Scotland may be about to end the 307-year-old United Kingdom.
On Thursday, the 18th of September, any Scot who is at least 16 years old and registered to vote can cast his or her answer to a single, simple Yes/No ballot question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
If the Yes vote wins, Scotland will undergo a fast-track process of separation from the rest of the UK (England, Wales, Northern Ireland); it would officially wrap up in 2016, at which time the name Great Britain would cease to be an occasional political notion and revert to being a strictly geographical one.
Robert Graves' famous 1929 autobiography Good-Bye to All That considered not only the passing of Britain's old political order in the wake of the First World War, but how people's very way of life profoundly changed. If the UK ends, the break-up will not be a sterile act of officialdom with things carrying on much as they had. It will be another big good-bye with ramifications that are impossible to fully anticipate.
More than 700,000 Scottish citizens live in England (including many soldiers training under the same flag with their UK comrades), about 13% of all Scots. One frequently encounters Scots in English cities (as well as the Irish, it might be noted). Scots and the English marry each other without a sense of the marriage being one between foreigners. The English go to Scottish universities, as Prince William did, and vice versa as easily if not more easily than Americans raised in one state attend university in another state. So, to my mind, it is an odd concept that the Scottish and English should suddenly become officially foreigners to one another—carrying different passports, subject to different capitals' policies—due to at most about 2,000,000 Scots voting on the fate of the 65,000,000-person United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But that may very well be what happens. Soon.
Many important events led up to the creation of the UK. One is the Union of the Crowns on March 25,1603, when following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, King James of Scotland became King of England, too. It wasn't until 1707 with the Acts of Union that Scotland and England joined officially—becoming the United Kingdom through an admittedly inelegant political marriage. The Acts' Article 15 granted about £400,000 to Scotland in what could be considered an indirect bailout of Scottish businessmen who'd suffered from the collapse of the Darien scheme to found a colony in Panama; though it's a gross over-simplification to say that the Darien affair triggered union. Some in Scotland and England had been pushing for union for a century already by the time of Darien.
But union was greeted not so much by celebrations in the streets as by protests (mostly in Scotland), shrugged shoulders, vague hopes, measured relief, and pretty much every other kind of reaction except great excitement. No revolution had been fought, no great battle won. It was an arrangement agreed among elites with the average Scotsman, Englishman, Welshman, and Irishman having no say.
But it proved a remarkable and remarkably resilient thing, and for good reasons.
As effective unions tend to do, the United Kingdom created a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The union over time amplified that which it facilitated in the first place: combined energies, shared resources, and exchanged knowledge and opinion within Britain that then significantly affected the rest of the world through
*the Industrial Revolution;
*the abolition of the slave trade and a naval system for disrupting it on the high seas;
*the British Empire with its very checkered and highly controversial past, an empire that while being an exploitative and rankly extractive system also spread to an extent far disproportionate to the UK's small population medical, industrial, transport, and communications advances as well as parliamentary democracy, literacy, education, and concepts of individualism and free trade all around the planet;
*profound medical and scientific discoveries—the UK's talent, institutions, funding, or combination helped bring about such things as John Snow's and The Rev'd Henry Whitehead's debasement of the miasma theory of disease during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, Charles Darwin's discovery of Evolution by National Selection, Bletchley Park's and Alan Turing's pioneering work in computing, James Watson's, Francis Crick's, and Rosalind Franklin's discoveries of the nature of DNA, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the World Wide Web;
*important and basically stand-alone resistance to the Nazis at a crucial moment in history;
*the social democratic state of the post-World War II era, including the National Health Service (NHS);
*the strength of the pound sterling currency over the course of generations, and
*even still today, in Britain's post-imperial era, and the sixth-largest economy in the world (possibly the fourth-largest in 20 years' time) and the fifth-wealthiest per capita, though, like in the U.S.A., an economy saddled with increasingly problematic inequality in wealth distribution.
There have been many moments marking a further slight unraveling of the United Kingdom in the last several decades. One is probably the rise of Margaret Thatcher who infamously remarked that "there is no such thing as society". Not exactly a statement of unity. Thatcher's policies gutted Scottish industries and helped bring about the dominance of London's modern financial sector after first greatly weakening the trade unions of Britain, which were admittedly recklessly grinding the UK's economy to a halt and politically overreaching.
For some Yes voters in Scotland on Thursday, their Yes vote will be a direct retort to Thatcher. "You want go-it-alone-ism, Mrs. Thatcher? Okay, we'll take you at your word. Here we go!" Many Scots feel they have less in common with the English politically and economically than ever before in modern times.
