Scotland votes, and however it goes, expect bitterness to follow

Scottish voters, as the whole world probably knows by now, will be voting on their potential independence from the United Kingdom on Thursday. Actually, that’s not what they were initially going to be voting on—that would have been whether Scotland should enter negotiations for independence, but this question got changed somewhere along the line—it’s now “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Which is a pity, because the former question is actually a more sensible one. As it is, Scottish voters will be voting on whether Scotland should be an independent country without having much idea what that country would look like—how it would fund itself, what its domestic and foreign policies might look like, whether it will be in the EU or not, ditto NATO, all the mundane stuff that turns out to be the business of government. But these issues, much to the surprise of many outside of Scotland, seem to be of little concern to many in Scotland, or at least to those who support independence. There seems to be a lot of magical thinking involved.

Again, as an American living in the UK, I have no particular vested interest here. I like living in England, and in Britain, but that’s not solely an emotional decision. I have no Scottish ancestry, unlike that guy quoted in some newspaper article (which I can’t find now, of course) whose family emigrated to Canada three hundred years ago but who still considers himself “Scottish.” This is an alien mindset to me, but there it is. And it seems to be perhaps the most powerful driver of the Yes vote that has surged in recent months, such that the election is basically now too close to call. We’re Scottish, and we want our own country. Well, not perhaps the most important driver—that honour, such as it is, should go to notions of Scottish victimhood, of which there appears to be a never-ending surplus.

Actually, I can think of lots of reasons why Scotland might want to be independent. We discussed one not too long ago—a desire to remain in the EU if the rest of the UK decides to leave. Plus there are any number of examples of countries Scotland’s size who do well—Finland, Norway and The Czech Republic all seem to be cruising along reasonably well, thank you. Scotland by some measures tries to be more progressive than, say, England, and they have history on their side in this regard, at least recent history. It would be difficult to find anyone in Scotland who might have a kind word or two for Margaret Thatcher—or, at this point, for Tony Blair, and certainly for David Cameron. Scotland likes the NHS, and is unhappy with Tory threats to privatize it. Scotland use to vote Labour heavily, until the last election, when they largely voted for the Scottish Nationalist Party, led by Alex Salmond. And it’s Salmond who has maneuvered everyone into where they are today. I think I have to correct my earlier comments that Cameron was out-maneuvering Salmond—it actually appears to be the reverse.

What I don’t understand, or approve of, is the way the campaign has evolved. Well, actually, I do understand it, because I recognize it. Because Salmond has done something pretty canny, as good politicians try to do. And what he’s done is run a campaign based on victimhood. He’s taken a page out of the Republican playbook in the US, as Mrs W observed. This should probably come as no surprise, given his former closeness with Donald Trump, and his current closeness with Rupert Murdoch. For me, if I were Scottish, and the head of the major independence party was palling around with Rupert Murdoch, or the other right wing businessmen he hangs out with from time to time, I’d probably have second thoughts. But that’s just me.

So rather than running a campaign based on articulating a vision of how an independent Scotland would work, what we’ve gotten is a campaign on how Scotland shouldn’t be run by English toffs any more. And besides, we’ve got that oil. Or will have. Attempts to ground the discussion in any kind of economic reality—say, on the critically important issue what the Scottish currency will be—get dismissed by Salmond as “bullying” and “grandstanding,” as if to actually discuss these issues in any meaningful detail is beneath him. What we get instead are grand pronouncements about how “it’s our currency too,” without any sense of what would be entailed to actually make it work. That’s a trivial detail, apparently. When the leaders of all three major UK political parties, and the Governor of the Bank of England, repeatedly point out that a currency union wouldn’t work, and therefore would not be happening, the SNP response has been that they don’t really mean it. And when major Scottish banks indicate that, as UK-chartered institutions, they would need to relocate their headquarters outside of Scotland because, well, it wouldn’t be in the UK any more, Salmond accuses them of some sort of vague treachery and “intimidation,” and then goes on to say they won’t really do it.

Wait, there’s more. When BAE Systems, which employs 3,600 people in Scotland building warships and stuff for Her Majesty’s Government, suggests that HMG might not want their warships built outside of the UK, leaders of the SNP say that won’t happen, and leave it at that. When a former leadership person of the SNP makes threats of nationalizing BP and the banks, Salmond, when given the opportunity, refuses to repudiate them. And when the BBC attempts to pin Salmond down on the details of his currency arguments (which everyone understands make no sense whatsoever), he demands a Parliamentary investigation into BBC “bias” on pretty spurious grounds. When told by The UK government that the currency union is just not going to happen, Salmon blithely states that Scotland will then repudiate its portion of the UK national debt (much of which emanated from having to rescue Scottish banks). Perhaps no one has the heart to tell him that the bond market generally takes a dim view of debt repudiation, but even if it didn’t, the EU might notice when Scotland comes knocking at the door. It’s been that sort of campaign, the kind that we think of as being run by Karl Rove. Any time someone tries to introduce a note of economic reality into the discussion, they’re told they’re “bullying,” or being “intimidating,” or something.

