It’s been a long time coming. Scotland’s first referendum on independence was just a year before Quebec’s, in 1979, and was won by the popular vote, but fell short of the turnout required by the U.K. government of the time. It wasn’t until 1999 that Scotland, like Wales, voted for a devolved administration in a referendum offered by Tony Blair’s Labour government after 18 years of Conservative rule.
Scotland now finds itself with the most devolved powers of the governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, but still a distinct and unequal subunit of the U.K. — in comparison to say, Quebec, which still sees itself as a province. Health and education are two of the areas now governed by Holyrood, while powers like Defence and Energy (including oil and gas) remain with Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament has no tax-raising powers of its own.
At the time Blair said “power devolved is power retained.”
That’s not quite how it worked out. Devolution was supposed to be an appeasement, an acknowledgment that Scotland has wanted more control of its own affairs, while allowing continued control over key areas of its domestic life, which are of extreme importance to the U.K.: principally North Sea Oil and Faslane, the naval base 30 miles from Glasgow, which houses the U.K.’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent, Trident.
After years of Labour control, Scotland’s public elected a Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) government in 2007, and in 2011 they won an outright majority in a political system designed to encourage coalitions. Clearly Scotland’s mindset was changing.
The question being asked on September 18 couldn’t be simpler: “Should Scotland be an Independent Country?” Some are keen to compare Scotland to Quebec, but the two campaigns couldn’t be more different.
When the independence campaign started in Scotland, there seemed to be a decent, but not insurmountable, No vote, a core of Yes voters at around 30 per cent and around 20-30 per cent undecided. The Yes campaign, backed by the SNP and Green parties, along with most of the leftist parties not currently represented in parliament, has sought all along to reach undecided voters and give No voters who might waver a reason to vote Yes. The key to the Yes campaign has been winning over undecided voters or soft no voters, without them there wouldn’t be a Yes campaign.
One of the peculiar traits of the Yes campaign has been its lack of ethnic or cultural focus. Separatist campaigns in Quebec, Wales, Catalonia and Northern Ireland all draw on culture, language or ethnic identity whereas Scotland’s has not. Minority languages include Gaelic and Scots, but these are very small populations and largely confined to particular geographic areas. Scotland and England have always had a rivalry, but it hasn’t had the fire of Irish republicanism or the cultural distinctions between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Scotland is also a notably wealthy country with abundant resources — around 90 per cent of the U.K.’s oil and gas (excluding shale gas) is found in Scotland, and there has long been an awareness that the U.K. benefits from Scotland — although the popular conception of Scots being “benefits junkies” persisted in the media until very recently. Quebec’s economic situation is trickier — as a province its GDP is very high, but per capita it’s one of the poorer regions in Canada.
Maybe most importantly Quebec’s cultural distinctions haven’t been undermined by Canada to the extent that Scotland’s have been by the U.K. The Gaelic and Scots languages, folk music and even the physical population of the Highlands have suffered greatly under the Union. A theme of the debate so far has been Yes claiming that Scotland suffers from the Union and can afford to go its own way, while the No campaign say trying it isn’t worth the risk.
Scotland’s independence movement has ended up being about social pragmatism. People are being encouraged to vote Yes to maintain free higher education, schools and the NHS and to get rid of Trident. While in Quebec the message, at least in 1995, from separatists was that a Yes vote wouldn’t change the day-to-day circumstances of people’s lives, Scotland has seen the opposite.
Over the past 15 years Scotland’s parliament has had power over health and education — two public sectors which have been heavily damaged by austerity in the rest of the U.K. The coalition government in Westminster is comprised of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, and the popularity of its austerity programs in England has not been seen in Scotland. The Scottish government has worked to ameliorate those cuts. In fact, its budget is determined by the Barnett Formula, which allocates funding on the basis of the regions’ population, instead of tax-raising powers.
The Barnett Formula also touches on a difficult point for unionists. For years Scotland has been joked about as the ‘poor cousin’ of England, usually existing in the cultural zeitgeist as a violent drunk or a simpleton. Political discourse followed this widely held misconception, until recently, because of Scotland’s renewable energy potential and the plethora of oil and gas fields situated in its North Sea territories. But while Norway, the other beneficiary of North Sea Oil, set up a sovereign wealth fund to provide for pensions and investment, Scotland produces a surplus of around $2,000 per person which goes back into propping up U.K. austerity programs.
In the last few weeks the momentum seems to be with Yes, but whether it’ll be enough to make Scotland the world’s newest country remains to be seen. Quebec’s situation pitted cultural identities against one another while not talking at all about changing the moneyed power structures that existed. Perhaps Scotland’s vote will see an impulse to go against the late capital grain triumph over patriotism for a country nobody seems to understand anymore.
Simon Jones studied Philosophy in Sheffield and is now based in Glasgow, having spent time in the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Aside from writing he is involved in community projects in Scotland and contributes music, political and economic journalism to a number of outlets there.
Photo: flickr/The Laird of Oldham