The many questions facing Scotland, and Britain
The vote will show whether what unites Scotland and England is strong enough to overcome the atavistic longing of an imagined community
There is something supremely civilized about the way the UK is dealing with the Scottish nationalist aspiration to leave the union. The vote this Thursday will be free and fair; there have been public debates arguing out rival positions; the debate is on an agreed question—to stay or to go; both sides have said they would abide by the outcome; campaigners on both sides have been able to express themselves freely; Scots have had ample time to think through the consequences of their vote; and the voters have the right to say no to separation in unambiguous terms. The English can appeal, they can observe, and they can hope. But they cannot intervene. (The televised debates for the future of Scotland were shown live on Scottish television; viewers south of the border could see excerpts in news or follow live blogs). Last week, the leaders of the three main political parties—Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats—went to Scotland to stress that the union was better together. But to many Scots the nationalist plea seemed desperate, given that opinion polls are close and some point towards a victory for the Yes vote, which would make Scotland independent.
The closest parallel to the Scottish vote is the way the Czech and Slovak people parted company. Compare it with other struggles to redraw political boundaries—Sudan, Morocco, Israel-Palestine, and more recently Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. Think, too, of the bloody birth of Timor L’este and Bangladesh, or how the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, and China’s continued disregard of Tibetan nationalism.
The Scots may choose to remain in the union. But as Neal Ascherson wrote in The New York Times in July, the Scottish vote is a test of Scottish confidence: do they believe they can be the masters of their destiny? “The question is no longer ‘can we?’ but ‘should we?’” he wrote, observing the new-found confidence among voters who may not like First Minister Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party but who find it hard to understand why they must be ruled from Westminster.
While the opinion polls are close, this is essentially a Scottish decision. Only the Scots have the vote; the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish don’t, although it is their country too, whose future shape is at stake. And civilized it has been. There has been no talk of blackmail, no bombs have been exploded, no political marches or rallies have turned violent, and except for one politician who was pelted with an egg, there has been no attack on any protagonist. There is passion on the Scottish side, and a sense of resignation on the English side. Newspapers in London have written about the vote, but the commentaries are sometimes comic, sometimes nostalgic, and sometimes helpless. There has been hardly any jingoistic rallying cry to preserve the unity of the nation. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ has been the national motto; the upper lip remains stiff. No emotions please, we are English.
To be sure, angry words have been exchanged, and there are reports of threatening language used against English people living near the border in Scotland. Eager pro-independence campaigners have told them that they would have to leave although it is neither legal nor necessary. The leader of the opposition, Edward Miliband of the Labour Party, compounded it when he said that what remains of Britain would post guards at the border that separates England and Scotland.
That border is as much actual as psychological. The first time I came to Britain was in 1979 as an exchange student, and I spent several weeks in a town near Edinburgh in Scotland. Other children at the school with me routinely said the only useful place to explode the British nuclear deterrent was on the border between England and Scotland so that the two countries would be separated forever. The English embraced Scotland when it suited them—J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, who is against Scottish independence, is sometimes referred to as an English writer (she is Scottish) and in a famous comic video, when a little girl asks tennis star Andy Murray if he is British or Scottish, he says ‘when I win I’m British, when I lose I’m Scottish’.
Some numerate journalists have tried to figure out if an independent Scotland makes economic sense by estimating the value of future revenues of the North Sea oil, because other than that, Scotland has tourism and whiskey, but its banks are owned by British taxpayers now, and vast parts are deindustrialized. RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) has said it would move its headquarters to England, and TSB and Lloyds have said they would strengthen their English legal presence. There are fears of Scotland losing some of its tax base if businesses start to pull out. But that conversation must wait for Thursday—as should the other open questions about Scotland’s economic future.
Will Scotland retain the pound? That’s uncertain. Salmond says Scotland can, but British treasury, the Bank of England, and the rump UK government would have to agree. Would Scotland then join the euro? That isn’t so easy. Whether the European Union (EU) would readily accept a breakaway nation from one of its member-states is a question without precedent.
Salmond would like the Scots to believe that joining the EU would be easy, but neither Spain, which does not want the Basque and Catalonia to seek independence, nor Belgium, an unhappy union of Flanders and Wallonia, are particularly keen to welcome a breakaway nation. That renders the question of Scotland benefiting from EU subsidies moot. Scotland’s formal departure would have to wait another 18 months, and the situation will become fascinatingly complex if British voters elect Labour to power next year. (It is not clear if seceding Scots will have the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections, and as per past form, Scots overwhelmingly vote for Labour in British elections). And it gets complicated further, going into unknown territory, if in 2017 Britain votes to leave the EU just when an independent Scotland applies to join the EU.
All those uncertainties will sharpen the debate over the future of the oil in the North Sea. Scotland considers the North Sea to be a Scottish lake, and the rest of Britain reminds the Scots that it is British taxpayers’ money and British companies’ investments that have enabled oil production in the sea.
If Scotland leaves, the deeper impact will be on British identity. The national flag, the Union Jack, would have to change, since the blue in the flag comes from Scotland’s Saltire. Enterprising artists have offered a range of options of what the new British flag might look like. Many other countries—Australia and New Zealand, for example—would also have to change their flags, as those flags feature the Union Jack.
While the Scots represent only 8% of the UK’s population, they have an enormous hold over the national psyche. Scotland covers a very large area—nearly half the sceptred isle. Politically, English voters have long resented Scottish sway over the vote. The virtual disappearance of Conservatives from Scotland has made it so much harder for the Tories, as Conservatives are known, to come to power on their own in the UK. The devolution of powers to Scotland has made the country self-governing in many respects. But it has a vote over how the rest of the country is to run. In 1977, Tam Dalyell, a Labour Party MP, raised the issue succinctly in what has come to be known as the “West Lothian question” in British politics: “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate...at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”
Simply, it meant that Scottish MPs could vote for higher taxes across the UK; English MPs could not decide on critical domestic concerns in Scotland. If Scotland leaves, the question will be moot—and as William Dalrymple, himself a Scotsman, has asked passionately in The Daily Telegraph, do the Scots really want to stop running Britain?
Prevailing consensus in Scotland is markedly to the left of the Tory worldview. They resent Conservative plans to privatize parts of the National Health Service. University education in Scotland is free for Scottish students; English students have to pay, both in England and in Scotland, if they choose to study there. As a result, an English lawyer pointed out to me at a grim barbecue last weekend in London, fewer Scottish students are coming to English universities. “And therefore young Scottish people simply don’t know young English people well—the university was the great equalizer where the English and the Scots met. That is decreasing, and you see one of its effects in the referendum, where the young are overwhelmingly in favour of independence.”
While Salmond is no Braveheart and if he loses the referendum, he will not face the fate of William Wallace at the hands of Edward I after the Battle of Falkirk, the cultural and philosophical divide between Scotland and England have widened significantly.
Whether what unites them—a shared history, intertwined lives, and common imprint on the world—is strong enough to overcome the atavistic longing of an imagined community, which in Benedict Anderson’s memorable phrase all nation states are, will be known on Thursday night.