This has surprised many of us south of the border. It’s a nasty campaign, which I think was not expected by Cameron and the rest of the government, nor by the country at large. The pro-union forces here deserve much of the criticism they’ve received—it’s been an anemic, poorly organized campaign until recently, and when Salmond says the Better Together campaign has panicked, he’s not wrong. Having Alistair Darling your spokesperson was probably not the best idea—he was Gordon Brown’s Finance guy during the economic crisis, and while he did a credible job of keeping the ship from sinking, you probably don’t want to put a guy out there who will inevitably remind people that, yes, the ship did nearly sink.

And it has had the unhappy result of leaving many English in the position of supporting Scottish independence, but for the wrong reason—mainly to get rid of Scotland and all that whining. I know of nobody here in London who really wants Scotland to stay in the UK any more—attitudes have hardened into something along the lines of “Well, they think they can make this work? Let them go, then. And good riddance.” This is a poisonous legacy, but not nearly as poisonous as it will be in Scotland itself. No matter how the vote turns out, there are going to be very bruised feelings on each side. By running the kind of campaign he has, Salmond has done a lot of damage, I fear, the kind it may take a generation or so to cure. The example of Ireland does not exactly inspire confidence. If the No vote prevails, do we get to look forward to the Scottish Republican Army? This is not going to be a happy country for some time.

A lot of people who should know better apparently think this is neat. I have some friends, people who I think of as pretty smart, who are taking a certain amount of glee from the whole situation—they think it would be cool if Scotland voted Yes, although for the sake of friendship I haven’t pushed on exactly why they think this. Billy Bragg thinks that Scottish Nationalism is a good thing, I think, because it will lead to a new English Nationalism. At least I think that’s what he’s saying. Naomi Wolf, whose Facebook site has been a rare lesson in objectivity and reasoned argument with regard to Gaza and Israel (and, to her credit, at no small cost to Wolf herself, apparently), for a while jumped the shark over this—and although she’s moderated some of her enthusiasm recently, you can tell she still thinks it’s pretty cool. If only it were that simple, but Facebook has obvious limitations if you want to move past the shouting stage. (This seems particularly true about Gaza and Israel, as Wolf has sadly discovered.) The comments there are the same kind of comments, with the same level of rage against the Tories, that you would find on a Breitbart site with commentators fulminating at Obama’s latest totalitarianism. And with the same lack of actual argument and factual discussion you also would expect to find on Breitbart. I’ve given up even commenting there—there’s no point. On the other hand, one really doesn’t know what to make of the fact that while most international observers think a breakup of the UK is not a good idea (although some, like Spain, have a vested interest in how this all turns out), North Korea’s leadership fully supports the Scottish independence movement. Salmond, who was speaking approvingly of Vladimir Putin’s leadership qualities at the same time Russian tanks were rolling into the Ukraine, has not commented on this development.

So no matter how the vote goes on Thursday, this won’t be over for a long time. If the Yes vote prevails, negotiations follow, and these can be expected to be conducted, as Ken Macleod has indicated, “with all the love and forebearance you’d expect in a messy divorce combined with a family fall-out over an inheritance.” Cameron may or may not survive a Tory leadership contest on the back of having “lost” Scotland. The whole question of the next round of Parliamentary elections—scheduled to be held while Scotland is still in the UK, even in the event of a Yes vote—will rise to the surface, since Scotland will still have MPs at the time, and seats to be contested. Should this occur? We’ll see. What happens, though, if the elections proceed, and Labour wins a majority based on the election of a bunch of Scottish Labour MPs—several months before Scotland is set to leave the Union, taking those MPs with them? I have absolutely no idea, nor, I think, does anyone else. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years.

The above stamp represents the Scottish flag on a UK postage stamp. If the Yes vote prevails, Scottish stamps won’t have the famous Machin profile of the Queen on them. Unless, of course, Scotland decides to keep the Queen, which the SNP has indicated it may do. Or not. Who knows?

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4 replies »

  1. This is part of a larger trend of course. When the UN was founded there were about 50 members, now there are 200. And they all got there the same way, with local tinpot politicians stirring up emotions based on dodgy history of the “things were better in the good old days” kind.

    The right parallel isn’t Finland, which has been independent for a long time, but Serbia, the Caribbean nations, and the Stan states. Subscale corruptacracies even more dependent on handouts from the larger, more prosperous states they were once a part of.

    My guess is that the Russian economist who predicted the US would split into pieces in five years was wrong about the timing, but not about the result. The ridiculous postering and self-delusion of Texans, the seething anger of whites over losing their slaves twice (once legally and once economically,) and the sheer distance of Alaska and Hawaii seem to me to be tectonic forces.

    Of course, if it means losing Texas, it’s hard to see it as a bad thing.

  2. I agree completely about Texas–it can’t happen soon enough.

    Actually, I don’t have a conceptual problem with Scottish independence. It’s an old border, and maybe it’s time to do something about it. And there are a lot of borders–particularly in the Mid-East and Africa–that are purely artificial, or just make no sense, and have no particular historical legitimacy. So I don’t have a problem with new nations, or changing borders–there’s nothing inviolate about these. What I do object to is the deceptiveness of the current campaign.