Scotland’s Decision Will Save or Break the United Kingdom

EDINBURGH — Residents of Scotland go to the polls today to decide whether or not Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom. The referendum was announced in 2011 by the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alec Salmond, after his party was elected to Holyrood, Scotland’s Parliament. Although the landslide was a massive rejection of Scotland’s long-ruling, Glasgow-dominated Labour government, First Minister Salmond took his election as a mandate from the people for an independence referendum.  At the time, Scottish separatism, like Scottish republicanism, was a fringe interest, irrelevant to the vast majority of Scots, particularly those living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Three years later, however, the Scottish government’s “Yes” campaign has snowballed to such an extent that it is impossible for either the “Yes” or “No” side to determine tonight’s outcome. Lulled into complacency by the early certainty that ordinary Scots would not want to leave the security of the United Kingdom, the “No” campaign has latterly  been hamstrung by Scotland’s 40-year resentment of the United Kingdom’s currently ruling Conservative Party and, in certain quarters, virulent anti-English sentiment. As a result, British Prime Minister David Cameron has remained in the background, leaving such Labour Party stalwarts as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Labour Finance Minister Alistair Darling,  both Scots, to challenge Salmond’s bid for the history books.

Despite their turbulent relationship in the Middle Ages, Scotland and England made a first, rocky attempt at perpetual peace when James IV of Scotland married Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of King Henry VII in 1503. A lasting peace was not realized, however, until 1603 when the king of Scotland, James VI, Margaret Tudor’s great-grandson, was named the heir of Elizabeth I, Queen of England.  Thus James VI (and I) united the crown of Scotland with that of England. 

Peace, however, did not preclude resentment. Scots aristocrats jostled with English for influence at the court in London without a reciprocal English interest in or sympathy for Scottish affairs. England remained a serious competitor in trade, for example, which seriously handicapped Scottish attempts to import and export goods to and from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. In the 17th century, Scottish merchants were largely restricted to such northern ports as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Danzig (Gdańsk). (Indeed, large numbers of Scot merchants emigrated to what is now German and Polish territory.)  These restrictions rankled the Scottish aristocracy and middle classes, and in the 1690s they heavily backed an overseas trading company to be based in Darien (between Panama and Colombia); this “Darien Scheme,” as it is now known, was supposed to enable trade between Europe and Asia. Instead, it failed miserably, leaving the Scottish economy in ruins. This left Scotland’s political elite with little choice but to acquiesce to England’s wish that their two parliaments be merged. Thus the Act of Union was completed in 1707.

Although today this merger is depicted as a hostile takeover, it resulted in a peaceful and fruitful co-operation which greatly enriched both countries, both as a united colonial power and as centres of manufacturing. The union also led to a Scottish cultural revolution. The seat of government having been removed from Edinburgh, the city turned its attention to philosophy and art, giving birth to the Scottish Enlightenment through the association of such figures as thinker David Hume, historian Lord Hailes, architect Robert Adam, poet Robert Burns, painter Henry Raeburn, and dozens of other luminaries, Scots, English, and French.  Although the peace was disrupted by the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, these were not struggles between Scotland and England but between the exiled Catholic Stuart monarchs and the new Protestant Hanoverian kings. Just as many English backed Bonnie Prince Charlie, many Scots remained loyal to King George.

With the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his allies in 1745, the Stuart cause ceased to be a threat to the Hanoverian kings and their supporters. In fact, it took on the glamour of romance, and the Highland-themed novels of Sir Walter Scott became all the rage with the English reading public. When George IV visited Scotland in 1822—the first British monarch to do so since 1650—he was welcomed with Scottish tartan-wrapped traditions largely revived or invented by Sir Walter himself. The visit thus not only increased the popularity of the Hanoverian king with the Scots, it sparked a tartan tourist industry that exists to this day.  Queen Victoria’s famous love of Scotland, and summers spent at Balmoral Castle, also cemented ties between the Scots and the British royal family. And Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was herself the daughter of a Scottish earl. From 1822 until the mid-1970s, it was unthinkable that there could be any contradiction between being Scottish and being British. Indeed, at least seven Scotsmen have served as British Prime Minister. However, so did Margaret Thatcher.

It is difficult to describe the depth of the hatred in Scotland for the late Lady Thatcher. It is palpable, cross-generational, and endemic, shared even by the gentle, conservatively-minded, and well-educated. The late Conservative Prime Minister is blamed not only for the poll tax, but for the collapse of heavy industry in Scotland, particularly mining, textiles, steel, and ship-building. In the first two years of her administration, Scotland lost 20 percent of its workforce. The traditional working classes were devastated, and long years of unemployment and inability to adjust to a service economy gave rise to a Scottish underclass, known euphemistically as “the socially excluded.” Heroin use in Scotland soared, and over 60 percent of Edinburgh’s intravenous drug users were infected in six months in 1983. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is not a documentary of Edinburgh life at this time, but it could be.

As a result of the Scottish hatred of Margaret Thatcher, Scotland no longer votes for the Conservative Party. In UK-wide elections, it votes Labour, and it voted for Tony Blair when he promised to devolve some decision-making powers to Scotland. In 1997, Scots voted in a referendum to re-establish a Scottish Parliament. Some Scots voted against this, fearing it a step towards the eventual dismemberment of the United Kingdom, but a majority voted for it. The new Scottish Parliament opened in 1999.

Residents of Scotland now have representatives at Westminster (Members of Parliament or MPs), Holyrood in Edinburgh (Members of Scottish Parliament or MSPs) and in Brussels (Members of European Parliament or MEPs) as the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union. If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, it will lose all influence at Westminster and will have to reapply to join the European Union. It will cease to be part of a large, wealthy G8 nation of 64 million, and as a state of only 5 million people—and no currency of its own, for Salmond proposes to continue using the British pound sterling—it will have much less influence in Brussels should it be welcomed back into the EU.  The question is, why are up to 50 percent of Scots contemplating such a step?

In my opinion, speaking as a five-year resident of Scotland, a descendent of Scots married to a Scot, but also as a Canadian who lived through several Quebec separatist referendums, it is the skill of a small political elite—Alec Salmond and his advisers—at prodding the anti-English bruises of a people who still have not forgotten the miserable days of the Thatcher administration, particularly those who are still unemployed.  Night after night on the television news, Salmon has fulminated against “the Tories,” a polite, seemingly unbigoted word that can mean “the English.” After his debates with Labourite Alistair Darling and the emergence of Gordon Brown’s pro-Union oratory, he was forced to be a bit more explicit and condemned “London rule.” It is not insignificant that Salmond picked 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, to stage his anti-UK referendum.

It is significant, too, that those Scots who would have been most likely to vote to stay in the Union—those who live and work in other parts of the UK—are forbidden to vote. The only people who can vote in this referendum are British, Commonwealth, or European Union citizens who live in Scotland and are aged over 16. (Alec Salmond had the voting age dropped especially for this referendum.) It may strike some as unfair that a 16-year-old resident Polish citizen—or a middle-aged Canadian lady, for that matter—can vote for or against Salmond’s vision, when more than one million Scots who live outside Scotland, not to mention the rest of the UK, cannot. But I suppose that’s democracy. Or is it?

About Dorothy Cummings McLean 23 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.