Interestingly, while in the modern era the Conservatives among the three major UK political parties probably evoke union and Britishness the most, they may have the most to gain purely electorally if Scotland secedes. The Labour Party would lose a large number of voters since a large majority of Scottish voters in the UK prefer Labour to the Tories, though many of them vote for candidates of the SNP, the Scottish National Party.
But more moderate Conservatives, such as Prime Minister David Cameron and London's mayor Boris Johnson, certainly find no comfort in that. English political conservatism's right flank has grown in power quite suddenly in recent years, reflecting trends on the continent, too. More mainstream Conservatives worry that a "rump UK" that lacks Scotland and with primarily English voters could pull their party even farther rightward, alienating Welsh voters, bringing about harshly nativist anti-immigration policies, and even occasioning an exit from the European Union, membership in which is more strongly supported in Scotland than in England.
I will note a different moment of unraveling that is minor but tied to a personal reminiscence. That moment is the death of John Smith QC MP, the leader of the British Labour Party from July 1992 to May 1994, and who would have turned 76 years old on September 13, 2014. Like other leaders of the Labour Party, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown after him, Smith was Scottish. Unlike Blair and Brown, he was never Prime Minister.
As Leader of the Opposition when the Conservatives were in power and John Major was Prime Minister, Smith—and his Labour colleague Donald Dewar, who some consider the father of the modern nation of Scotland—committed Labour to supporting the idea of devolving control of certain Scottish affairs from Westminster to a Scottish parliament.
But what's more noteworthy about Smith, I think, is that even though he was a relative moderate and also supported devolution, he was nonetheless the last leader of the Labour Party to represent the sort of unapologetic Labour ideals that a majority of Scots have long preferred in contrast to the more Tory-friendly English. After Smith, Tony Blair became the leader of Labour, and the party moved rightward, becoming decidedly more centrist.
It was one thing for Scotland to feel alienated by the Conservatives' policies and the likes of "that woman", which is how some older Brits I know still refer to Margaret Thatcher. It was quite another for Scotland to be disappointed by a rightward shift by the Labour Party, the very party for which so many Scottish voters had formed part of the bedrock. This might be why, according to recent polls, the Yes campaign has in recent days gained ground largely through a last-minute surge of Labour voters deciding to vote Yes.
Alex Salmond, the Leader of the SNP and The First Minister of Scotland, sums up the case for independence in clear terms:
The case for Yes is based on the firm belief that the best people to take decisions about Scotland are the people who live and work here.
No one else will do a better job and no one else cares as much about our country.
So we need to take this sense of empowerment forward and ensure we make the most of all the talents of everyone who lives in Scotland.
Surely it’s time to say goodbye to the days when decisions about our lives were made by remote Westminster governments – often, like now, Tory-led governments that we didn’t even elect.
When the Tory PM jetted up to Scotland for a day-trip on Wednesday he said he would be heartbroken if we voted Yes.
Westminster politicians talk about “losing Scotland” as if we were some sort of possession.
But it isn’t Mr Cameron’s heartbreak at losing his right to govern Scotland I’m bothered about. It’s the heartbreak of the parents having to bring their children up in poverty because of the Tory Party’s policies that should concern us.
But, not everyone's having it.
Iain Miller, a former editor of The Scotsman and former deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, says it's time for the Scots to wake up:
more of my fellow Scots need to realise that....[w]hat lies ahead if they do this is economic chaos and years of disastrous disruption during which the English, who the Scots so often misread and underestimate, will be very hard-headed in defence of their interests.
At stake is a wonderful Union with a successful single market and a shared heritage of artistic, scientific, diplomatic, humanitarian and military endeavour. If all that is lost—sacrificed for a lie and replaced with bitterness and resentment—it will be a historical tragedy of epic proportions.
Chris Deerin, a Scot who moved back to Stirling after a decade in London, and who supports a continued union, writes in The Guardian that the union allows Scots
to plug ourselves into a vast network, to be citizens of a globally minded country that has always based much of its military, intellectual and economic success on Scots and their genius.
Scotland and England buried centuries of enmity to form a union.
Our civic space is a place of furious arguments, terrible temper tantrums, expressions of disgust and awful accusations—and then we resolve our differences peacefully, make a decision and move on.
I hope to be in a position to tell [my daughters] that when the moment arrived, Scots—Scots, of all people!—did not opt to go small....
Major Labour Party figure John Reid, a Scot and also former Home Secretary of the UK, took aim directly at the SNP in the Daily Record and Sunday Mail writing:
And, as we approach next Thursday’s vote, we should remember [progressive accomplishments] provided by Labour Governments—British Labour Governments. By men and women from throughout the UK. Not one of them owes anything to Nationalism or the SNP.
