As a Scottish person recently removed to the wettest part of the American Pacific Northwest, I had occasion a few weeks ago to attend a party in downtown Seattle. After it had been established to a small group around me that I wasn’t Irish (seriously, I’m not Irish), someone took a moment to ask me how I felt about that fact that Scotland, via a referendum, could potentially no longer be a part of the United Kingdom as of September this year. I was a little taken aback; how had this new friend, this young American tech worker, found out about a political schism 5,000 miles removed from his nice kitchen and stylish buckets of gin? More importantly, why did he care?
The question struck me as curious because, well, Scotland’s small. Really small. We’ve got about 5 million people spread across an area less than half the size of Florida, most of which is mountains, slightly smaller mountains, and flat land that’s not good for much apart from railway lines and potatoes. Our history is rich and full of accolades – our ancestors were responsible for the Enlightenment, modern chemistry, road surfacing, ATMs, your PIN number, a big thwack of modern economics, the discovery of penicillin, probably the telephone, and so on and so forth – but in modern times, we’re not really exporting much apart from wind turbines (we’re The Windiest Place in Europe ™), a bit of crude oil, our usual quota of English-speaking rock/pop acts, and some kilt-based cultural fetishism. Oh, and whiskey. Lots of whiskey.
This in mind, I asked my new friend why he was at all interested in the independence debate. He found my question amusing. “Well, it’s a big deal, right? I mean, Scotland could leave the United Kingdom. What’s going on over there?”
I sipped my drink. Yes, big deal. Definitely a big deal. A massively terrifying ages-old deal, a deal which could see Scotland tear itself from a political union that has served it well for centuries. Scotland could go from being an established part of a global power to being an independent state whose only land border would touch a country Scotland might explicitly say it wants nothing to do with. Thinking on the subject and drinking at the same time suddenly didn’t seem like such a grand idea.
Full disclosure: I am a staunch pro-Unionist. I believe fully in the qualities of the United Kingdom as being greater than the sum of its parts, and I love Scotland deeply. I was raised and educated there; because of personal circumstance, the state paid for my food when I was a kid and then for my rent when I was a university student. The people around me taught me to be gregarious, to laugh at things that hurt, and to be aggressive towards things that continue to hurt once they’ve stopped being funny. I am an enormous fan of the freedom of movement given to me by my British passport, especially combined with an accent that people in foreign bars associate more with whiskey than with imperialism, Downton Abbey, and Tony Blair.
I am both Scottish and British. I was born into the best of both worlds, with the freedom to switch between them as I choose. Who would threaten that? Why? Like my new friend wanted to know, what the hell is going on?
The answer to that is, by necessity, a pretty long thing. It starts centuries ago and continues right through today. It will bleed into tomorrow, and the day after, and every day after that across all of Scotland’s hundreds of villages and towns and its six cities (six!), even after the September referendum is long behind us. I’ll have to ask you to bear with me. I’m going to assume you’re as politely interested in this as my new friend and his enormous stash of gin were, though the answer he got at the party in downtown Seattle was so crippled by that same stash that I’m pretty sure the only information he got from me was that Thatcher was kind of bad and my passport has a cool letter from the Queen on the front page. I’ll try to do better for you.
A convenient starting point for an answer to the question of why Scotland is expressing an interest in secession is the year 1707, when a selection of landed gentry from all across Scotland signed a controversial agreement, The Act of Union, with England. The Act set up a full political union between the two countries, meaning that the English parliament basically ate the Scottish one in exchange for Scotland getting representation in London. Since the two were already being ruled by the same monarch, nothing changed in the royalty department.
The centuries leading up to this agreement are best described as being, well, a complete clusterfuck. There were skirmishes, involvements with France, beheadings, more fights, make-ups and break-ups, songs, poems, yet more fights, royal intrigue, the whole kit and caboodle. Mel Gibson got famous for mauling the history of a bit of it with his movie Braveheart, which is notable only because its treatment of accents is almost worse than its treatment of history.
What finally settled the matter was that Scotland bankrupted itself in the late 1600s by putting all of its money into one brave attempt at imperialism in the Isthmus of Panama. In short, more than 2,000 Scottish settlers lost their lives to disease, alcohol, and angry Spaniards over the course of 1698 and 1699, leading to the permanent abandonment of Scotland’s dreams of empire.
This disaster left Scotland so skint (a Scottish word for broke – it’s all yours) that the parliament was willing to listen when England offered to bail them out in exchange for a full political union, leading to an eventual treaty being signed in 1707. The decision wasn’t popular in Scotland, where regular, non-landowning citizens saw no reason why we should roll over and be subsumed by the Auld Enemy. Our most famous poet, Robert Burns, commemorated the event and the general reaction to it thusly: “We’re bought and sold for English gold! Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.” Whoops.
The enactment of the Treaty of the Act of Union set up a decidedly unfair situation that went unremedied for almost 300 years. By stripping Scotland of its parliament and combining it with the English one, the Act set the stage for a situation where the parliament that was supposed to represent everybody – the one in Westminster – was so overpopulated with English representatives that Scotland had a genuinely difficult time getting its voice heard. It wasn’t because of foul play or anything; it’s just that England has usually had somewhere in the region of ten times as many people as Scotland, every one of them entitled to representation in Westminster. As of the last census, England had 53 million inhabitants compared to Scotland’s 5.2 million; as a point of reference, London alone had 3 million more citizens than all of Scotland combined.
