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Scotland the Brave

Scots debate independence

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
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For secessionist Scots, of course, there is also an emotional pull to the ideal of independent nationhood. Robert Burns, the national poet, lamented that Scotland had been “bought and sold for English gold.” The film Braveheart (1995), while starring an American-born Australian (Mel Gibson) in a highly fanciful portrayal of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in battle against the English, inspired a new generation of Scots to identify with its tartan-clad heroics. Scotland does not have a Declaration of Independence but it does have the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), which affirms,

“[F]or, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” Youths of 16, who are permitted to vote in the referendum, may be attracted by that ancient oath: They certainly don’t get to vote at their age in England. Nationhood is, after all, about values as much as physical geography—about where your heart belongs. And if Scots truly feel that their political and cultural liberty and pursuit of happiness are jeopardized except within a separate state, then no economic argument can, or should, deter them.

There are, however, ironies on both sides of the independence debate. Scots may find that if they do win
independence they are less able financially to prosecute their political and social ideals than before. Regional rules currently allow Scotland to exclude English students—though not students from other EU member states in the Erasmus network—from the government subsidy that grants Scottish students free university tuition. If England becomes a separate EU member, EU legislation will likely compel Scotland to offer the subsidy to English students too. This would be hugely expensive. The “No” campaign also has some internal contradictions. Recent local and EU election results showed a marked swing towards the U.K. Independence party (UKIP), whose (many would say xenophobic) policy platform is based on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Britain seems to be poised to argue for “Better Together” in the U.K. at precisely the same moment when it is arguing “Better Apart” from Europe.

The Scottish example reflects a wider phenomenon, and regions like Catalonia will be watching the result with interest. The more globalized the world economy becomes, the more local its politics. Existing democratic structures are perceived to be failing; people feel disempowered. They fear that whatever move one makes with the political chess pieces, the board is so dominated by the tilt and spin of global markets, larger power structures, and forces beyond democratic control that no real change is possible. Getting out—of the United Kingdom or the European Union—might not actually achieve the goal of greater control from those external forces, but it feels like the only way to assert the right to reimagine society.

For many months, the “No” campaign was low key, hoping that “common sense would prevail” and that such dramatic change, especially in the wake of an economic recession, would fail to appeal to Scots, who have a reputation for being canny: prudent, cautious, and penny-pinching. That instinct may yet be proved right. But the fear-mongering tactics and doom-laden prognoses of English pro-union campaigners have been unpopular in Scotland and may have created more resistance than support. As one comedienne pointed out, if your wife, disaffected with a long marriage, is giving handsome Denmark the eye, the best way of persuading her to stay is probably not to say: “If you leave you’ll be poor. And you can’t access the clubs where we had joint membership. So don’t be stupid: Give me back the key and let me drive.”

I am still mulling over my own vote. Scots will think carefully before seeking a divorce from Britain, but the balance of power between Westminster and Holyrood has already shifted. The BBC is moving north: It now has operational bases in Salford and Glasgow. And a changing climate means that this year winemakers will harvest their first grapes in Fife. It may be only a matter of time before we are pouring champagne from a tartan bottle. But whether the label will say “Made in Britain” or “Makkit i’ Caledonia,” only the residents of Scotland can decide.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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