UNITED KINGDOM by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Will Scotland's vote spell the end of the Union?
, September 13, 2014
The United Kingdom of Great Britain could soon be a thing of the past if Scotland votes for independence in a referendum to be held on September 18.
For the past 15 years, Scotland has enjoyed a limited measure of self-government. In 1997, the newly-elected British Labour government of Tony Blair, as part of its election pledge, held two devolution referenda — one for Scotland and one for Wales.
The Scots voted in favour of the creation of a Scottish parliament with devolved powers; the Welsh rejected a similar proposal for an assembly of their own.
The first meeting of Scotland’s new Parliament took place on May 12, 1999.
In 2011, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which for decades has campaigned for outright independence from Britain, won 65 seats in the 128-seat Scottish parliament, enabling it for the first time to form a majority government in its own right.
The SNP leader Alex Salmond, who has been First Minister of Scotland since 2007, seized the historical opportunity to hold a referendum offering Scots independent nationhood.
Up until a week ago, polls suggested that Scots would reject independence. But the gap between the no vote and the yes vote has been steadily narrowing as the referendum day approaches.
The Darien disaster and the 1707 Act of Union
People are often surprised to learn that the United Kingdom is only seven decades older than the United States of America.
It wasn’t until the early 18th century, when Queen Anne (the Protestant daughter of the Catholic James II) was on the throne, that the kingdoms of England and Scotland united as a single sovereign state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The principal cause of the union was a financial catastrophe that engulfed Scotland in the late 17th century, when it tried to establish a colony in Central America on Panama’s Darien peninsula.
More than a thousand Scottish merchant-adventurers and would-be settlers set sail from Leith docks in 1698 in pursuit of their dreams of discovering untold wealth on the Caribbean coast. On their arrival, however, all they found were malaria-ridden swamps and forests. Hundreds of Scots perished. Only a quarter of them returned home alive.
The Darien scheme was a financial disaster. The amount of money that Scottish investors and small savers subsequently lost in the venture was equivalent to half their nation’s gross domestic product.
As a result, Scotland’s impoverished noblemen and merchants were amenable to the offer of the Act of Union of 1707, which, by allowing Scots access to England’s expanding colonial trade, went some way to helping them rebuild their shattered fortunes.
The Act of Union saw the Scottish and English parliaments combined into one parliament of Great Britain, based in the Palace of Westminster, London. Not until 1999 would Scots have their own parliament again.
Scotland, under the terms of the Union, retained the running of her schools and universities and unique legal system.
The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745
Not every Scot was reconciled to the new political order. Many Catholic Scots — and English Tories — lamented the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the overthrow and eventual exile of Britain’s last Catholic monarch, King James II of England (James VII of Scotland), and the establishment by law of a Protestant succession.
The Jacobites, as supporters of the Catholic Stuart dynasty came to be known, regarded the Protestant monarchs of Britain and Ireland as usurpers. They sought to restore James and his male heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. Their movement took its name from Jacobus, the Latinised form of James.
James’s son, James Francis Edward, on his father’s death was recognised by the Jacobites — and by the powerful French monarch Louis XIV — as “James III of England and James VIII of Scotland”. In 1715, he led an unsuccessful Jacobite rising in Scotland and England.
His son, Prince Charles Edward Stuart — better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender — was the second Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. On July 23, 1745, with French arms and money, he landed at Eriskay, an island of the Outer Hebrides in northern Scotland, and, after bringing together Highland clans loyal to his dynasty, led a desperate last-ditch attempt to restore his family’s lost fortunes.
He led his army across the Scottish border into England and got as far as Derby in the Midlands before he was repulsed by the English. The Jacobite rising ended with defeat on April 16, 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Prince Charles Edward Stuart fled Scotland, never to return, and was later immortalised in song as a romantic icon of Scottish nationhood.
The victorious English commander, the Duke of Cumberland — known as “Sweet William” to his supporters, and “Butcher Cumberland” to his enemies — gave no quarter to the remaining Jacobites. Subsequent measures by the British government to pacify the Highlands included the Dress Act of 1746, which banned the wearing of tartan and Highland dress, an exception being made for the Highland regiments of the British army. (The act was rescinded in 1782).
Scotland’s contribution to modernity
After the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland, despite her meagre physical resources, grew in self-confidence and began to make her mark upon the world. Her system of universal parish education for children of the rich and poor alike resulted in her evolving into Europe’s most literate society.
American historian Arthur Herman, in his 2001 book, The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, chronicled the rapid advances that Scotland made in science, literature and philosophy.
The Industrial Revolution owed much to James Watt’s improved steam-engine technology, George Stephenson’s first passenger railway service, and John McAdam’s methods of modern road construction
English literature was enriched by the contributions of Scotland’s James Boswell (famous biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson), the ploughman-poet Robert Burns, the novelist Sir Walter Scott and the poet Thomas Campbell.
