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04 April 2013 @ 12:29 pm
Scottish Indepedence  
As noted earlier, the referendum on Scottish independence is now set for September 18th 2014. A key election pledge of the SNP in the 2011 election, the road to the referendum has been controversial both within and without Scotland.

However, this history of Scottish home rule and independence naturally stretches back far earlier than that. Scotland and England's histories have been intertwined almost since the two countries first established themselves. From Edward I of England arbitrating the Great Cause for the Scottish Crown in 1291 (and demanding that John Balliol, the chosen King declare that Scotland was part of Edward's domain), to the Scottish Wars of Independence with Wallace and Bruce, to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 (where James VI of Scotland also ascended to the throne of England) and finally the Treaty of Union in 1707 where the United Kingdom was created, the two countries have been enemies, partners and almost everything in between.

The modern Scottish Independence movement can be traced back to the early 20th Century, and an early Home Rule bill was presented to Westminster in 1913 - before the outbreak of World War I disrupted its progress through Parliament. The Scottish National Party (SNP) was formed in 1934, and has been campaigning for independence since. However, it took until 1967 for them to win a seat at Westminster, when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton By-election - but with the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, the party's fortunes turned around dramatically, leading to James Callaghan's Labour Government offering a referendum on devolution to the Scottish people in 1978. Although the majority of those voting were in favour of devolution, the rules required a higher turnout of voters than occurred and with the election of the Conservative Party in 1979, the issue was firmly put on the back burner until Labour regained power in 1997.

When Tony Blair won the 1997 General Election, Scottish devolution was a priority policy for the government, and Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar was tasked with creating a Scottish Parliament. After winning a referendum in 1997, the Scotland Act 1998 was passed, and the Parliament was created, first meeting on May 12th 1999. Labour's support for the devolution project was intended to dampen support for independence, but in 2005 the SNP were the largest party in the Parliament and formed a minority government. Despite a few setbacks, including their key policy commitment of replacing the Council Tax with a local income tax being declared outside of Holyrood's competence, the Nationalist won even more support in 2011, where they won an outright majority. This was considered almost impossible under the mixed FPTP/Party List voting system used in the Scottish Elections, and was a major endorsement of the SNP's governance, and gave them the momentum to push forward with their plans for a referendum on independence.

So, at this point - with 531 days to go, what are the arguments for and against Scotland once again becoming an independent nation?

The main argument presented by the SNP is a simple call for self-determination. The Scottish people have a strong sense of national identity, distinct from the rest of the UK (and in particular England, still seen by many through the lens of historical oppression). While the right to self-determination is considered a "cardinal principle of international law", the question of how far this applies to Scotland must be asked. As noted above, there is a definite Scottish national identity, separate from British identity, but there is ALSO a British identity that many Scottish people feel part of, and while the right to self-determination is well established, it has never been clearly defined with regard to who it applies to. The question does arise as to whether the Scots have such a right at all. However, this is probably a moot point - the Referendum was created by the Scottish Parliament, but using powers "lent" to it by Westminster specifically for this purpose and so the creation of a new Scottish nation state would be with the consent of the UK and no recourse to international law would be required.

Overall, though, I think this is a weak argument for the Scottish public. Being part of the UK no longer suppresses Scottish identity (as it did in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellions) - the Saltire is openly flown, tartan and highland dress can be worn in any circumstances one chooses and Scotland is even represented as a separate nation in many international sporting competitions. Even Gaelic, suppressed far longer than many other aspects of Scottish culure, is now celebrated and can be seen all over Scotland, and is even on signs in places where it was never spoken. We do not need to leave the UK to fully realise our Scottishness.

The other arguments for independence are more politically pragmatic, relying on modern differences in voting patterns, and the relative unpopularity of the Conservative government of 1979 to 1997 and the current Coalition government in the UK Parliament.

