The people of Scotland have spoken. Scotland has voted not to secede from the United Kingdom and to remain in her long-standing union with England and Wales. Over two million Scots—more than 55 percent of the 3.6 million who went to the polls—voted against independence. Nearly all the electorate had registered to vote, and there was a turnout of 85 percent, the highest ever in a Scottish election. The result was decisive, and Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, accepted defeat with dignity, agreeing that the referendum had shown democracy at its best.
An analysis of the results by region confirms my hypothesis that the referendum was not so much about the assertion of a traditional Scottish identity as about an ideological clash between left and right, and the differing economic interests of regions and classes within Scotland. The rural areas, the most Scottish parts of Scotland, voted strongly against independence, including those districts that had returned a Scottish National Party lawmaker to the Parliament in London. Besides Dundee, Mr. Salmond’s lone successes were in Glasgow and west-central Scotland, the rust belt of Caledonia, which has suffered severely from the decline of traditional heavy industry—coal, iron and steel, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding. The Glasgow region is not in the same sad condition as Detroit, but it has some of the symptoms of Detroitness. By contrast, the regions that have prospered from the discovery of oil off the Scottish coast—Orkney and Shetland, Aberdeen and the northeast—voted heavily in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom. Oddly enough, it was the discovery of this oil that first made independence seem economically possible.
The Glasgow region has always had radical and socialist tendencies. Between 1910 and the early 1930’s, people spoke of “Red Clydeside.” In 1919, at the time of the Russian Revolution, there were strikes and severe riots in Glasgow, and the British government, fearing a Bolshevik insurrection, sent in soldiers and tanks to restore order. Many of the radical leaders involved went on to become Communist or Independent Labour members of Parliament. Today the Labour Party, not the Scottish National Party, is the dominant political force in the region. However, some members of the Scottish National Party have tried to attach themselves to these radical traditions, calling themselves the “new Clydesiders.” When BP, the oil-exploration company, expressed doubts about the economic viability of an independent Scotland and said it might move out, one of the Clydesiders threatened it with compulsory purchase by the coming Scottish state.
There was nothing particularly Scottish about the policies being offered by the Nationalists, nothing that would not have been endorsed by the Labour voters of the declining old industrial areas of the north and northeast of England. Liverpool is England’s Glasgow. The Scottish voters were being offered greater spending by the new state on education, social security, and socialized medicine. This was to be paid for partly from the revenues from the offshore oil wells—which, incidentally, are declining—and partly by cutting expenditure on defense, another policy popular among English left-wingers.
Scotland and England and Wales have had the same monarch since 1603, when the Scottish king James VI became James I of England, but it was only in 1707 that the separate parliaments of England and Scotland agreed to form a single Parliament of Great Britain. Under the terms of this union, Scotland and England retained separate state churches, respectively presbyterian and episcopal, and separate legal and educational systems, which gave each a distinctive identity. The union was to prove extremely beneficial to both countries. In the centuries that followed, Great Britain become a sophisticated commercial society with a modern agriculture, and England and Scotland together became the world’s first industrial country and superpower. This same country went on to create the biggest empire the world has ever seen, covering a quarter of the earth’s surface and including a quarter of its population. The Scots were strongly involved in its creation, both as settlers—particularly in Canada and New Zealand—and as governors, administrators, traders, engineers, doctors, and missionaries throughout the African and Asian colonies. Glasgow took to referring to itself as the “Second City of the Empire.”
The fruitful collaboration between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain is summed up in the lives of the three greatest Scotsmen, the men who created the modern world: Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, whose portrait appears on the £20 English banknote; James Watt, whose major improvements to the steam engine made possible the development of industry; and James Clerk Maxwell, on whose work, as Einstein acknowledged, the whole of today’s physics and technology rests. The American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman said of Maxwell that, 10,000 years from now, “there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” Maxwell, unable to secure a permanent post in Scotland, spent his productive career at King’s College London and the University of Cambridge. Likewise, Watt was unable to develop the technical and commercial potential of his steam engine until he moved to Birmingham and worked in partnership with the English scientist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. Scottish genius combined with English institutions was the basis of many of Britain’s remarkable achievements.
It was only in the latter years of the 20th century that Scottish discontents became strong, mainly because Mrs. Thatcher’s radically free-market Conservative government of the 1980’s introduced economic policies that were unpopular in Scotland, where a majority of voters supported the socialistic Labour Party. When Labour came back into power in 1997, the new prime minister, the devious Mr. Blair, offered Scotland a new referendum for a devolved Scottish parliament with considerable powers over domestic affairs. The Scots voted by a large majority, though on a relatively low turnout, in favor of such a parliament. The Labour Party won the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as Mr. Blair had no doubt calculated. Support for Labour was concentrated in the very constituencies that have now voted for independence, something of which Blair is wryly aware. By contrast, in that parliamentary election, the Scottish National Party did well in those areas that have voted against independence. However, in 2007 the Scottish Nationalists were able to form a minority government; they showed themselves to be more competent when in office in Scotland than Labour had been, and they won a substantial majority in the Scottish Parliament at the 2011 election in Scotland even though Labour was far ahead of them in the 2010 elections to the U.K. Parliament, when the SNP gained very few seats. It was this victory in Scotland that led to the demand for a referendum for independence, which was then agreed to by Mr. Cameron’s Conservative coalition government elected in 2010.
Mr. Salmond assured the Scots that there would be considerable continuity after independence, with Scotland retaining the monarchy, the same currency as England and Wales, and membership in NATO and the European Union. Had he not pledged this degree of continuity he would have lost the referendum by a much bigger margin. However, the Bank of England told him bluntly he could not have a currency union, and E.U. leaders decreed that an independent Scotland would not have automatic membership but would have to apply. There would have been considerable opposition to Scottish membership from countries such as Spain and Belgium, which face their own demands for secession. After a long delay Scotland would probably have gained admission, but on extremely unfavorable terms, such as adopting the euro. Scottish independence from Britain would have been replaced by subordination to the unelected and unaccountable European officials in Brussels. Ask the Greeks how that has turned out for them.
Until 2012, it had been the official policy of the Scottish National Party to quit NATO, should Scotland become independent, but during the referendum Mr. Salmond blithely reassured the voters that he was now happy to remain in NATO indefinitely, though only on his own terms: banning anything to do with nuclear weapons and, in effect, a refusal to take part in any war that did not directly involve Scotland. It was a thinly disguised anti-American policy. NATO told him that in the event of independence Scotland would have to reapply to join the alliance and that his terms might well be unacceptable. Both President Obama and several Republican senators expressed horror at the thought of the breakup of the United Kingdom, America’s only reliable and well-armed ally at a time of unrest in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific. The Australian prime minister shared in their alarm.
The Scottish Parliament has now been offered an even greater degree of devolution in lieu of independence, but this is going to create conflicts within England. Quite reasonably, the English resent the fact that Scottish members of the British Parliament can vote on legislation that only applies to England, whereas the laws that apply to Scotland are decided by the Scots alone. The Scottish National Party recognizes the injustice of this, and its members in the British Parliament never vote on purely English questions. Many English Conservatives are now demanding that, in view of the enhanced Scottish devolution, British MPs from Scotland should be prevented from voting on English legislation. This is anathema to the Labour Party, which is heavily dependent on its Scottish MPs to vote through socialistic legislation during times when England has voted Conservative. There will now be a long and messy constitutional wrangle on English independence.
As a Welshman, I am relieved that the United Kingdom has stayed together and accept, seeing Wales also has a degree of devolution, that justice demands that the English should henceforth decide their own domestic arrangements free of interference from either the Welsh or the Scots.
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