x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Scottish independence movement gains momentum

As the diamond jubilee bunting is packed away, talk returns in the United Kingdom to the thorny issue of Scotland's vote on leaving the union.

The lavishly finished Scottish Parliament building, complete with its distinctive "think pods", will be the seat of government should the nation vote in favour of leaving the union in 2014. Ed Jones / AFP
The lavishly finished Scottish Parliament building, complete with its distinctive "think pods", will be the seat of government should the nation vote in favour of leaving the union in 2014. Ed Jones / AFP

A land that has always jealously guarded its national identity, Scotland has long made threatening noises about going it alone. Some thought the introduction of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 would "kill" nationalism stone dead. In fact, it has served only to deliver a popular Scottish National Party (SNP) government, which, after winning a majority in the 2011 elections, has signalled its intention to hold a referendum on independence in 2014.

Across all four of the United Kingdom's constituent countries, talk of Scotland leaving the union has made constitutional debate almost fashionable.

In England, the idea of a devolved English Parliament has gained traction with many disgruntled natives; in Wales, where patriotic fervour is high, but the notion of leaving the UK largely unthinkable, concerns are growing about the political gulf that may develop between them and their larger English neighbour if Scotland departs the union; and in Northern Ireland, where links between the Protestant majority and Scotland run deep, the potential effects of a yes vote in Scotland are the subject of much conjecture. But it is in Scotland itself where the debate is really gaining momentum.

"Whether you're for or against Scottish independence, many agree that this decision will be the biggest that [the country] has had to consider for centuries," says Ewan Crawford, former private secretary to one-time SNP leader John Swinney. "If you look at the Quebec (Canadian province) independence referendum in 1995 - the turnout there was in excess of 90 per cent. So, I think that when it's Scotland's time, [the majority of people] will take part."

That Scotland is facing a referendum at all and staring - with delight or horror - at the very real prospect of leaving a union that once literally ruled the waves, is down to the rise of the SNP and their leader Alex Salmond, the country's first minister, who is recognised as one of the most formidable politicians in the history of Scottish politics.

Established in 1934, the SNP, which returned a record 11 MPs to London's Westminster in 1974 but was nearly wiped out in the general election five years later (they currently have six MPs sitting in London), found their groove in the new Scottish Parliament where, to quote Gerry Hassan in The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, they eventually "moved from being a marginal force often ridiculed, patronised and caricatured by opponents, to a force which is both respected and feared."

"It took the SNP a long time to make a breakthrough," says David Torrance, author of the Alex Salmond biography, Salmond: Against the Odds, of the party's dramatic rise, which began five years ago when they secured their first parliamentary victory. "Right up until 2007, there seemed to be a ceiling on their support. The crucial thing they did was to separate out independence from the SNP - and they did that through the device of a referendum."

So, just what kind of independence - currently supported by around 40 per cent of Scotland's voting public - is the SNP offering a country of 5.2 million?

"The stress from the SNP is constantly on making the prospect of independence [appear] less scary," says Torrance. "But that means for anyone who's been paying attention to the detail that independence doesn't amount to very much - or at least not as much as it used to.

"I tried to think the other day of what Scottish independence as defined by the SNP would actually entail - and all I could come up with was the lowering of corporation tax, which they can't do just now under the existing settlement, and the removal of nuclear weapons, which would take an awful long time anyway."

For others, the SNP's idea of a post-independent Scotland is almost pitch-perfect. Crawford believes that the nationalists, who secured 69 seats in the Scottish Parliament in the 2011 elections (to Labour's 37), are one step ahead of the game.

"Certainly by opponents of independence, it suits them for this debate to be polarised," says Crawford, who now works as a journalism lecturer.

"That is, to caricature independence as 'isolation' and 'separation', but very few nations do not share sovereignty in some regard. The SNP is just a little ahead of the opponents here in recognising the reality of what independence actually means. Sharing a currency [with Britain] is not an unusual thing to do, and neither is sharing a head-of-state, like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and so on. What independence will do, among other things, is give Scotland control of macro-economic policy, full taxation - the opportunity, as the SNP would see it, to create a better and more prosperous society."

The SNP's policy of retaining the monarchy in an independent Scotland has, of course, been brought sharply into focus by this week's celebration of the Queen's diamond jubilee. A recent YouGov poll found that only 41 per cent of Scots said the queen made them feel proud to be Scottish as opposed to 80 per cent for the English.

While such statistics demonstrate little more than a general apathy towards the queen in Scotland, many analysts say that the SNP's own departure from its republican-heavy days of 30 years ago to a more monarchy-friendly model is based on its wish to control the centre ground of Scottish politics and derived from Salmond's own personal affection for the ruling monarch, who has entertained the first minister and his wife at her private Scottish residence of Balmoral on several occasions. As such, says Crawford, it is a policy that is unlikely to hinder the SNP's independence aspirations.

"The current monarch is just as much queen of Scotland as she is queen of England, so it's not a case of her being an English monarch - because she isn't. There will be people who do believe in a Scottish republic and those who believe in retaining the queen as head of state. But most SNP members - although some will feel strongly about it - don't see this as a huge issue and certainly there are very, very few people in the SNP or who are believers of Scottish independence who think we need to be independent so we can get rid of the monarchy."

That said, Torrance contends that Salmond overdoes his monarchist views, even for his most loyal of followers. "I think he probably respects the queen and thinks that a constitutional monarchy isn't a bad system but he overcompensates," says Torrance of the SNP leader, who quietly dropped a 1997 SNP resolution to hold a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy following Scotland's secession from the UK. "So determined is he to kill the impression that he's a republican or anything like that, that he makes up for it by being a gushing lover of the queen."

With a largely hostile media and the full might of the British establishment to contend with, the SNP are taking on the independence debate with a simple strategy that Mandy Rhodes, editor of Holyrood, a Scottish current affairs magazine, may have ridiculed as the "Stepford Wives" approach to politics, but which the party credits in large part for their past electoral breakthroughs.

"The SNP have done well at Scottish elections because in the last two they were extremely positive and simply didn't talk about their opponents that much," says Crawford.

"But they cannot afford to get dragged into a shouting match. So, I think we'll see the SNP relentlessly campaigning on a positive agenda for no other reason than they think it's good politics."

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.