Since this is an election year – albeit, the mid-term elections in the United States – I thought of another election that is taking place today, of which you may or may not be aware.
The voting will take place in a country that is about the size of South Carolina, with a population of roughly 5.3 million people. The country is Scotland and today, September 18, 2014, Scots will go to the polls to vote on the future of their country.
It is a vote that could end Scotland’s 307-year union with England and Wales as Great Britain – and see Scotland launch into the world as an independent nation.
Scotland – the land of pipers piping Scotland the Brave; the land of Saint Andrew, its patron saint;
Scotland – the home of such heroic figures as Macbeth, William Wallace, Robert, the Bruce, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Black Angus, Flora Macdonald, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Rob Roy;
Scotland – the birthplace of Auld Lang Syne, written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is a song about the importance of remembering old friendships: “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! /And give me a hand o’ thine! / And we’ll take a right good-will draught, / For auld lang syne.” It might seem silly to reduce a decision about the future of a nation to a few lines of a sentimental song sung drunkenly and mostly off-key at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but friendship is a precious thing;
Scotland – the land that has given us the Scottish geniuses of Adam Smith, David Hume, James Watt, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Braid, Kenneth Graham, Sir Walter Scott, Muriel Spark, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexander Graham Bell;
Scotland – the place that produced the invention of classical economics, a proud tradition of banking, color photography, the flushing toilet, golf, hypnotism, penicillin and the television set;
Scotland – the land of colorful tartans, of a dram of Highland Dew (“Whisky,” the preferred spelling by the Scots), of skirling bagpipes, of the Edinburgh Tattoo, of the heather on the hill, and of a reputation for being thrifty;
Scotland – the home of both “Nessie,” who resides in Lock Ness and of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious golf clubs in the world and regarded as the worldwide “Home of Golf.”
Scotland – the inspiration for the Lerner and Loewe 1950’s Broadway and movie musical, Brigadoon, about the fog-borne village that appears only once every 100 years and any visitor not wishing to stay for a few centuries of sleep must find true love therein. The story worked its magic on screen for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, playing lovers who finally were carried away in the legend.
Scotland – the location of Balmoral Castle, the summer retreat of Queen Elizabeth II, where she intends to spend the scheduled day of voting. Now there is a vote of confidence in her subjects! The Queen, who is half-Scottish herself (her mother was a Scot) and who remains above the political fray as a constitutional monarch, speaking after the Sunday morning service at Crathie Kirk, told a well-wisher: “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” (Read vote “No”);
Scotland – the place of breathtaking beauty and of the coarsest of histories; a land where the oppressions and wild victories of a rich but bloody past seem burned into its moors and mountains and bonnie banks and in the blood of its people.
Scotland – where emotions naturally run high on both sides of the independence debate.
On September 18 – today – Scots go to the polls to vote on the future of their country. When campaigning began, the idea of independence seemed a far-fetched prospect. But the most recent polls suggest that what many Britons considered unthinkable could happen – and the United Kingdom as we know it could be torn apart forever.
Why is this happening now?
Scotland has long had a testy relationship with England, its neighbor to the South. The Act of Union in 1707 joined the kingdom of Scotland with England and Wales, but many Scots were unhappy at being yoked to their longtime rival south of the border.
Since 1999, Scotland has had a devolved government, meaning many, but not all, decisions are made at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. In May 2011, the nationalist Scottish National Party, which had campaigned on a promise to hold an independence referendum, surprised many by winning an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.
In October 2012, the United Kingdom and Scottish governments agreed that the referendum would be held, and the question to be put to voters was agreed on early last year.
One of the driving forces for the vote was the widening gulf between the policies pursued by the coalition government in Westminster, led by the Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron since 2010, and what the Scottish people want. Many Scots are strongly opposed to the current Westminster government’s attempts to reform – or in their eyes dismantle – the welfare state.
As the empire vanished and industry declined, so the economic outlook of Scotland and England began to diverge. A turning point in the relationship was the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 – a right-wing leader who may have helped raise living standards in Scotland, but whose faith in free markets became increasingly at odds with the Scottish preference for a well-financed public sector.
Scotland could have rallied to the left-wing Labor Party, but Labor, too, moved drastically to the right and left many of its working-class constituents behind.
Many Scots turned toward independence as an alternative way of ordering their affairs (while many in England drifted toward the conservative United Kingdom Independence Party). Hence, much of the campaign for independence has centered not around nationalist themes, but around economic ones instead.