In fact, those Governments were opposed tooth and nail by the nationalists for the past 70 years.
When the Labour Government of the 1940s was establishing the Welfare state, the nationalists were campaigning for Separation.
When the labour Government of the 1960s was expanding educational opportunity for working class boys and girls, the nationalists were campaigning on Separatism.
When the Labour Government of the 1970’s was introducing the Race Relations Act, the nationalists preferred separatism. So much so that when asked to choose between that Labour Government and the Tory Opposition led by Thatcher, they walked into the lobbies to vote with the Tories, bringing down the Labour Government and leading to 18 years of Thatcherism.
And remember – it was Alex Salmond who said that Scotland ‘didn’t mind’ Thatcher’s economics. Well I’m sorry Alex – we did. You can start with the workers at Linwood and Ravenscraig but really we more than minded the devastation Thatcher’s economics caused.
In the 1990’s, the same story. When the last Labour Government introduced the minimum wage, the SNP couldn’t even be bothered to turn up to vote for it. They were more interested in their sole aim, separation from the UK. Just as last week, a majority of their MPs couldn’t be bothered to turn up to vote to join with Labour in defeating the Tories over the Bedroom Tax.
In 1993, while serving as a Research Assistant to Labour MP Martin O'Neill, Chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee and a Scot, I met John Smith once and only in passing—a mere handshake at the security gate outside of Norman Shaw North, the New (old) Scotland Yard building then given over to parliamentary offices. He was alone, glasses slipping towards the end of his nose, a bundle of papers under one arm, walking towards the street. In stereotypically overly-forward American fashion, I asked him if I could shake his hand. I introduced myself, saying it was an honor to meet him. He obliged me and returned my greeting happily while I said something stupid probably along the lines of "Keep up the good work."
Smith died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. He's buried on Iona, a small Scottish island famous in British and medieval Christian history.
On Thursday, the Scots might vote No. I think Smith would want them to. A Scotsman, yes, Smith no doubt understood the ways that Scotland and England both benefited from the union. In the UK, the UK itself is very often (rather too often) accurately described as "punching above its weight". It's not unlike the concept in the United States of e pluribus unum, our nation's first motto, the motto chosen for the republic by its founders. It is Latin for "out of many, one"—akin to the notion of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. There is worth in that, and I think it is something that Smith would not want Scotland to jettison.
But even if Scotland votes No, the UK will never be the same. I suspect that if the No campaign wins, it will more than likely delay Scottish independence for only a few years. Several commentators have noted this, including The Guardian's Owen Jones. (I don't like all aspects of his proposed remedy, however.)
During one of the most remarkable Prime Minister's Questions in my lifetime, on Wednesday, September 10, 2014, Leader of the House William Hague lead an all-party plea in the House of Common for continued union as speaker after speaker stood to urge Scotland to not leave the union.
Hague led Questions because Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as the leaders of The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, were in Scotland in a last-ditch effort to encourage the No vote, a very risky move since all three men are very unpopular in Scotland.
As I've been saying since January, I think the Yes vote will win by a very narrow margin. While Alex Salmond knows his audience well and the Yes campaign has expertly created a stalwart, inspiring narrative and echo chamber promoting Scottish independence—albeit a narrative I feel is at times starry-eyed as well as disingenuous—the pro-UK campaign has remained comparatively fragmented and unenthusiastic, even timid.
My opinion now is further fueled by a highly speculative notion that of the hundreds of thousands of Scots not resident in Scotland and who have already voted by mail, some small percentage of them probably voted Yes as a form of what they thought would be a non-consequential protest vote, because until just days ago, including when early voting began, the No campaign (motto, "Better Together") led in the polls.
That small number of Yes-But-Not-Really early voters, who if voting today would vote No in light of the surge of support for independence, might end up being the margin of victory for the separatists. It's proved in political science that some voters will vote rather recklessly when they think their vote won't matter. Consider the American voters in Florida who in 2000 admitted to pollsters after the presidential election that they'd never have voted for third-party candidate Ralph Nadar if they'd known that their vote would help elect George W. Bush by denying Vice-President Al Gore badly needed votes in one of the closest elections in US history.
I will love Scotland and the Scottish whatever they decide on Thursday. But I say, "Better together!" The United Kingdom has not outlived its usefulness yet, I believe, for Scotland or the world.
(Update for Sat., Sept. 13: John Smith's widow has written a plea to Scottish voters to vote No.)