x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Scots look to Norway when they are thinking about England

Scots will decide in September whether to remain united with England and Wales. In thinking about that, many will cast a glance across to Norway, writes Michael Simkins.

For centuries, the relationship between the English and the Scots has been one of mutual trust and understanding. They don’t trust us, and we don’t understand them. Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, there is still so much about our nearest neighbours that continues to baffle us – their fondness for haggis, their love of the bagpipes, and above all, their impenetrable dialect.

At least the suspicion is mutual. For north of the border, the suspicion remains that the union with the “Sassenach” (as we’re disparagingly known) has been a one-way affair. This view has only hardened in recent decades since the discovery of oil and gas in huge quantities off the Scottish coast, with many Scotsmen arguing they’ve seen little of the economic riches that have flowed from their own seabed.

Well, in a few months time they will have their chance to take control of their own destiny, when a referendum is held among the Scottish people on whether to gain full independence. The result of the poll, which takes place on September 18, is certain to have profound economic implications for both countries.

In Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and the country’s current first minister, the secessionists have a worthy champion. Wily, combative and with a personality as robust and rugged as the shores of the country he longs to govern, he has single-handedly transformed the SNP in his own image. Now, at last, he is on the brink of acquiring the prize he has struggled his entire political life to gain: genuine autonomy for his countrymen.

Just how worried the politicians down in Westminster are about Mr Salmond’s powers of persuasion was illustrated this week when the prime minister, David Cameron, hurried up to Scotland, bringing his entire cabinet along with him. Indeed, by delicious coincidence, both the government front bench and the leading figures in the SNP found themselves arguing their respective causes in oil-rich Aberdeenshire on the same day.

Mr Cameron, never one to miss a photo opportunity, chose a North Sea oil rig, the ultimate symbol of Scottish power and wealth, on which to argue his case. Standing on a platform above mountainous seas and buffeted by wind and rain, he argued that Britain’s large consumer and tax base would support this crucial industry’s infrastructure and investment far better than a newly-independent Scotland ever could.

But his nemesis, Mr Salmond, is no fool. Not for him the hard hat and the windswept sound bite. Instead, a leather chair, a book-lined room and an expression of quiet authority. He knows that his job is simply to convince his countryman that they need not be afraid of their destiny, and that should they choose to, he is ready to take command.

Thus when asked to respond to Mr Cameron’s doom-mongering about the likely economic consequences of any split, he responded with little more than an air of detached amusement. As for the suggestion that an independent Scotland would be insufficiently skilled to manage its oil and gas industry by itself, he merely gestured over his shoulder in the direction of Norway, a nation with even fewer citizens than Scotland, yet one that has benefited massively by managing both its own natural reserves and its own affairs.

As he contemplates polling day in September, Mr Cameron will be staking all on the hope that the Scots will ultimately shrink from taking the plunge and instead elect to stay as part of the United Kingdom. But with Mr Salmond in full sail and the “Yes” campaign gathering momentum with each passing week, it’s a brave pundit who will predict the result.

And yet, the ultimate irony is that for many Englishmen – at least for those outside the Houses of Parliament – the result of the referendum is of little concern. You’d certainly be hard-pressed to find any Londoner on the street who has especially strong views one way or another.

Indeed, our celebrated indifference to the nationalistic fervour of our near-neighbours is best summed up by the story of the Englishman, the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Welshman who are all taken captive by a group of armed terrorists.

“Do you have a last request before we kill you?” asks the group’s leader. The Irishman requests a celidh band playing the traditional lament of “Danny Boy”. The Welshman plumps for a male voice choir singing “Cwm Rhondda”, while the Scotsman requests a skirl of bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”.

“And what about you?” asks the captor, turning at last to the Englishman. “Do you have any last request?”

“Yes,” he replies, “shoot me first.”

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London