As he officially announced the 2014 vote for an independent Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond looked and sounded as earnest as ever. His normally ruddy complexion was tempered by the soft light of the Scottish Parliament’s chambers as he revealed an inconspicuous pamphlet to his colleagues: “Your Scotland. Your Referendum.” The document was to be, as Salmond put it, an outline for the people of his Scottish National Party’s (SNP) plan to fulfill its commitment to a “clear vision of the future” – in other words, a kind of consumer’s guide to the process of political independence. But though the announcement made gestures toward openness and simplicity, they concealed a far more complex reality. As Britons are acutely aware, Salmond, though a shrewd politician, is a champion of polarizing political ventures. His audience understood that the future is, in fact, far from clear, and that its choice is a weighty one – the fight to sever over 300 years of partnership within one of the world’s most powerful nations will indeed be wrought with intrigue and bitterness.
To his credit, Salmond certainly had a more civil tone than the leaders of past campaigns for decentralization. “It’s Scotland’s Oil!” was the rowdy chant of the SNP in the 1970s, when the discovery of oil in the North Sea strengthened the case for a fiscally independent Scotland, with home rule designated the first stop along that path. Times, however, were harder on the nationalist cause back then. Scotland faced a sharply declining manufacturing economy and the Troubles of Northern Ireland acted as a possible bellwether for nationalist campaigns in other British regions. But most importantly, when it came to the home rule referendum, the Scottish people – operating through their Members of Parliament in London – lacked direct control over their vote and the discourse that surrounded it. Lasting from the introduction of devolution legislation in 1976 aimed at creating a Scottish parliament with limited power until the 1979 vote, the fight became a shady one as ruthless factionalism took hold. In a move that perhaps epitomizes the injustice of the process, George Cunningham, a Labour MP from Scotland strongly opposed to devolution, pushed through an amendment in 1978 that required a “yes” vote from 40 percent of eligible voters for the referendum to pass – the necessary turnout, as expected, did not occur. Home rule proponents went home defeated despite being in the majority at the polls.
Today, the SNP is playing a similar game, riding on a sense of economic opportunism and nationalist stirrings. But this time, the ball is truly in its court. Winners of a plurality of Scottish parliamentary seats in 2007 and an outright majority in 2011, the party – which pushes independence as the centerpiece of its political platform – feels that it has been handed not only a mandate for a referendum, but also the right to set the terms of the vote: the question, the date, and even the voting age, which it wants to lower to 16 in order to capitalize on the youth vote. And indeed, the time is ripe to be making such demands.
Economically, Scotland is proving its resilience amid a global malaise that is acutely affecting its neighbors. Already the third wealthiest region per head (behind Greater London and South East England), the recession affected Scots less severely and in a shorter span than it did the broader United Kingdom. Though it is currently a net recipient of British revenue, confidence has also been expressed in an independent Scotland’s potential for further growth, fueled by its share of North Sea oil and gas, sustainable energy industries, increasing diversification, and a rebounding technology sector. The argument for a vibrant, independent Scottish economy is, for the moment, a particularly strong one.
Nationalist sentiment, too, is aligned with today’s sense of economic opportunity. Scotland has gained jurisdiction over key domestic policies since devolution’s failure in 1979, but it has limited control over taxation and remains profoundly influenced by fiscal measures that are decided in London. Over the past year, Scots have become increasingly irritated. Seen as part of a recurring pattern of unwarranted English interference, recent Conservative austerity measures, which have shrunk the Scottish share of British expenditures by 11 percent this year compared to its 2010-2011 level, have been ill-received in the left-leaning north. This, combined with a decades-old resentment toward British foreign policy decisions (an independent Scotland, as Salmond noted in the referendum announcement, “would not have [its] young men and women dragged into illegal wars like Iraq”) and disapproval over the presence of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil have Scots demanding greater input with a long-unseen fervor.
Whether such benefits are enough to outweigh the uncertainty (and for some, the anguish) of a political separation is up to the Scottish electorate to decide. But why, then, must voters wait until fall of 2014 for a vote? The answer lies in the tentativeness and uncertainty buried beneath the SNP’s aggressive façade. Salmond and his party are well aware that, however opportune their timing might seem, a majority “yes” vote could be difficult to muster. And indeed, opinion polling, though somewhat scattered, has pointed to a disadvantage for the nationalists. The SNP may cite the need for more time for planning, debate, and organization, calling Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to accelerate the process “oppressive,” but this struggle in the polls that the true motivation behind the SNP’s wait-and-see attitude. Such a plan is far from innocent – it is, in fact, thoroughly unjust to Scottish voters as well as Britons as a whole. It is first and foremost a risk to the political process itself, posing a challenge to its character and transparency, and threatening the long-term Scottish-British relationship. Further, it merely extends and magnifies the uncertainty of an already dangerously uncertain process – for Britain and its constituent countries, for Europe, and even for the Scottish nationalists themselves. The idea of an independent Scotland must either be realized quickly or die just as fast.
