"Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
This is the question that First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish Parliament wishes to pose to the Scottish people on a referendum ballot tentatively scheduled for the autumn of 2014. Over the course of the past several months, he has been on an aggressive campaign to convince them to answer “Yes.”
Ever since his party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), won the majority in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, Salmond has been framing independence as an opportunity for economic uplift. In a speech given on the occasion of the SNP’s victory, he decried England’s economic “subordination” of Scotland, and recently, his arguments have taken on an increasingly pragmatic character as he has sought to convince those who doubt the financial viability of Scotland’s independence.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has been hard at work urging the Scottish to remain faithful to Westminster. As Professor Mark Blyth, a Scotsman and political economist with the Watson Institute at Brown University, explains, it would be politically fatal for Cameron if the Union were to break up under his supervision—“like the South seceding under Obama’s watch.” Thus Cameron has begun to address the issue head-on, including taking a photo-op heavy promotional tour of Scotland earlier this month.
Vive la devolucion!
In January, Salmond put forward a consultation document to the Scottish Parliament entitled “Your Scotland Your Referendum,” which addresses the logistics—costs, timing, semantics and so forth—of the referendum. The document proposes that Scotland vote on two issues. The first, quoted above, is whether they are for or against independence. The second is whether the Scottish people would prefer “maximum devolution.” This arrangement would give the Scottish Parliament greater domestic powers without entirely dissolving its membership to the United Kingdom; for example, it would still rely on the British Parliament to handle national defense and foreign policy.
Scotland has been governed under a system of devolution since 1998. That year, the Scotland Act reinstated the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and delineated the areas over which it held autonomous legal jurisdiction from the British Parliament, such as education and health care. Scotland had not had its own parliament since 1707, the year it first joined its imperial neighbor England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain as part of an economic calculation to bolster its weak economy. The Scotland Act was Westminster’s response to nationalist rumblings incited by the SNP, which decried the increased centralization of the British government and the paltry representation of Scotland within its ranks.
As Blyth explains, Scotland and England have developed along two very different trajectories, “leaving ideological legacies that have become very powerful.” In Scotland, formerly the heavy engineering and industrial center of the British Empire, politics have long been characterized by a clash between capital and labor, as represented by influential unions. Moreover, says Blyth, Scotland has higher rates of urban poverty and worse national health than England, which “begets very different policy responses and policy interventions and influences what people expect the state to do.” As a result of all of these factors, Scotland, unlike its English neighbor, is strongly socialist. Scotland has consistently voted left even as the Conservative Party has dominated in Westminster, leading to a sentiment of political disenfranchisement.
Until the economic downturn, devolution had successfully quelled Scotland’s separatist fervor. No longer. While the financial crisis struck London a heavy blow, says Blyth, “There has been real private sector job growth in Scotland, and the financial sector did not blow up because they had not been incorporated into English banks…They are doing well, and their local budget is balanced, so the feeling is, why are we paying for the mistakes of your bankers?”
“The Age of Empires is over”
Salmond is not a particularly charismatic speaker. Although he does not fit the romanticized profile of an inspiring leader of a separatist movement, he is nonetheless serious about change. On February 15, he gave a softspoken lecture at the London School of Economics, in which he outlined six of the best economic arguments for Scottish independence. The speech was an attempt to dissuade the skeptics who have been raising concerns that Scotland does not have the resources to hold their own in the international economy.
Under the current power-sharing arrangement with Westminster, the Scottish government has no borrowing power and cannot enact fiscal policy. Salmond argued that with these capabilities, it could stimulate capital investment, prioritize Scotland’s growth industries and incentivize investment in the country more generally. “Metropolises like London…can exert a centrifugal force which draws power towards them,” he said. “Small countries, and regional economies, need a fiscal edge to encourage decision-making centers to settle.”
Salmond holds a deep-rooted disdain for Cameron’s Tory government. A self-described Keynesian, he despises the recent austerity measures that Cameron has imposed on the British economy. He has repeatedly likened Cameron to fellow Tory Margaret Thatcher, whose liberal policies ravaged Scottish industry in the 1980s, causing unemployment to soar. In contrast, Salmond, like most of his countrymen, is a strident social democrat. At LSE, he said that he envisions Scotland as a potential “beacon in progressive economic policy as well as social policy.”
Another bone of contention for Salmond is Scotland’s energy resources. Salmond is a proponent of clean and renewable energy, which he called “Scotland’s best growth opportunity of the next generation,” and he believes Cameron’s government is hostile towards it. However, he also has his eye on Scotland’s offshore oil reserves. “The licenses—and revenues—of much of our offshore energy are…in the hands of unelected commissioners accountable to the UK Treasury,” he said at LSE. His plan for an independent Scotland includes appropriating these oil profits to create a fund that will help to support the Scottish welfare state.
Ultimately, Salmond envisions an independent Scotland maintaining close economic ties with England through “a sterling zone” that would function like the eurozone—but, Salmond assured, would avoid its recent pitfalls due to Scotland and England’s parallel “prosperity levels.” However, it has been a subject of debate in the media as to whether the European Union would permit Scotland to join as an independent nation without adopting the Euro; Salmond did not address this question.
A “greater Britain”?
A day after Salmond’s speech, Cameron was in Scotland, attempting to bolster allegiance to the Crown. With picturesque Edinburgh Castle behind him, he spoke of the United Kingdom as one big happy family, literally: “There are now more Scots living in England and English people living in Scotland than ever before,” he noted. “And almost half of Scots now have English relatives.”
He repeatedly evoked a distinctly British history, shared by Scotland and England for the past three hundred years. “Your heroes are our heroes,” he stated, and characterized maintaining British unity as “a question of the heart as well as the head.” It is partly a matter of audience and context, of course, but the contrast between his passionate appeals and Salmond’s rational arguments was stark.
This is not to say that Cameron did not employ rational arguments. He argued that in the face of hard economic times, there is value in “pooling risk, sharing resources and standing together.” He underscored the United Kingdom’s influence on international politics through the UN Security Council, NATO, the European Union and its armed forces. Yet he also made it clear that he is listening to the SNP’s demands, pledging a commitment to further devolution and the importance of the British welfare state.
“It is right…that the choice over independence should be for the Scottish people to make,” Cameron said. But it is clear that he is not going to let them go quietly. Amidst promises for a “greater Britain,” he declared, “I’m ready to fight for our country’s life.”
A nervous public
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
As for where the Scottish people currently stand on that decision, recent poll numbers are inconclusive. Indeed, the results from the past month suggest that the country is fairly evenly divided, although support for independence has been growing. The trend is the same across the border in England; a NatCen Social Research British Social Attitudes Survey this week found that about a quarter of the English were supportive of Scotland’s secession.
Even so, Blyth, for his part, is skeptical that Scottish independence will come to fruition, saying, “They’re willing to vote for the SNP when they know it’s devolution, but will they really be willing to vote for them when it’s for independence? You’re asking people to take all the institutional security they know and throw it away.”
The sun never sets on CAROLINE SOUSSLOFF B’12.