Scottish Independence Is Inevitable

Posted By: July 22, 2014

 The Independence Referendum Is a Test of Scotland’s Confidence
 The Union Jack flag waved near Stirling Castle on February 3, 2014 in Scotland. Scots will vote in a referendum on independence on Sept. 18.CreditJeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
LONDON — ONE thing is certain: Whatever the outcome, this referendum campaign is changing Scotland irrevocably. Whether the Scots vote yes or no to independence on Sept. 18, their sense of what is possible for this small nation will have been transformed.
Reporting on Scottish politics through wind and rain for almost 40 years, I have covered three referendums on self-government. The first, in 1979, offered a modest elected assembly: A slim majority of voters approved it, but the turnout fell short of the threshold required for the proposal to become law. The second, in 1997, proposed a restored Scottish Parliament controlling most internal affairs. That time, there was a resounding yes. Since 2004, Scotland’s blue-and-white Saltire has flown alongside the Union Jack and the flag of the European Union outside the Parliament at Holyrood, in Edinburgh.
This referendum, the third, dares the Scots to go the last mile: proposing an independent Scottish state within the European Union, sharing a monarch (after the fashion of Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia), and possibly a currency, with the rump of the old United Kingdom.
At this moment, a majority for independence looks unlikely. Opinion polling has found the no vote consistently ahead since last year. Last month, the gap narrowed to single digits, though it’s opened up again.
But it’s the smell, taste and sound of this campaign that should warn us that, this time, a no vote will not be the end of the story. Scotland is changing as we watch.
The Scottish National Party, or S.N.P., and its leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, have governed this “devolved” Scotland for seven years. The S.N.P. was always an independence party; its chief rival in Scotland, the Labour Party, championed devolution, but has always opposed full independence.
Scottish political loyalties seemed as changeless as Aberdeen granite. So what’s new to me is the attitude I have found typical among longtime opponents of the nationalists all over the land in recent months: “I don’t trust Salmond, and I’d never vote S.N.P. But I’ve had to re-examine my ideas, and I don’t see how I can vote no.”
Where does this come from? In part, from economic confidence. Twenty years ago, postindustrial Scotland was dismissed as an economy shattered beyond repair. Now, even the British government and the “no” campaign admit that Scotland could survive and prosper and be a stable democracy on its own, given wise management of its North Sea oil wealth. The question is no longer “Can we?” It’s “Should we?”
The motives driving “yes” supporters are straightforward. Devolution, as the intermediate arrangement of limited self-government was called, needs to be completed. The situation in which a Scottish government’s revenue comes as a block grant from London is irresponsible. The Edinburgh Parliament should be allowed to set and raise its own taxes.
British elections must no longer trample the will of the Scottish people: The Scots are solidly anti-Tory, returning just one Conservative M.P. to Westminster in the last three general elections, yet they are outweighed by southern English voters and regularly have to endure Conservative governments. Scotland should also be allowed to become a full member of the European Union, not a bolt-on to English interests.
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story Add social welfare to those motives. In Britain, it’s not only Conservative-led governments but “New Labour” ones as well that now seem committed to Thatcherite economics, to the steady privatization of health, education and welfare. Most Scots hate this.
The S.N.P. governments in Scotland have tried to barricade the Scottish National Health Service against the market reforms forced on the N.H.S. in England. Many people — including the former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is himself Scottish — have called the postwar welfare state and the N.H.S. the greatest of British achievements. By defending what’s left in Scotland of that legacy, the S.N.P. risks being called, satirically, the most “British” party in the kingdom.
But Scottish confidence is not only rational. Put it like this: Ever since the 1707 union with England, when Scotland sold its independence for a share in the British Empire, a tiny blue-and-white cell has survived in the Scottish brain that sends out the message: “Wouldn’t it be grand if only, if somehow…?” For three centuries, inhibitor cells jammed the message: “We’re too wee, too poor, too thick… are you daft?” But now that “cultural cringe” has vanished, almost without a trace. And the blue-and-white cell is free to transmit.
If Scottish “yes” reasoning is not hard to grasp, neither is Scottish “no” reasoning. Some of it is material: People are not convinced that their living standards would survive independence, and would like firmer promises about pensions and interest rates. Some of it is fear for the economic safety of Scotland, turned loose among the giant predators stalking a globalized world.
Some of it is emotional: a feeling that Scottish and English societies are so closely integrated now that separation (a word the S.N.P. never uses) would be absurd, even anachronistic. Few, though, would go as far as one Conservative peer, a former cabinet minister, who said that independence would be a betrayal of the British dead in two world wars. But the British government’s motives for opposing independence are often puzzling.
The English media and many politicians explain the independence movement by claiming that the Scots are obsessed by “anti-English racism.” My own experiences tell me the exact opposite. Scots, these days, have almost forgotten about England, so fascinated are they by their own country. (This is sour news for the English, who can bear being hated but not being overlooked.)
The notion of “anti-English racism” is of a piece with Westminster’s matchless ignorance and clumsiness in Scottish matters. In February, Prime Minister David Cameron held a full cabinet meeting in Scotland, to show the Scots that he cared about them. Then, in April, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer,went to Glasgow for a few hours and told the Scots that if they voted for independence, they would have to find a new currency in place of the pound. He was surprised when this caused the yes vote to surge in the polls.
Twenty years ago, a predecessor of Mr. Cameron’s as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister, John Major, told me that “this whole devolution idea is loopy. The problem is that the Scots just feel left out of things. I really should go up there more often.”
I thought about a retort. But where to start?
Only three years after that, amid songs and tears, the Scottish Parliament met in Edinburgh for the first time in almost three centuries. The old Union Treaty started to fall to dust at that moment, a process that is still following its own logic.
I shall vote yes this September. The campaign has already taught me that if we don’t make it with this third referendum, there will be a fourth. It’s time to rejoin the world on our own terms. A Scottish journalist and writer based in London.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 20, 2014, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Scottish Independence Is Inevitable.