Supporters of independence imagine that if freed from the more right-wing English, they would be able to spend more and invest in public services. In fact, the opposite is true. Such is the likely size of an independent Scotland’s debt, and so uncertain is the future of its currency, that it would almost certainly have to raise taxes through the roof in order to keep government services at the same level – or else cut government services, not something many people would want.
Why is this vote significant to the rest of the world? As I see it, there are five major items that make this vote significant.
First, is the large question mark over Scotland’s financial future. Already, this uncertainty is having an impact on international business. Some voices in banking and insurance express worry that the breakup of the United Kingdom could undermine London’s standing as an international financial capital.
The British Pound hit a 10-month low against the United States Dollar recently as opinion polls swung in favor of voters who want to break away from the United Kingdom. Uncertainty over which currency an independent Scotland will use, and the impact of “a messy divorce” on the United Kingdom economy, is largely to blame. Independence campaigners want to continue to use the British Pound in a currency union with England, but United Kingdom lawmakers say they are not ready to share. And even if they were, the Bank of England would likely insist on tough budget rules that could mean painful austerity for Scotland. Another option would be to create a new, untested currency. The Euro, if an option at all, would be years away. Scotland’s massive financial industry seems ready to head for the hills if voters choose independence. The biggest names in banking and insurance, including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), say they would move headquarters and parts of their businesses to England if Scottish voters back a split. The financial sector employs 100,000 people in Scotland and generates roughly $11 billion for the economy each year, so this raises concerns about future job losses and lower tax revenues for an independent nation.
Second, is how the United Kingdom’s defense capability would be affected. The Scottish government says it wants to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland within four years of gaining independence – namely, the 58 United States Trident II D-5 missiles leased from Washington by the British government that are based near Glasgow at Faslane Naval Base on the River Clyde. The Scottish government says, “It is our firm position that an independent Scotland should not host nuclear weapons and we would only join NATO on that basis.” That position could force London to relocate the weapons to alternative bases in England or return the weapons to the United States, costing billions of dollars and leaving NATO without a European nuclear deterrent precisely at a time of heightened security concern.
Third, is the fact that if Scotland votes for independence, it would have to renegotiate its entry to both NATO and the European Union. Independence campaigners want Scotland to remain in the European Union, but an independent Scotland would most likely be treated as a new state and therefore would have to apply for membership. That process could take years and all twenty-eight members would have to approve the application – something some may be reluctant to do for fear of encouraging their own separatist movements. For instance, the debate is being closely watched by independence movements in Spain’s Catalonia province, Canada’s Quebec province and France’s Mediterranean island of Corsica.
Fourth, is the decision of the United Kingdom’s government to honor all its debts if there is a split. This decision was an early move to reassure markets. However, under this scenario, an independent Scotland would owe Britain as much as £130 billion – or roughly 10% of total United Kingdom public debt. Supporters of independence say they are ready to pay, and are confident Scotland could manage its debts with greater ease once independence is established. However, Standard & Poor’s cautions that Scotland’s economy – which would be similar in size to Portugal – would be less resilient to shocks because of its greater dependence on volatile earnings from the oil and gas industry.
Fifth, is the reality that the United Kingdom is the largest oil producer in the European Union and about 90% of its oil comes from areas that are likely to be claimed by an independent Scotland. The United Kingdom is also likely to want a share of current production and reserves, but most analysts expect an agreement could be reached on divvying up the assets. There are deeper divisions, however, over how much the remaining oil is worth – a calculation of much greater significance to the future of the Scottish economy. Independence campaigners estimate Scotland’s remaining oil is worth about £1.5 trillion. The United Kingdom government says it is less than one-tenth of that figure.
Today’s vote presents these challenging factors for a tough people in a harsh land. The vote is too close to call, so which way will it go?
I must admit to feeling conflicted about the whole thing. The pipes and massed bands of the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo will ever stir my blood with a rousing Scotland, the Brave, and Over the Sea to Skye. A tear will always come to my eye when I hear Auld Lang Syne. As an American, I feel that people ought to have a right of self-determination, but in this particular case, I am not quite certain of the logic for independence, though I can well understand the emotion. One thing is certain, however. No matter what happens, Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom will change forever.
In the 1995 film, Braveheart, Scottish patriot and national hero William Wallace (portrayed by Mel Gibson) shouts Alba gu bràth, usually translated “Scotland Forever!” as he gallops across the front of his assembled Scottish troops just prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Scotland Forever! Yes. But my hope is that after today’s vote, Britain’s Union Jack will continue to carry Scotland’s Saint Andrew’s Cross countercharged with the crosses of Saint Patrick and Saint George.