In early January, Cameron played host to British business leaders at 10 Downing Street, where he says he was given a dire warning about the delay’s impact on the economy. “It is clear that one thing business never likes is uncertainty,” a spokesman for the PM said after the meeting, “whether that is legal uncertainty, political uncertainty, or economic uncertainty.” As with all things at the intersection of British corporations and politics, such a conjecture should be considered warily, but English businessmen aren’t the only ones giving warnings. Scottish financial firms have cautioned that the SNP’s delay is likely to affect its own constituents most acutely. It is Scotland, they say, that will bear the brunt of a decline in investment from both outside of Britain and within it. Companies that span the English-Scottish border and those within Scotland that rely on English funding face a particularly immediate risk – they are most likely to see growth stunted during a protracted period of uncertainty. The referendum debate comes, as well, at a critical point in the process of economic recovery for the British and broader European economies. A sinking British recovery, as International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has warned, could have dramatic repercussions in the European Union, and a decline in foreign investment within the country makes that threat all the more imminent.
Additionally, these mounting concerns from the business community come without a guarantee of success for the perpetrators themselves – though Salmond, shrewd as ever, is doing his best to get the timing right. He still risks a calamity for his party in 2014. Salmond is, at the moment, betting on a series of events that could help build a surge in nationalism ahead of the vote. In the months prior to Fall 2014, Scots will cheer on their golfers in the Ryder Cup, root for the home team at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a decisive victory for the Scottish during the First War of Independence. Salmond is also counting on continued anger directed toward the Conservative Party, which is not up for election until 2015, and hopes that David Cameron’s undiminishing antipathy toward the referendum will help muster the “yes” vote up north.
These factors should not be underestimated – the preferences of many voters are likely to be influenced by the prevailing nationalist spirit. However, the SNP must remember that the appeal of its position is primarily economic, and that the behavior of the economy could very well work against it. Just as many American pundits have been basing their predictions for the 2012 presidential election on small shifts in the unemployment rate, it is likely that the SNP will find its chances subject to a similar economic dependency. For them, improvement, particularly in the broader British economy, means defeat. One can look from the small-scale social phenomena – the rise and fall in the popularity of farmer’s markets over the course of economic downturns, for example – to the large-scale, like the upswing in separatist movements during the economic troubles of the early 1970s and their decline toward the end of the decade, and see that the appeal of decentralization rarely lasts. Appetizing in a sense of “the grass is always greener,” such movements typically become far less so in sunnier economic times, when the merits of tried-and-true economic and political ties become clearer. The SNP must understand that the force that drove it into power – the idea that Scotland can do better on its own – will not propel it forever.
The SNP also must reflect back on the events of the 1979 referendum, in particular the fracturing of the nationalist camp under the pressures of a long and fierce fight, and consider the risk their actions pose both to themselves and to the process as a whole. A two-and-a-half-year delay gives ample opportunity for political forces to cloud and complicate a potentially transparent process; to foster an excess of bitterness and resentment where it is not necessarily due. The factions in this debate are already relatively fragile. One side is manned by the SNP and a large chunk of the Scottish electorate, strong-willed and committed to a fight, but dominated by polarizing personalities that could spell the downfall of political cohesion. On the other side stands a hodge-podge of allies, some relatively unlikely and others not – the business community, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, and even nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland who fear an English-dominated Parliament at Westminster should the Scottish ministers depart. This referendum process was never going to be pretty – Salmond has already been labeled “the bandit” to Cameron’s “the bully” by politicians and media alike – but when such a conflict is protracted, unruliness has the potential to collapse the democratic process.
The sad reality is that the SNP knows that a destructive fight is the kind it has the best chance of winning. In its mission to field more “yes” votes, it must hope for a sense of growing antagonism toward England, a sense of disillusionment with the British government, and a lack of hope in economic unity. As Salmond has made clear in his stalwart defense of the proposed voting schedule, these factors trump the risks that are brought on by the delay, whether these risks are to the cohesion of the nationalist faction itself or to the welfare of Britons as a whole. Such narrow-mindedness is also fueled by the high-stakes game into which this process is shaping for the power players involved. Should Salmond lose, his political career is surely finished. Cameron risks becoming the Prime Minister that lost Scotland and, as is very likely should the Scots depart, the rest of the United Kingdom. From the top down, separatists and unionists will be laying into this battle with all of their might. And until 2014, we’re certain to see backroom deals and partisan sniping as this slew of highly charged factions and individual characters squabble in uniquely British fashion.
In all likelihood, everyone will lose in those two and a half years. The SNP’s measure will meet the same end as if it had been held today, and Britain will suffer a long and unnecessary fight. But we can be even more certain that the clear will of the Scottish people – to receive greater autonomy and say over Scotland’s own affairs – will be repressed for another three years, if not more. The question that was announced in late January to such fanfare, “Do you believe that Scotland should be an independent country?” is not likely the one that will bring about that result. For now, the people of the United Kingdom – Scots, English, Welsh, and Northern Irish alike – must weather this particular political storm, and amid the intrigue and ambition of their leaders, keep calm and carry on.