Put this together on July 4, 2013—a little over a year before the independence referendum that ultimately ended in a 55-45 vote in favor of Scotland remaining in the UK. I’ll probably write something up in the coming days about what’s happened since as the rejection of Labour in favor of the SNP in Scotland at the same time that the Conservatives gained an outright majority in the UK in 2015 is a fascinating case study. Then the rise of Corbyn in Labour and the internal battles going on within the Tories are worthwhile stories in themselves. Here were my thoughts a few years ago.
As we partake in our annual celebration of American Independence today, a much-welcome reprieve of barbecue and good company in light of all of the recent scandals that have hit our nation, overseas there is a country that is one year away from deciding whether independence is right for them as well. And no, it is not some developing nation in Africa or the Middle East that will headline the news for a week before falling out of the media’s favor until its next revolution ensues. It is the country of Scotland: the great purveyor of whisky, haggis, a peculiar accent, and Braveheart. Having spent the last two years studying in Scotland, it is befitting on July 4th to consider whether secession from the United Kingdom is a viable option for Scotland 238 years after a bunch of rambunctious colonists decided to do the very same thing.
Surprisingly, the topic of Scottish Independence does not dominate political discussion in Scotland. In fact, at least in my experience, it is hardly discussed at all. And when it does come up, usually at the pub at about last call, it serves as an indication that the night’s topics of discussion have been exhausted. True, politics is a topic of discussion to generally avoid in casual social settings, and your thoughts on Scottish Independence is the last thing people want to hear on a Friday night after a week of coursework, but nevertheless the general apathy of my Scottish and English peers did astonish me.
For better or worse, the issue is just not that pertinent, at least not yet, to many Scots. For those that have a strong sense of Scottish nationalism, that pride will not change regardless of whether Scotland secedes from the rest of Britain. In St Andrews, where I study, the vast majority of the students come from wealthy backgrounds; for them, the prospect of Scottish Independence does not matter because their families will remain wealthy regardless of what happens in 2014. And when asked about the prospect of secession, most will err on the side of caution. After all, why change a system that your family has thrived under? And still a year away from voting on the referendum, similar to general interest in American elections, it is not yet time to care.
Nevertheless, the tiny town of St Andrews is not indicative of all of Scotland, and there are townships within Scotland that have a lot riding on the prospect of secession—such as the town of Elgin in northern Scotland in which 8% of the citizens are employed by nearby army bases. Under David Cameron’s policies of austerity, similar to the austere practices of the late Margaret Thatcher that were certainly unsympathetic to the interests of working-class Scots, the bases run the risk of closing down. But would an independent Scotland make any difference in terms of representing the interests of Scots better than the politicians based in London can? Well we won’t know the answer to this question unless Scotland votes yes to independence in 2014—but we most definitely can speculate.
For starters, in a recent survey, over 60% of Scots trust the Scottish government in relation to only 25% who trust the British government. To highlight this statistic, a 2012 provision known as the “bedroom tax” that includes an “under-occupancy penalty” which reduces the amount of benefit paid to welfare claimants if they are deemed to have too much living space in the property they are renting passed in the House of Parliament. Over 90% of Scottish MPs opposed the initiative, and in an independent Scotland the tax would have flopped.
In addition, an independent Scotland would be the 6th wealthiest nation per capita in the world. It boasts a strong education system, including world class universities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews that consistently rank among Britain’s and the world’s finest. Oh, and Scots also sit on an abundance of North Sea oil—£250 billions worth has funded programs in London since its discovery. In a sovereign Scotland, they would have rights to that oil, and experts say oil will not run out for several decades even at peak production. While Scotland does boast a strong education system at the university level, Scotland could use its oil production to fund strides in education and health care in some of its poorer, crime-stricken areas—such as large sections of Glasgow. Oil-rich Norway essentially did the same thing, and they are now the world’s most highly-developed country and consistently rank at the top in education, technological, and health studies.
And finally, Scots simply take pride in being pragmatic. Indeed, they can at times be a cynical, intimidating bunch, but that’s only because in most instances they know what they are talking about and they know that they are right. How does this correspond to what they would do politically? Well, chances are an independent Scotland’s defense budget would not be extortionate like it is today. An independent Scottish defense force would cost only $3.5 billion a year according to Professor Malcom Chalmers, a defense analyst at a London think tank, the Royal United Services Institute—$1.6 billion less than Scotland already contributes annually to the UK defense budget. By nature, Scots are not interventionists: the SNP opposed intervention in 1999 in Kosovo and in Iraq in 2003. And guess where that extra $1.6 billion would go? Towards jobs, education, and health. In cases like Elgin, an independent Scotland could either keep the bases as they understand Elgin’s livelihood depends on that outlet of employment, or, they could create other jobs in that area that help develop the infrastructure of a growing Scotland.
Additionally, as quoted by Tim Judah who writes for The Economist, “Beyond oil production, which has been declining since 1999, Scotland’s energy hopes lie in renewables: Research has shown that northeast Scotland is actually the windiest part of Europe. And indeed, driving north from the oil town of Aberdeen to Elgin, more and more wind turbines dot the landscape. In the future, Scotland could export clean energy and also water to thirsty regions like London and the southeast of England. With engineering companies which had previously focused on the oil sector moving into renewables, Scotland has the expertise and the wind, waves, and fresh water to make it a major producer of green energy in the years to come.” In short, an independent Scotland would take control of its own oil, its own renewable energy, its own education, its own health care system, and its own money. A money supply that, if managed properly, by all accounts should grow.
So why do recent pollings suggest that Scotland will not pass a referendum for independence in 2014? Well quite simply, as alluded to above, a general complacence. It’s easy to yearn for independence when things are going terribly, such as when the colonists in America were being taxed obscene amounts without representation within British Parliament. But currently, Scots have representation—albeit vastly outnumbered in Westminster by Englishmen. And things really aren’t that bad: as already mentioned, Scotland, at the moment, would be the 6th wealthiest country in the world and many Scots mistakenly believe that having the title of “Part of the United Kingdom” has allowed for this success. In actuality, Scotland is successful because it is home to diligent workers and Scots are quite intelligent—hopefully intelligent enough to realize in a year’s time that they have yet to reach their full potential.