With regards to the question of Scottish voting patterns compared to the rest of the UK, this may be the strongest argument in favour of ending the Union. Since 1945, Scotland has consistently voted Labour candidates into a majority of seats (with the exceptions of 1951 and 1955) regardless of who won the General Election overall. Even under the Proportional Representation electoral system used in the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Tories have never won more than 18 of the 129 seats available. This has resulted in a number of instances of Scotland being governed by the Conservative party, despite the Tories winning 15% of the seats in Scotland. This was especially controversial during the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, where many unpopular policies were applied to Scotland despite protests from the people - sometimes even applied to Scotland before the rest of the United Kingdom. This has created a palpable sense of resentment against the Conservative Party in much of Scotland (albeit perhaps one easily overstated by looking at the 1997 General Election results, where they won zero seats in Scotland). While the national identity of the Scottish people is not being suppressed or oppressed by being part of the United Kingdom, it can be argued that their political will is not being respected.

This is an appealing argument to many, especially in the industrial heart of Scotland's central belt, where huge numbers of jobs were lost in the Thatcher years due to the policy of privatising the nationalised industries that were central to the economy of this area. Even where Conservative policies were not so directly destructive, it is easy to understand the desire to avoid having policies imposed on you by a government consisting almost entirely by people elected outside Scotland, and representing mainly English consitutencies.

The main counter-argument against this policy is essentially an emotional call not to "abandon" the rest of the UK to a permanent Conservative majority. However, this does not stand up to scrutiny. An analysis by the . Wings Over Scotland blog shows that only 3 election results in the last 68 years would have changed without Scottish MPs - and only in the 2010 election would these changes have created a Toy majority government. Even then, this is not much of a change from the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition we have now.

Support for this argument has intensified recently, in the face of deeply unpopular cuts and policies by the Coalition. As these cuts continue to bite into the lives of many Scots, this may prove to be the key factor in the referendum.

The arguments against independence are equally pragmatic. Questions have been raised about which currency an indepedent Scotland would used and whether or not the new state would have to leave the European Union and then re-apply for membership. The SNP's stated plan is for Scotland to continue to use Sterling, but there is real doubt over whether this would be allowed by the UK government. Further, there have also been arguments that Scotland would be required to join the Euro to remain in the EU - not a particularly attractive proposition, considering the current financial crisis in the Eurozone. There are also the questions of the fate of the UK's nuclear deterrent, currently based on the Clyde (the SNP's policy calls for them to be removed from Scotland immediately, which has met resistance from both Westminster and the White House), what share of the UK's national debt Scotland should take on, the status of UK government assets in Scotland (including military bases, equipment and personnel) and myriad other issues that would have to be worked out.

This may be what tips the balance in favour of staying in the UK. The negotiations required to decide on these issues would undoubtably be long and costly, but with the promise of little change in return. Indeed, the SNP has essentially promised that the only noticeable difference in an independent Scotland would be the lack of nuclear weapons. The stereotype of the miserly Scot may not have much basis in reality but I still doubt that many would be excited at spending large amounts of public cash to remain in the same position.

This is amplified when even the Scottish Conservative Party are calling for additional powers to be transferred to Hollyrood. Staying in the Union but with more extensive devolution is far more attractive to most Scots than full independence (as seen by the SNP's initial attempts to get a third option in the referendum offering just that). Most Scots believe that Scotland could be an indepedent nation - they just don't see what difference it would make on their everyday lives, and without a cause to rally around, it is hard to imagine them voting for it, knowing the additional costs involved. In my opinion, this is for the best. Certainly, Scotland has had unpopular governments impose policies on it that the people here did not approve of, but independence is no guarantee against that. What is does guarantee is a period of months or years of uncertainty regarding the nation's status and position, for no tangible benefit at the end. I shall be voting "No" in this referendum and I encourage all other Scots to join me in doing so.
(Anonymous) on April 8th, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC)
Nice piece - very balanced, I thought. I didn't even know which side you were on until the end. Being English I'd been worried about Scottish independence dooming us to perpetual Conservative government. It's interesting to know that it wouldn't do that.

In general though, I would still rather Scotland remained in the UK, if only because I think unity is better than division!