When Scotland and England were united formally in 1707, the Scottish Earl of Seafield remarked in smug satisfaction, “There’s the end of an auld sang.” But if the Scottish National Party has its way, soon there may be a new song and a new chapter in the auld ongoing saga of these connected, colliding countries.
David Cameron and the SNP leader Alex Salmond have just agreed that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014—seven hundred years after Bannockburn. The wording has not been decided—that will be up to the administration at Holyrood—but there will almost certainly be a single question demanding a Yes or No answer to whether the devolved government should begin negotiating full independence.
Concerned about the possibility of defeat, the SNP originally sought a face-saving second question offering the possibility of “devo-max”—not a sexual practice, but a further increase in Scottish Parliamentary powers. But they were persuaded to drop this in return for London agreeing that 16- and 17-year-old Scots should be allowed to vote in the referendum—a demand that may rebound on the SNP, because even in Scotland most teenagers are probably more interested in The X Factor than the Cross of St. Andrew.
The referendum is a high-risk strategy for the SNP, because all the UK parties and most business interests are against independence, the polling evidence is at best ambivalent, and even a narrowly lost vote would be a colossal blow after decades of dedication. (The SNP was founded in 1934.) The SNP has sought to maximize its chances by cannily sidestepping pesky details—such small matters as whether an independent Scotland could sustain present welfare levels, how much of the UK’s deficit burden the new/old nation will assume, the economic impact of tens of thousands of public-sector and military jobs transferred out of Scotland, whether England would allow Scotland to keep all of the revenues from North Sea oil and gas, the new/old country’s currency, relations with the rump UK, and relations with the EU, IMF, and UN.
Not only pro-Union politicians are clamoring for clarification, but apolitical, actuarial observers. In January, Martin Woolf of the Financial Times pointed out that even the great black hope of North Sea oil could not counterbalance an overall fiscal deficit of 10.6% of GDP in 2009-10—and that the oil was a declining resource in any case. An independent Scotland, he added, could not hope to obtain a Triple A credit rating.
Last week, Scotland’s former Auditor General Robert Black queried how an independent Scotland could hope to finance a £4-billion backlog in road and public building maintenance, up to £500 million of travel concessions over the next decade, personal and nursing costs rising by 15% yearly, free prescription and optical tests costing £150 million annually, and yet other eye-watering invoices.
The SNP suggests that an independent Scotland would remain within the sterling currency area, but as Greece and other countries are presently proving, sharing a currency means sharing sovereignty. How strange that such ideological innumeracy should subsist in the land of Adam Smith.
It is even stranger that the Queen will remain as head of state, and England and Scotland will be “united kingdoms”—especially as Salmond was once a leading member of the SNP’s socialist republican caucus known as the ’79 Group, banned by the party in 1982 after Sinn Féin sought embarrassing fraternal contact. Salmond was against any association with Sinn Féin, yet his instincts remain strongly on the left, and the party is suffused with a Calvinistic political correctness that contrives to be simultaneously dour and neurotic. (As P. G. Wodehouse observed, “It is never difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance.”) But Salmond has always been a shrewd tactician, and he knows that if he is to have any chance of success in 2014 he needs to carry waverers as well as the readers of Waverley.
There seems to be no conservative or “right wing” nationalism in Scotland. There was once a faction of the SNP called Siol Nan Gaidheal (“Seed of the Gael”), darkly rumored to be “proto fascist” and which the SNP leadership accordingly proscribed in the 1980s. There is still an organization bearing this name, as their unexpectedly diverting site explains proudly:
In the New Year of 1997, a third manifestation rose from the glowing ashes of the old.
But if SNG ever was “proto fascist” in its first or even second manifestations, it would not seem to be today:
[W]e embrace identification with other dispossessed and disempowered peoples throughout the world and with the great leaders of the worldwide anti-racist and anti-imperialist tendency such as Mahatma Ghandi [sic] and Martin Luther King. Ergo, we are Scots, we are “black”, and we are beautiful.
The beautiful blacks in any case eschew politics to concentrate on really important matters:
[T]he bright burning concept of Templarism and the perfervid and yet fully rational belief that human spirituality can and does rise above the things of this earth, in order to make even simple sense of our condition as a species; this concept then has survived all the damage that ill-disposed Princes and their patronage could inflict. All the damage inflicted by successively and concomitantly the ascendant Bourgeoisie with their prerequisite pallid, trite and tedious respectabilities, the crass pseudo-intellectualism of the Gauchist revolutionary tendencies….
Back on our pallid, trite, and tedious planet, as the referendum nears, old resentments will reemerge on the Scottish side, because like all small countries adjacent to larger countries Scotland has historically been its powerful neighbor’s plaything and therefore a thronging nest of rebellion. Scotland has been handled roughly by Southrons at least since Hadrian tried to subdue the Picts before retreating sulkily to the Cheviots to build his wall. From then until well after 1707’s “union,” mayhem and mosstroopers, riders and reivers rampaged repeatedly across the “Debatable Lands.” It makes for a sad and stirring tale in a lovely landscape, perpetually being reimagined in Hollywood as well as Holyrood—Robert Bruce, William Wallace, Edward I (“Hammer of the Scots”), the 1513 catastrophe at Flodden when James IV and all his knights fell on the field, which Scottish sports fans still bemoan when they sing “Flowers of the Forest,” Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden, horror amidst the heather….
And after all that the “Clearances,” a blandly bureaucratic word belying a bleakness of clan cleansing, dispossession, embezzlement, and humiliation at the hands of outsider usurpers who in SNP minds are somehow connected with modern Conservatives (even Scottish ones) who long to visit “Dickensian nightmares” on Caledonia’s children.
There has always been and still is another story, a counter-narrative of Scots heading south, making good and making empire, but in even successful Scots there was often this nagging feeling that something special had been stolen—and as the empire dissipated this sentiment has strengthened. It strengthened further during the Thatcher era. Now with the recession, the Better Together campaign’s rhetoric about “contributing to and benefiting from the multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural United Kingdom” seems unlikely to sway many Scots.
Yet like all national identities, Scottish national identity is shriveling in the face of globalization, internationalism, and migration, and the SNP has no strategy to counter these corrosions. It would be the saddest of ironies if independence were one day to be won against the odds, only for Scotland to lose herself in the achievement.