Scottish nationalism passed through a romantic period in the Eighties and Nineties, which its leadership enjoyed but now wishes forgotten.
It was the Braveheart time – when Mel Gibson’s 1995 film, which made of a Scots-English war an extended essay in martyrdom of the heroic Scots by the brutal English, was adopted by both the Scottish National Party and a significant section of mainly youthful male Scots as their talisman.
Going for an interview at the party’s modest headquarters in Edinburgh in the late Nineties, I spoke to Alex Salmond
beside a large poster of Gibson in kilt and woad; Scots rugby teams would watch the film before playing, to fire the blood.
It was at the turn of the millennium that Unionists, or English living in Scotland, might have heard a faint rumble of the tumbrils. Of course, nothing like that ever happened – though there were tales of English-accented children in Scots schools being bullied, and there was a satisfying narrative of English oppression and a widely diffused view that the Scots were a more moral people than the English. This was not a revolution: the rhetoric was the efflux of a party which had long clung on to small victories amid general mockery, and which found, at last, that it was connecting.
Connecting meant it moved out of what had been a comfortable zone of speaking to the half-converted, and had to speak to an audience that had to be given something firmer than an Australian actor making a Hollywood pastiche of the career of William Wallace. When it did so, it discovered what John Curtice, the social scientist and psephologist based in Strathclyde University, has called the one third/one third/one third nation: with one third favouring independence, one third plumping for some form of greater devolution and one third in favour of the status quo.
The achievement of devolution and the creation of the Scots parliament in 1999 and the decade after that were, for the SNP, wonderful years in which Labour, whose government had ushered in devolution, did not reap more than fleeting political rewards.
In 2007, the Nationalists formed a minority administration in the Scots parliament, which they then converted into an absolute majority in 2011 – a victory that the PR system used in Scotland had seemed to render all but impossible. The party, and Salmond, have since been the moving force in the new, devolved parliament in Edinburgh; and more than any other party, they have put the question of the Union of the United Kingdom on the table for discussion.
At the same time, the party has very greatly modified its original programme. Once republican, it now embraces the Queen and her successors as the future head of state of Scotland. Once determined to break with the pound and adopt the euro, that currency’s crisis-ridden past two years have propelled them back to the pound and thus to the continuing suzerainty of the Bank of England. Once militantly pacifist, its annual conference in October voted to remain within NATO.
The obvious strategy has been to make independence seem something so close to devolution that a vote for it would seem a move at once patriotic and judicious. As Prince Tancredi says in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard about another small nation, Sicily, enfolded in a large state: ‘If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change.’ The SNP and Salmond, manouevring in a way that they can never have imagined they would, brilliantly sketched out a route for Scotland to remain the same while becoming something formally quite different. From the blood being roused in the Nineties, recent years have seen the stakes being lowered.
But the past year has been much harder for the party and its leader, now First Minister. Several discrete issues have contributed to the turbulence, primarily caused by the party’s determination to hold a referendum on independence, now timed for 2014.
In agreement with the UK government and at the latter’s insistence, the referendum will pose a simple choice, for or against independence – and not a third way, of ‘devo max’, meaning maximum devolution just short of independence. That has meant that what has been a demand couched, at different times, in terms of ethnic separateness, moral force or political difference now has to meet the reality of the independence demand: that it seeks to fundamentally alter a union which Scotland co-created.
A union willed by Scots as much as the English, with a 300-year history, has a thick political, economic, legal, social, cultural and emotional existence which cannot be routed by a Nationalist charge – especially one where the claymores now come sheathed in velvet.
Even if the stakes have been lowered, separation into two nation states, Scotland and – what? The Rest? – will mean, as Charles King, professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, has pointed out, separate tax and regulatory regimes, an even more separate educational system, a separate pensions scheme, separate industrial policy, and an independent foreign and defence policy. ‘Keeping money and people in Scotland,’ King writes in Foreign Affairs, ‘is precisely the point of independence, yet the realities of what this would entail are at odds with the SNP’s internationalist tone.’
The negotiations down the line if independence were endorsed would be formidable. The issues would include: the relationship between the Scots exchequer and the rump Union’s Treasury and the Bank of England; the fate of the nuclear deterrent; the division of still the greatest economic prize, North Sea oil and more.
It has been assumed that Scotland would be much more convincingly European than The Rest – but no one knows how such a negotiation would go nor what time it would take. One of the recent scandals in Scotland revolved round Salmond’s assurance that he had consulted legal opinion on Scotland’s entry into the EU – when, it seems, he had not.
The strategy of those who represent the majority in Scotland who do not wish separation had, until recently, seemed difficult. However, since a campaign for the union was formed earlier in 2012 under the canny and low-key leadership of Alastair Darling, the former Chancellor, a sense of reality, both of Scots public opinion and of the negotiating agenda, has become more widely diffused. Roused blood has, perforce, given way to the calculations of the elite and weighing of options by the public.
Or rather, the publics – for the English, who in the Nineties seemed benignly oblivious to the brave hearts who excoriated them from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, now begin to wake, mainly because there is a widespread belief that the Scots benefit unfairly from higher public spending. As a recent Daily Mail headline put it, ‘State gives each Scot £1,600 more than the English’; the article goes on to say ‘that for every £4 spent on an English person, £5 is now spent on a Scot – despite the fact that those south of the border pay far more in tax than those in the North’.
The British Social Attitudes survey shows that those in England who think the share of public spending going to the Scots is ‘more than fair’ has risen from 20 to 41 per cent in the past 12 years. Over roughly the same period, the percentage of the English thinking the Scots should be independent has risen from 10 per cent to about 30 per cent – that is, about the same as the Scots who presently believe so.
The lull in Scots enthusiasm for independence has something to do with the much chiller economic climate, especially in Europe; the crisis which afflicted the once surging Royal Bank of Scotland; and the sight of small countries such as
Iceland and Ireland reduced at least temporarily to relative poverty. Nationalist movements in the West are no longer crushed ruthlessly. Instead, they wax and wane: in Catalonia, the nationalist case seems to command a majority: in Quebec, it suffered a defeat.
Scotland’s nationalists are probably too well entrenched to be reduced to insignificance again: though once the leadership of Alex Salmond ends – he will be 60 in the year of the referendum – there is a shortage of obvious candidates with his political nous. A prolonged downturn, or a sense that – as in the Thatcher era – an ‘English’ administration is discriminating against Scotland, or the discovery of a new and charismatic leader may make independence attractive to the majority.
More likely, devolution will tend to be on a ratchet, with more autonomy being demanded and conceded in fits and starts. At what point autonomy shades into independence may become a central question. The possibility of a proper UK federalism – other than England with three Celtic fringes having differing relationships with London – is for the moment stymied by the English lack of interest in such a project. For the moment, the Union is likely to continue.
The longer term case for the Union will be won not on fear, but on belief – that Scotland’s undoubtedly distinct culture and nationality can live comfortably within a larger nation-state entity – the more comfortable, because of the greater freedoms and cultural diversity it allows, and the larger space for ambitions and understanding which it encourages. That, too, can (judiciously) stir the blood; more importantly, it can satisfy the mind.