Whither Scotland? What Lessons for Our Future?
~ “Westminster has become increasingly unrepresentative of anyone except a narrow caste of career politicians. It has become steadily more dependent on funding by wealthy individuals and corporations. It has largely ceased to offer a real political choice between neoliberal orthodoxy and other approaches to creating a good society. And it has been found guilty of spectacular levels of greed and corruption in its own expenses system. None of these problems will be dispelled by the outcome of next week’s referendum. If they are not dealt with discontent with Westminster can only increase, in every nation and region that remains part of the United Kingdom.” ~ Joyce McMillan, September 12, 2014
~ “The social contract in Britain is perilously frayed. This is in no small part, due to the shift of power, influence and wealth to London and the Southeast of England, that began in the Thatcher years but has continued unabated, even under two UK Prime Ministers who were Scots! Simply put, London sucks the oxygen out of the rest of the UK. It is significant to note that by most economic indicators, Scotland outperforms the rest of the UK outside the hungry maw of the metropolis.” ~ David Speedie , July 2014.
~ “Issues of currency union and corporate headquartering are currently grabbing the headlines as Scotland counts down to the independence referendum. However the implications for one in five children currently living in poverty and up to 100 000 more children being pushed into poverty as a result of UK government policy, are less clear. Fairness in the labour market, progressive taxation, universalism, inclusion and equality can be applied at every level of government, wherever powers end up lying following Scotland’s independence referendum.” ~ John Dickie, March 2014.
~ “By voting No, Scotland gets the best of both worlds: power over the policies that matter, and the stability of the United Kingdom; the freedom to chart its own destiny, and the support of three other nations; the reputation in the world as a successful nation, and the clout of a world-renowned union.So the choice for you is clear: a leap into the dark with a Yes vote, or a brighter future for Scotland by voting No. You can have the best of both worlds in the UK. You can have more powers in Scotland.”
~ David Cameron, Sept 9, 2014
~ “The UK is already one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, and the UK government’s welfare cuts program unfairly impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. UK ministers need to account for the impacts of their welfare decisions which are driving so many into food poverty. “ ~ Alex Salmond, Dec 2013
~ “Most of what has been said has been utter nonsense. New Zealand has got a similar population to Scotland, its own currency and it does tremendously well; Singapore — fantastic economy, only 2 or 3 million people; Switzerland does very well. There’s obviously no reason why Scotland can’t have its own government if that’s what the Scots want.” ~ Tim Martin, September 10 2014
~ “We take note of the positions of all the major Westminster parties to rule out a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. In that context, a currency union is incompatible with sovereignty.” ~ Mark Carney, Sept 9 2014
Here in London, all the talk – and a lot of establishment politicians’ nail-biting! – is about the impending referendum in Scotland. On September 18, the Scots could vote for full independence from the United Kingdom. This would break up a union that has endured over three hundred years – since the Act of Union in 1707. In the run-up to the vote, in recent months, establishment politicians in the U.K.’s major parties have alternated between threats and complacency. Few have taken the Scottish people seriously – even as they have actively and passionately debated the pro’s and con’s of independence in an amazingly broad-based show of grass-roots democracy.
That is until now. Last weekend, a major opinion poll by YouGov had the Yes and No votes running neck and neck. More worryingly for UK politicians, the trend of opinion has been moving rapidly in favor of independence. Among voters under age fifty-five the Yes campaign has a nine point lead apparently widening. And in recent days, a growing list of leading figures including academics, diplomats, and top businessmen have come out in favor.
This sudden shift was quite unexpected by U.K. national political leaders in Westminster. It has galvanized seemingly overnight and at the eleventh hour a flurry of high-profile, election campaign style visits to Scotland this week by all top national political leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labor Party Leader Ed Miliband. Their last minute, panic-stricken appeals for Scots to vote No has laid bare how weak, in retrospect, the Better Together Campaign has been at countering the positive arguments for full independence for Scotland put forth by the Scotland Yes campaign, spear-headed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP). It has also revealed, in no small measure, the cultural divide separating Scotland from the much more prosperous London and the South-East. As the electoral race is running down to the wire and still too close to call, it bears asking what are the deeper seated social, political and economic dynamics underlying this momentous turn of events.
Key Questions :What underlying forces are at work driving such a high and rising level of discontent among Scots with membership in the United Kingdom? How did the referendum contest suddenly become so close in recent months? And why did so few, if any, U.K. political leaders spot the signs? What are the stakes for Scotland and the U.K. ? And, what are the broader regional dynamics and implications for the rest of the U.K. and for Europe? What are lessons for Western politics in general?
How Did It Come to This? :The roots of the Scottish nationalist movement go back over thirty years. When the Thatcher government in the 1980s launched a massive redirection of the U.K. economy towards liberal, free-market, private sector led policies, it had a dramatic impact upon Scotland. This right at the time when major oil reserves – almost all in Scottish waters – were beginning to be exploited, dramatically improving the U.K. balance of payments. Conservative government policies contributed to massive change in the Scottish economy. The decline of old heavy industries – coal, steel, ship-building – led to mass layoffs and high unemployment. Meanwhile, oil wealth was tapped by the Westminster government to finance national government priorities – of which Scotland, despite its newfound oil wealth – was only a small part, with only 5 million out 60 million U.K. population.
As two Scots – Joyce McMillan, a journalist, and David Speedie, an academic – note (see above quotes), there is by now a strong perception among Scots that the social contract in U.K. society is “badly frayed”. A remote, insensitive Westminster-based national political elite no longer actively supports the political agenda and priorities of a very significant part of Scotland’s population. Where the South of England and London have moved in direction of more conservative free-market, less-government policies, many Scots still attach higher importance to maintaining a more egalitarian society through more generous provision of public services – healthcare, education, elderly care, infrastructure – on a totally publicly funded basis.
