If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. This might be the motto of Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party, which since 1934 has been advocating the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, governed not from London but from Edinburgh and able to make its own policy decisions about defense, immigration, taxation, and spending. On September 18, Scots will finally face a referendum about their future. Do they wish to continue to be part of the United Kingdom or to go it alone under their own flag—the blue and white saltire—into a new Caledonian era? The timing of the vote is itself highly political. This year is the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn (1314), a battle at which the Scots famously won a victory over the English. It serves as a reminder of history, and that throughout the period when Scotland and England have had a united government—1707 to the present—there have been those who felt nostalgic for Scotland’s previous 800 years of sovereignty and viewed the union as a shotgun marriage, an uneasy and unequal yoking of nations whose interests and whose cultural and political values are not identical. Now Alex Salmond wants a divorce.
It is not clear whether he will get one. All surveys to date have suggested that the majority of Scottish residents intend to vote against independence; but the numbers are sufficiently close to create uncertainty. In a recent opinion poll, 51 percent of those questioned said they would vote No, 38 percent said they would vote Yes, and 11 percent remained undecided. The fence on which this last group sits is heavily patrolled, and as the referendum approaches, the rhetoric on both sides is becoming louder and more defiant. I will be voting myself in September, and since I have not yet made up my own mind, now seems a good moment to weigh the arguments on both sides.
The major political parties in Westminster have backed a “Better Together” campaign, calling for Scotland to retain membership in a United Kingdom that is greater than the sum of its parts. Their chief arguments are economic and pragmatic. They invoke the realpolitik of Britain’s position and influence as a global power. They cite statistics showing that Scots gain under the present U.K. formula for allocation of public expenditure, with spending of $20,440 per person, distinctly above the U.K. average of $18,288. Scotland’s relatively remote Highland regions, which require public services but have a low population paying taxes, might justify such higher expenditures, but pro-unionists warn that an independent Scotland, severed from the financial power of London, would have to dig deep into its sporran to obtain the revenue to cover such largesse.
Scotland’s population is an aging one—more so than that of southern regions that are more attractive to new immigrants—and proportionally more Scots are in public sector jobs than their English counterparts. How, ask the anti-independence forces, would a country disproportionately dependent for its income on North Sea oil manage as those oilfields decline and eventually cease production over the next 30 to 40 years? They point also to the high costs of setting up separate, new administrative structures and warn that England would refuse to maintain a currency union with its neighbor. Do Scots really want to lose the pound sterling, the Bank of England as lender of last resort, and the U.K. Treasury to draw on should their big banks fail, as happened to the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Halifax Bank of Scotland in the 2008 financial crash? Ireland, once cited as an example of Celtic Tiger economic growth, suffered so harshly in the wake of the banking crisis—when the European Commission pressed it to guarantee liability for all the bonds it had issued, an obligation it could not afford—that the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.
Moreover, unionists grimly prognosticate, Scotland would lose its membership in the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations. According to José Manuel Barroso, the Spanish president of the European Commission (who doubtless has an eye on Catalonia, as it flirts with secession from Spain), Scotland would have to apply for EU membership from scratch: a position that, given Scotland’s share of national debt after the global financial crisis (a probable budget deficit of around 5 percent), would mean stringent terms and a variety of undesirable deals on trade, agriculture, and member contribution. Such problems could lead investors swiftly to withdraw funds or at least relocate their head offices over the border and could mean monetary mayhem if Scots shut the door on England. Scotland, after the initially satisfying slam, might well find itself out in the cold, knocking pathetically, wanting back in. The risks and endless wrangles that would be necessary—over how much of the U.K.’s national debt Scotland should assume; how much of the oil revenues are Scotland’s; how the border should be controlled; and which currency Scotland would adopt—all of these, from the “Better Together” perspective, are avoidable disasters for a United Kingdom with a strong, respected global “brand” and an economy now pulling out of recession.
The “Yes” campaigners who back Scottish independence fiercely dispute these projections. They observe that Scotland is a relatively wealthy country: In terms of GDP per person for its small population of 5.3 million, it is the 14th-wealthiest country in the world. It would thus be embarking on independence in more promising circumstances than many nations: When Norway became independent in 1905 it was one of the poorest countries in Europe; Ireland, when it gained independence in 1922, was dogged by poverty and civil unrest. Scotland boasts oil and gas resources that Ireland lacks; it lands more fish than Sweden and Finland combined; has more wind-power resources than Denmark and more wave-power potential than Portugal. Other important industries include drinks, manufacturing, financial services, and tourism. If oil and gas revenues are included, Scotland generates $43,946 per person in GDP, as against the U.K. average of $37,148. Secessionists thus argue that, rather than being a benign benefactor in public spending, it is the U.K. that has profited from Scotland, often without reinvesting in Scottish infrastructure. Salmond promises that an independent Scotland will invest in expanding its own economy, as Westminster has failed to do, and prosperity will result. He forecasts, in a recent white paper, that Scots will be $1,500 better off per person, per annum, after independence. Alistair Darling, of the “Better Together” campaign, has counterargued that they will be $2,345 a year better off if they vote to stay in Britain.
“Yes” campaigners also argue that the current system of voting for a Westminster government doesn’t reflect Scottish voters’ wishes, noting that in 31 out of the last 55 years, the majority of voters in Scotland did not opt for the party that came to power. It is certainly true that Scotland’s political landscape is very different from England’s, reflecting its different history and priorities. Scotland already has its own legal system, its own education system, and its own banknotes. Since 1999, Scotland has additionally, as it did before 1707, had its own parliament, albeit with limited powers: Matters such as defense, immigration, and core fiscal policy are reserved to Westminster.
An independent Scotland, needing an influx of youthful labor to its economy, might well wish to attract immigration more than its southern neighbor; it might adopt a lower corporate tax rate to attract new business; it would almost certainly adopt a different social agenda in state spending. Secessionists look to the successful Scandinavian states as models of what they would like Scotland to become. Scots currently punch above their weight, except in the matter of weight: They are among the least fit, most lettuce-averse and gym-defying individuals in Europe, and rates of heart disease and premature mortality remain high, especially in overcrowded urban areas. Many Scots became trapped in poor tenancy arrangements dating from feudal rules of aristocratic landholding that persisted until very recently. Greater ability to build in and inhabit the stunning scenery that surrounds them—a habit of summer cabins, of boating and fishing—might, some argue, make Scots more like their lither Scandinavian counterparts.
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.