‘The Debatable Lands of history’, wrote Norman MacCaig of the hills and valleys of the Scottish Borders, which signal the dividing point between the two historic nations of England and Scotland. Whilst the geographic boundary may no longer be in question, the debate over the constitutional boundaries within the United Kingdom is very much to the fore in both Edinburgh and London.
On gaining an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections – an impressive feat in a system which utilises proportional representation – the Scottish National Party (SNP), under First Minister Alex Salmond, pledged that there would be a referendum on Scotland’s future in the UK within four years. Since then, the ‘Scottish Question’ has taken on a renewed impetus, as politicians, journalists, civic groups, and the public have engaged in the debate over independence for Scotland.
Yet this debate is by no means a new one. Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom was a subject of discourse for much of the 20th century. ‘There will be a Scottish Parliament’, declared the late Donald Dewar, and in 1997 Scots were given the chance to decide for themselves in a referendum on the matter in which almost 75% of Scottish voters agreed with him. This was not the first time Scots were presented with a referendum on their future. A referendum was held in 1979, with a majority again in favour. However, the referendum had been subject to the “40% rule”, i.e., requiring 40% of the whole electorate to vote in favour rather than a simple majority.
The successful devolution referendum in 1997 was on the back of nearly twenty years of Conservative rule in Britain. During those years, the delegation of Conservative MPs crossing the Tweed to Westminster was uniformly minimal, prompting many to question the mandate held by Westminster over Scottish affairs. Margaret Thatcher’s governance, moreover, alienated many in Scotland. In 2012, there are only two Conservative MPs representing Scottish seats. David Cameron’s Conservative government finds little support north of the border. The conditions which fostered burgeoning support for devolution in the run-up to 1997 are being mirrored in the political climate in which the current debate exists, and Salmond is keenly aware of this.
David Cameron took an early foray into the debate, attempting to call Salmond’s bluff. “If Alex Salmond wants a referendum, why wait?”, Cameron told the Commons in January. This proved to be a costly error. The SNP Government hit back with claims of Westminster interference in Scottish democracy, a sentiment that many Scots found themselves agreeing with. In a matter of such historical importance for Scots, a Tory Prime Minister callously urging “get on with it” from London did little to help the unionist position in Scotland.
The debate has been further tipped in favour of independence by the manner in which it has been argued against. The argument to a large extent has thus far centred on why Scots can’t go it alone, rather than being built on a positive argument for the Union. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, partners in the coalition Westminster government, have been amongst those eager to stress some of the apparent gaps in the finer details of the independence plan, such as the armed forces, currency, and border control.
These details are undoubtedly important, yet such a focus is detrimental to their stance in that it fails to set the unionist position on any positive footing. Salmond has seized this opportunity to hold ownership over the language of positivity. He told a London audience in January that an independent Scotland would be a “progressive beacon of social democracy” based upon “universal values of fairness”. Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour party, has long understood that the best way for her party to garner support for the union is on those very values which Salmond espoused. Nevertheless, Labour have failed to effectively convey this.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, recently sought to rectify this in a visit to Scotland.
I support Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, not because I think Scotland is too poor or too weak to break away. But for a profoundly different reason: Because I believe that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom is better for the working people of Scotland, and better for the working people of the United Kingdom as a whole.
He cited the NHS and the history of British Labour as being a shared success, with the rallying cry: “let’s confront the real divide in Britain… between the haves and the have-nots.” A strong speech, but given his party’s failure to competently confront that very divide as Opposition in the Commons, its sentiment was all but lost.
Yet there is another aspect to the ‘Scottish Question’, away from the tit-for-tat politics of the debate. Miliband attempted to conjure a shared identity in his appeal to Scots, and both Cameron and Clegg respectively have reiterated those “common values”. Yet a uniqueness of culture and identity is something that we cannot ignore in the question over Scottish independence. This, it must be stressed, is something aside from nationality (the recent calls, for example, for expat Scots to be included in the referendum electorate was folly; an electorate should not be defined along ethnic lines). The Economist recently chided those in Scotland who seek independence as anti-English. Conversely, a fairer political relationship between the two countries could, as Salmond has argued, help cultural bonds between the two nations to prosper.
There are, undoubtedly, shared identities within the United Kingdom. Yet, since the end of the Second World War, there has been a growing sense of a re-defined Scottish identity in its own right. This expressed itself partly through the formation of the Scottish Parliament at the end of 20th century. The political and constitutional make-up was reconstructed to reflect the changed needs and wants of Scotland. The independence referendum, including the devo-plus and devo-max options (which involve a much greater transfer of power from Westminster to Edinburgh), offers the chance for this process to continue. The referendum will further empower Scots to re-define their cultural identity.
As the debate rages on, opinion polls fluctuate in levels of support for either side. When it boils down to it, there will be many Scots – in spite of the political to-and-fro, the arguments over the economy, and bickering over North Sea Oil – who find themselves having left the polling station having placed a cross in the “yes” box. Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 work, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, hinted as to why this will be the case:
I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
There is an element of this appeal which can only be described as a hedonistic leap of faith, allowing a break from MacDiarmid’s “cursed conceit of being right”. The ‘Scottish Question’ may yet find an answer.