On the 18th of September this year, Scotland will decide how to define itself as it moves forward through history. One defining feature of Scotland’s past has been its relationship with England and the greater United Kingdom. Since 1707 and the ensuing Acts of Union, the governments of England and Scotland have been joined as one under the United Kingdom. However, despite the past 300 years of relative stability, there have been a number of serious conflicts between the two powers.
After Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, James VI, a Scottish king, took the throne. Until then, Scotland and England were two sovereign states. But when James inherited the throne of England, the two countries were united under one monarch, although they still had independent legislatures. After the death of James and a period of bloody civil war, Scotland experienced a period of economic stagnation which led to the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707. But the English civil war had significant long term repercussions that ultimately led to England taking away important pieces of Scottish political power and autonomy in Parliament. Until the late 19th century, Scotland functioned as an almost secondary portion of the United Kingdom. After World War II, many Scots, led by Hugh MacDiarmid, began to express more interest in the idea of Scottish nationalism. As the 20th century neared its end, the discussion of potential Scottish independence came to the forefront, and with Tony Blair’s rise to power in 1997, Scotland voted to have an independent legislature with its own tax-raising powers. In 2011, the Scottish National Party gained a majority, and as it stands today the people of Scotland are preparing to decide how (and if) they want to more fully split with the United Kingdom.
Although there has been widespread interest in Scottish independence over the last fifty years, it is by no means all Scots who desire to separate from the United Kingdom. The UK provides a great deal of political and economic stability for Scotland. The Bank of England backs all of the currency that runs through Scotland (and through the United Kingdom as a whole) and has established a known and trusted credit history with international trade partners around the world. In addition, there remains the question of whether most Scots truly feel alienated from a British identity: a recent YouGov poll suggests that, excluding undecided voters, the “No” vote (to the referendum-question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”) maintains a 14-point lead with 57% of votes on opinion polls; a BBC tracker for opinion polls confirms this (a YouGov update on the 15th of August shows 51% for the “No” vote, 38% for the “Yes” vote and 11% undecided) and also suggests that the “No” vote has maintained a clear majority for the whole of the past year. Opinion polls only tell us so much, of course, and the tracker does show increasing support for the “Yes” vote over that same period; a general consensus long-held amongst major commentators seems to be that the result of the election will come down to the “Undecided” camp.
Still, there is something to be said for independence and autonomy. Even if the first years might be rocky, the ability to exercise complete authority within any given realm is an attractive notion for any country or culture. That is the nature of sovereignty: true power, not only realized but also widely accepted. When a country has sovereignty over a region, it not only holds military, economic, and political control, but also its own people and people around the world recognize that it is the ultimate power within that region. This is particularly important in an age where each country has a vote in the United Nations General Assembly. Should Scotland choose to become independent, it would immediately have a greater say in the workings of the UN and would by extension have more power in the world.
In Scotland’s coming referendum, the country will vote on whether or not it will become an independent nation. Becoming an independent nation means a number of things: it means that Scotland would have a seat in the United Nations, it would have control of its own military and taxes, and it would have all the trappings of an independent state. The one aspect that has provided the biggest snag for Scottish independence has been economic. Until now, Scotland’s finances have been backed by the Bank of England. Not only does this provide a steady form of currency, it also makes handling Scotland’s debts a whole lot easier. Currently, as part of the United Kingdom, Scotland holds a portion of the responsibility for paying off UK debts. But if Scotland were to break off and become its own independent country, it would have to shoulder, on its own, a bigger share of the UK’s significant debt (although certain implications have been made by members of the SNP that Scotland would simply default on any UK debts – statements that have been dismissed by UK politicians as “extraordinary”). This increased economic responsibility would leave the fledgling country with an enormous national debt.
There has also been much debate about the currency of an independent Scotland, with the SNP confidently asserting that Scotland would keep the Pound Sterling even if Britain rejects any proposal to do so, while British economists have rejected the viability of this happening. Professor Ronald MacDonald, a currency expert and professor of political economy at the University of Glasgow, for example, has asserted that using the pound would be unsustainable, although he also added that “if an independent Scotland had a separate [new] currency then I’m sure in the longer term it could survive and prosper.”
There are also issues related to the economics of the United Kingdom’s shared resources: Lord Birt, a former director-general of the BBC, noted recently that an independent Scotland would lose automatic access to the BBC’s TV and radio services, and the corporation itself would also have to face cuts. There have also been questions raised about the future of Scottish higher education, with the costs of highly-regarded institutions like the University of Edinburgh and St. Andrews (currently free to Scottish students) likely to be affected by the changing dynamics of economic independence. Such changes will surely permeate into all current public-sector institutions, and similar questions have been asked about the future of the National Health Service and the postal service in Scotland.
But putting aside the economics issue, where does a Scottish desire to be independent come from? It might be argued that this desire stems from an instinctual urge that every culture has: the urge to see oneself as self-defining, and in some ways, able to be self-sufficient. This urge stems not only from historical background but also from cultural context. Scotland has, in some sense, been struggling to define its identity since before the 14th century. In some ways, the mere struggle for independence has become part of the nation’s identity. For so long, the Scottish culture has effectively made compromises with its independence. At this point in Scotland’s history, to many it seems that Scottish culture cannot come into full fruition or maturity until it has a greater deal of independence. And although there are several other cultures within the framework of the United Kingdom, it is the long history of struggling that sets Scotland apart in this regard. A cultural explanation for the movement might be substantiated by views from the Scottish cultural scene: The Guardian collected a series of opinions from Scottish writers on the independence issue, and there seemed to be a general tendency towards the “Yes” vote – though there was also a general sense of ire about the lack of balance from either side in the media. On the other hand, an open letter with over 200 signatories from diverse cultural fields such as sports and music – including Rolling Stones vocalist Mick Jagger, Olympian swimmer Tom Daley and BAFTA-winning broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough – urged voters to stay within the union (although it can of course be pointed out that none of the above are actually Scottish).
Even though Scotland, under the UK, is currently in a relatively stable economic position, it may not be enough for such a unique culture attempting to legitimize its own way of life and historical position. Scotland has always tried to be its own culture and its own nation, and no economic connection will stem that sentiment. It is looking for its own sovereignty, but that means a lot more than simply controlling its own currency, military, or social systems. What Scottish sovereignty means is that the Scottish culture would be recognized worldwide as a way of life as legitimate, as sovereign, and as real as any other culture anywhere else in the world. It would effectively be the culmination of Scotland’s struggles for autonomy for the past five to seven centuries. All other factors aside, Scottish independence is a matter of culture, a matter of legitimacy and a matter of acceptance of power. But – and this is the central question of the referendum – does this acceptance or perceived acceptance of power depend on having a separate, independent government? Or can the Scottish people find a sense of identity while remaining within the union they’ve maintained for over three hundred years? The answer to that, perhaps, hinges on just how much the people of Scotland feel alienated from a British identity, and that – within the extent to which the referendums are an accurate representation of a people’s will – will be revealed on the 18th of September this year.
This article was written by Max Bork. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
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