As this political and philosophical divide has emerged over time, Scottish politics has shifted strongly away from the Conservative Party, now led by Cameron, and towards the SNP, now led by Salmond. Today, Scotland has only one Conservative Member of Parliament in Westminster, compared to over forty for Labor and Liberal Democrats, but only six for the SNP.
Scottish Devolution 1998 and 2012 : On the other hand, the SNP with 65 of 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) dominates Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament.
Limited economic powers were devolved to it in 1998 and more in 2012 , after the 1997 devolution referendum when Scots voted overwhelmingly (over three to one) to create it.
Following devolution, competition between the SNP and Labour has become ever more intense, even though both are center-left, social democratic parties. Labour’s espousal of more neoliberal, private market policies under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, a Scot, has weakened its appeal. Labour formed the first post-devolution Scottish Government, but was supplanted by the SNP since 2007. Since election in 2010 of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, widening policy disagreements have arisen between Holyrood and Westminster especially over the “austerity” budget-cutting policies pursued by Coalition Chancellor George Osborne and Cameron. The SNP – notably in its 2013 white paper “Scotland’s Future” forcefully supports protecting and increasing public spending in education, healthcare, social welfare and Scottish infrastructure. This flies in face of Conservative government policies to cut welfare spending, privatize much of healthcare and reform education along traditional lines.
Impact of Coalition “Austerity” Program : During 2010-2013, UK government “austerity” policies – driven from Westminster – led to a deep recession, high unemployment, increased poverty rates. While the UK economy is now recovering slowly, Scotland shared fully in the stark impact. This has made the current Coalition government even more unpopular in Scotland than in other regions of the U.K. Salmond (quote above) has castigated the Coalition for deepening food poverty in Scotland, even as his government has won praise for proposed major expansion of early child education. Meanwhile, another Scot, John Dickie, of the Child Poverty Action Group (see above quote) has highlighted the considerable growth in child poverty in Scotland since 2010, calling for a more progressive, egalitarian rethinking of UK and Scottish government policies to combat poverty.
Better Off with Independence ? : In effect, since the 1980s, there has been a growing institutional and philosophical disconnect between the Scottish and Westminster-based UK political elites, that has permeated deep down into the two societies, This has led a growing number of Scots to question whether Scotland would be better off with independence from the rest of the U.K. Some have questioned, for instance, whether Scotland would have benefitted more from oil had it established a “sovereign wealth fund” to save oil revenues to invest in Scotland’s own long-term future, rather than sending most of the tax revenues raised to Westminster. On the other hand, Scottish cities such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen have benefitted considerably from their expanding role in the U.K. financial and energy services industries. However, as David Speedie notes (above quote) many Scots are deeply concerned about the skewing of public investment (especially infrastructure) and economic activity away from Scotland and the North and its concentration in London, the South-East and the Midlands.
Complacency, Disconnects and Miscalculations Got Us Here : In 2013, Prime Minister Cameron was offered by Salmond a third option ( “Devo-Max”) on next week’s ballot that would provide for much more substantial devolution of powers – including revenue and spending – as an alternative to independence. Unwisely, as it seems now, Cameron refused. This set up the all-or-nothing situation the U.K. faces now. Like most of the Westminster political elite, he took almost for granted that the No vote would prevail handily. Ironically, now faced with the imminent possibility of a Yes Campaign victory, the three major U.K. parties have proposed just such a “Devo-Max” approach to try to enable the No vote to squeeze out victory. This may well now be a case of “too little, too late”. Meanwhile, Scotland’s pro-Independence movement has been subjected to a massively ratcheted up barrage of hostile political commentary and veiled threats. The Better Together campaign has given few specifics about how it would further assist Scotland, as David Cameron’s general and emotional plea to the Scots for unity earlier this week (see above quote) shows.
Very controversially, the Better Together campaign – led by former Labor chancellor Alistair Darling – has hammered away that an independent Scotland could no longer keep sterling as its currency. Extreme politicization of this issue is highlighted by the suddenly changed stance of the supposedly politically neutral Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney – himself a Canadian. In June, Carney said in event of a pro-Independence victory, this matter should be decided between the Scottish and U.K. governments. This week, he greatly sharpened his tone (see above quote) – indicating currency union was “incompatible” with Scottish sovereignty. Ironically, this might, if it came to it, work to the disadvantage of the rest of the U.K. For, the loss of Scottish oil, would put the remaining U.K.’s balance-of-payments in the deepest hole since the 1920s!
Conclusions : Political disconnects, complacency and miscalculation have brought both sides to the perilous situation they find themselves in today. A Yes Vote for Independence for Scotland may be a leap in the dark, entailing the challenges and risks of building a new nation. But there can be little doubt that in the long-term – as leading U.K. businessman Tim Martin notes (see above quote) – there is no reason why Scotland should not succeed in independence much as other small nations such as New Zealand, Finland, Ireland have before. On the other hand, despite all the dire warnings of the Better Together campaign of risks to Scotland from Independence, there are major risks – notably on the balance of payments – that the remaining U.K. would face too.
The main challenge facing both sides today is to establish common ground on which to forge a more closely shared vision of Scotland’s future that takes all Scots’ aspirations into account. This will be vitally necessary, whichever side prevails next Thursday. It is to be hoped that the extremely negative tone and messages of the past week – especially from the Better Together campaign – will be replaced urgently by a more positive approach. The more so is this important because the eyes of other European countries facing similar secessionist challenges – Spain with Catalonia for example – will be on how Scotland votes. I, for one, hope that leaders’ of both campaigns draw back and take the high road, for the benefit of all!