This week, the world witnessed a rare event: a referendum on secession. Usually these things happen in countries ravaged by savage civil wars and tormented by brutish dictators. This time, it happened in a robust democracy, proud and self-confident, certain that its way of life and society were a model for less fortunate countries. Scotland, the northern part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, voted on whether or not to go it alone. By a 55 to 45% margin, it decided not to.
Despite the referendum’s defeat, it’s surprising that a seemingly happy and content part of a healthy, normal country would have such an active secessionist movement, and the 45% independence margin was higher than originally expected. Why did so many Scots want to leave? Is Britain really that bad?
In every situation like this, it’s important to go back in history and examine the origins of the nation. Scotland has a distinctive culture and identity from the rest of Britain; most importantly, it was a separate nation during the Middle Ages. Yet it’s also a backwater, distant from the rest of Europe (except Scandinavia and Ireland), cold, rainy and not particularly fertile. From time immemorial it’s been dominated by England (which has over 10 times its population today). Anglo-Saxons, the collective name for the German invaders that peopled England in the Early Middle Ages, colonized Scotland’s lowlands too – the most important part of the country. English gradually replaced Scottish there. An aggressive English king, Edward I, tried to take over around 1300 (as dramatically reenacted in Braveheart).
Thus, it was only a matter of time before Scotland was absorbed by the southerners. The first step came in 1603, when Scotland’s king, James VI, got to be king of England, too, since he was the great-great-grandson of an older English king. Scotland and England remained separate, but James moved down to London and focused more on English matters than Scottish ones. Britain’s iconic “Union Jack” made its first appearance without the red X to symbolize this union. The second step came in the middle of the century, when in a chaotic civil war England overthrew its king. Scotland supported his son as his successor; England’s dictator, Oliver Cromwell, subdued the insurrection and brought Scotland under English rule. The final step was reached in 1707, when Scotland was linked with England (and Wales, and Ireland) in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It got representation in Parliament, but lost its independence.
Aside from the aforementioned war against Cromwell and a few rebellions in the 1700s (another English king was overthrown, and Scots supported him and his descendants), Scotland’s annexation was peaceful. It wasn’t much of a conquest. The lowlands were absorbed into English culture, and the highlands — which are the stronghold of most of the things people associate with Scotland — lost a lot of their separate identity as well. But Scotland’s memory as an independent nation remained.
In recent times Scottish industry has slumped. Conservative economic policies in the 1980s ravaged the land, leading to a visceral hatred of the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher in particular. Scotland’s small population compared to England means that it is easy for its voice to get drowned out in Parliament. And British government is highly centralized; aside from local issues, almost all power flows from Parliament or the Prime Minister’s office. (Since the Prime Minister is part of Parliament, most Brits just lump them all together as “Westminster,” after the district in London where the government is.)
This situation gave Scots the feeling that apathetic Englishmen were bludgeoning them with impunity. A Scottish National Party arose dedicated to Scottish independence. It also wanted a separate assembly for Scotland so Scots could determine their own affairs. In 1999, it got its wish: separate parliaments were established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with power over their own educational, legal, and health care systems.
That apparently wasn’t enough for the Scottish National Party and its leader, Alex Salmond, who, as I said, wanted independence. Drawing on Scottish history, its former independence, and its separate heritage, they appealed to Scottish nationalism. They portrayed the English as cold, self-centered Tories (a term for the Conservative Party) who would never direct the economy with Scottish interests in mind. In particular, they lashed out at English appropriation of Scotland’s oil. The Scots are a fierce, cantankerous people, and as gloomy unionist (anti-secessionist) predictions of an independent Scotland’s future were trotted out, they responded with a collective “Oh, yeah?” and drove up the nationalists’ numbers. As Niall Ferguson, a crotchety British historian/pundit who lives in America, put it in the New York Times: “Telling a Scot, ‘You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,’ has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial.”
In the end, the campaign got pretty nasty (by peaceful democratic country standards, though – there wasn’t any violence). Families were split. English politicians mostly avoided campaigning, but Scottish unionists got a fair bit of rage and skepticism. Unionists called Alex Salmond a “fucking wanker.” By this week it was clear that Scotland — and maybe Britain as a whole — had reached a watershed moment in its history. About half of the country wanted independence; the other half didn’t. Even though independence won’t happen, David Cameron, the prime minister, has promised (more as a desperate last-minute bid than anything) to give Scotland more autonomy and satisfy a lot of the demands its nationalist leaders have made. And it can hardly be comfortable for the rest of Britain to realize that almost half of Scotland wants out.
Many, many commentators have pointed out how stupid the arguments for Scottish independence actually are. Paul Krugman, also in the New York Times, focuses on a very basic one: splitting off from a nation while letting that nation manage your currency — which is probably what Scotland would have done — is a recipe for disaster. It’s part of why the Eurozone is in such a mess. If Scotland really wants to manage its own affairs, letting Britain manipulate the pound without having any say would seem to go against that. The nationalist movement was fueled by socialist outrage at Conservative government policies – but Britain isn’t going to be Conservative forever, and who’s to say that lavish government spending is sustainable anyway? In fact, Scotland gets more revenue than it pays in taxes.
But this economic stuff isn’t the real reason Scotland wanted independence. Foreign Affairs points out that a lot of these complaints are shared south of the border in northern England, and that the political split in Britain isn’t really England-everyone else, but north-south. No, the real reason is nationalism, plain and simple. The Scots are proud of their country, are mindful that they used to be independent, have their own church, and resent the fact that many foreigners lump them in with the English. (I don’t really think it’s that many, though — Scotland is famous and distinct enough that I think many would be surprised that it’s not independent already.) Scottish nationalism is part of a European, even worldwide, trend towards narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, and selfishness. I personally believe that nationalism is a vile, repugnant ideology that leads people into stupid, even insane decisions, and that it’s one of the world’s biggest problems in that regard — but that’s the subject for a different blog post. The desire for independence would be understandable if Scotland was oppressed and massacred by its overlords, like Kosovo or South Sudan were. But it wasn’t.
To be fair, I’m not entirely sympathetic with the English either. The British press got increasingly hysterical at the prospect of Scottish secession and predicted gloom-and-doom scenarios that seem divorced from reality. Remember, Scotland is a backwater, and a minor part of the UK. I highly doubt that Britain’s international standing would have been seriously affected by Scotland’s secession. And the English are an arrogant, pompous lot with an exaggerated sense of their own place in the world. That arrogance made them overconfident about the referendum, and they paid for it dearly. If the Scottish are discontent with their place in the Kingdom, then Britain needs to placate them, and devolve more power to them and local governments in general. The Conservative Party in particular needs to rethink its strategy and appeal more to northerners — at present only 1 Tory MP represents Scotland.
But to put it simply, Scotland doesn’t really deserve independence. It doesn’t speak its own language, its culture and people are closely bound with England, and I think there’s greater affection for the Scots in England than they might presume. Britain’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown, was Scottish, as have been about six others (it depends on how you define it; the difficulty helps prove my point). Scotland won’t sink into morass if it remains in the Union, and with more autonomy, it could even thrive.