 percent support had it been on the ballot. Scots themselves might groan at that prospect, bracing themselves for the “neverendum” endured by the people of Quebec.
Yet such a negotiation would not be a Scots-only affair. What has begun in Scotland is a rebellion against the highly centralized Westminster state, which still hands Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the English regions a “block grant” of cash rather than letting them raise and spend their own funds as they see fit. David Greig argues that this “nineteenth century system of imperial governance is at the end of its natural life. We’re just the first to say it.” Whatever happens on September 18, they are unlikely to be the last.
—February 20, 2014