This huge disparity was what really lit the fire under the modern independence movement’s rear, so to speak. Throughout the 20th century, activists identifying themselves as Scottish Nationalists started making noises about how unfair the whole ten-to-one parliament situation was. By the 1980’s, the political differences between Scotland and England were becoming too massive for anyone to ignore. Margaret Thatcher’s policies regarding heavy industry went a long way to ensuring that Scotland will never again vote for the Conservative Party.
On her mission to drag Britain into the future, Thatcher wound up destroying so much of Scotland’s economy that it is yet to recover fully. A big part of the reason I’m in the US at all has to do with the way that Scotland’s economy has never properly stopped pretending that we’re still living in 1986. Ask anyone in my generation in Scotland about Thatcher or the Tories (another name for the Conservatives) and you’ll see their eyes twitch about while they remember the stories their parents told them regarding strikes, riots, endemic unemployment, and a whole host of other unpleasant events. It was a thoroughly messy time.
The schisms of the 80’s led the Scottish Nationalist movement to split itself in two, with one side still gunning for full independence while another group, mostly aligned with Labour (our left-ish party), set their sights on the more realistic goal of securing for Scotland a parliament that would exclusively handle local matters relevant to the people of Scotland.
In 1999, under the leadership of a man named Donald Dewar, this set of campaigners achieved their goal. Under the terms of the Scotland Act, a parliament was established in Edinburgh that would govern Scotland’s affairs directly. The Scottish Parliament, unbearably ugly as it is, has handled all of Scotland’s policy regarding healthcare, education, religion, policing, and a whole host of other matters since then. Victory! While foreign policy (for the most part), taxation, matters of military and economy remain centralized in London, Scotland has direct control over the aspects of its existence deemed to have the biggest local impact on its citizens.
However, the set of Nationalists devoted to full independence didn’t quieten down with the establishment of the parliament. The party that houses most of them – the Scottish National Party (SNP) – has done nothing but grow in Scotland, doing admirable things like supporting the majority of the population in opposing the Iraq War, and fighting for Scottish people’s rights to free university tuition, free prescriptions and retirement care, and other sexy things like free bus passes for retirees (people in England have to pay for the first three of those things).
With this platform behind them, the SNP stormed to a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections 2011. Under the leadership of Alex Salmond and Nichola Sturgeon, the SNP’s army of moon-faced assassins of joy succeeded shortly after their election in getting the British government to agree to a referendum in September 2014, when all eligible Scottish voters (apart from people like me, because we have Abandoned the Motherland, as well as soldiers serving overseas or elsewhere in the UK, who are apparently guilty of the same crime) will be asked directly whether or not they wish for their country to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The main drive behind this continued nationalism is the fact that Scotland and England continue to think differently on a few subjects. England likes Coke, votes for the Conservatives, and tolerates the UK Independence Party, which has members that think flooding is a Biblical punishment for bringing the scourge of marriage to bear upon same-sex couples, while Scotland drinks Irn-Bru, hates both of the aforementioned parties and tends to be more left-leaning in general. Scotland also recently became the 17th country on planet Earth to fully legalize same-sex marriage. On everything other than soda and politics, however, we’re pretty much on the same page (apart from football, but let’s not get into that).
Centuries and centuries of war, diplomacy, skirmishing and co-operation, and here we are, basically the same country but asked to choose once and for all where our true allegiance lies. Scotland, able at last to reclaim what was sold all those years ago to England, able at last to assert its miniscule self on the world stage, strong-voiced and undiluted by opinions from any other corner of the small island it calls home.
Or at least that would be the case if nothing had changed in the three centuries that stand between us and 1707. Back then, monarchy aside, the two countries were kind of distinct, in a practical sense. It might have been achievable, sure. But now? We’re talking about a union that pre-dates the existence of the United States. Things have changed. Untangling Scotland and England now would be like trying to un-weave a kilt using nothing but toothpicks and optimism, with the kilt in question being a useful, attractive thing that benefits the existence of its owners.
The laundry list of things the SNP has been unable (or unwilling) to explain about what the basic components of an independent Scotland would look like is huge. It includes, for example, what will happen to our membership of the European Union, our currency, our armed services, our membership of NATO, our economy, and our oil. The number of questions remaining unanswered so close to the date of the referendum itself is indicative of how overwhelmingly impractical the entire escapade is. The fact that businesspeople, lawyers, academics and the general population of Scotland think it’s a bad idea is an even more resounding reason not to vote ourselves out of a good deal and off into the tartan-stained future envisioned by the SNP.
Also, David Bowie wants Scotland to stay in the Union, and he’s, like, David Bowie.
So, dear new American friend and your dear, dear buckets of gin: My best explanation for what’s going on with the independence thing boils down to the fact that some people in Scotland don’t want to be represented in Westminster by a party they would never vote for, which is a fair statement. If you ask me if it’s a statement worth wrecking a country for, whether it’s worth throwing Scotland into a situation where the basics of what make it a country will be decided by a group of people who can’t even tell us what the currency would be in this new, more free Scotland, my answer is a really, really loud no. If the SNP could answer any of my questions sufficiently, maybe I’d think about it. As it stands, however, I’m on the team that has the BBC and the British Army in it.
I hope this answer has been satisfactory. If I was actually better at explaining this with gin and you’ve still got buckets on hand, please call me. I can help with your gin issue and answer any further questions you may have, especially if they relate to David Bowie.