The Liberal Party of the Victorian era derived many of its principal ideas from Scotland — for instance, the economics of Adam Smith; the philosophical ideas of Scottish-born James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill (of Essay on Liberty fame); and the historical writings of T.B. Macaulay, contributor to the influential Edinburgh Review.
The most outstanding Liberal figure of the 19th century was of course William Gladstone, who, although born in Liverpool, was a pure-bred Scot.
Towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, working-class Scots contributed another strand to British public life with the role they played in the creation of the Labour Party.
Prominent among them were Keir Hardie, one of the party’s founders, who became its first leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, who in 1924 became Britain’s first Labour prime minister.
Many decades later, in the 1990s, after Labour had suffered repeated electoral defeats at the hands of the Conservatives, three Scotsman, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — each of whom would in turn lead the party, the latter two becoming prime ministers — modernised Labour by jettisoning its commitment to doctrinaire socialism, by abolishing the trade union block vote at Labour Party conferences, and by committing a future Labour government to establishing a Scottish parliament.
Rise of Scottish nationalism
From the late 1960s onwards, Scottish nationalism, particularly the desire for independence from Britain, grew on the back of specific Scottish grievances. One of them was the rapid decline of Scottish manufacturing and the eventual disappearance of the once mighty shipyards of the River Clyde. Another was the widespread perception among Scots that the financial bonanza Britain derived from North Sea oil rightly belonged to Scotland.
Britain’s main political parties — the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour — are united in trying to persuade the Scots to vote in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom. Campaigning under the slogan Better Together, they argue that Scotland receives more from the British treasury, in terms of public spending, than it pays in taxation, and would be likely to suffer economically once North Sea oil runs out in 35 or so years’ time.
Two years ago, British financial commentator Ian Cowie used the example of the Darien disaster as a cautionary tale to warn Scots against making a hasty decision for independence that they might later regret.
He wrote: “Everyone has heard of the South Sea Bubble but conversations with relatives north of the border suggest few know about the Darien disaster.
“So, before 16-year-olds vote for independence inspired by films like Braveheart and other romantic notions, it would be as well to consider reality. The serious point is that, then as now, the financial facts of life on both sides of the balance sheet strongly suggest that the whole United Kingdom is greater than the sum of its parts.”
He reminded his readers of how in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis (GFC), the then British Labour government of Gordon Brown — a Scotsman who has played a prominent role in the Better Together campaign — rescued the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, thanks to large sums of money raised from English taxpayers.
Cowie said: “This should prompt savers, employees and business partners of both those banks to consider what would have happened if Alex Salmond’s ‘arc of prosperity’ with the financial powerhouses of Ireland and Iceland had — as he wished — already replaced long-standing ties with England ” (The Telegraph, UK, October 15, 2012).
The September 18 referendum
The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, whose SNP is now the largest political party in Scotland in terms of membership, is increasingly confident of a yes vote in the September 18 referendum on Scottish independence.
He has succeeded in attracting a large following by courting both the Left and the Right.
To the pacifist Left, he has promised to remove from a newly-independent Scotland, by 2016, Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines, currently based at the Royal Navy’s Clyde naval base on Scotland’s west coast.
At the same time, he has assured wary conservatives that an independent Scotland can still retain the British monarchy, the UK pound as its currency and the Bank of England as its central bank. (Whitehall and the Bank of England have vigorously disputed the possibility of the latter two points).
Britain’s Liberal Democrats — currently the junior partner in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government — support Scotland’s remaining part of the UK, but have come up with a novel suggestion for simultaneously accommodating the aspirations of many Scots for a greater say in their own affairs.
Sir Menzies Campbell — a Liberal Democrat MP in the House of Commons for North East Fyfe since 1987, and briefly the party’s leader during 2006/07 — has proposed that the United Kingdom should eventually adopt a federal system of government.
At present, the United Kingdom is neither a unitary state nor a federation, but an anomalous hybrid of the two. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures, but England and Wales do not. Scots under the present arrangement can actually vote twice — once for their own parliament in Edinburgh, and again for the House of Commons which governs both Scotland and England.
How Scotland and England will govern themselves in the event of Scotland voting yes to independence and to the dissolution of the United Kingdom is by no means clear.
Take defence, for example. Will the British Isles be able to defend themselves adequately if the UK’s three arms of defence and her intelligence-gathering services are split up between England and Scotland?
Overarching the absorbing debate over Scotland’s future identity is the unresolved problem of the vast powers that Britain ceded to Brussels when she joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1972.
In April this year, the current Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, took part in a televised debate with populist UK Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage, who wants Britain to leave the EU and regain the right to make its own laws.
Clegg maintained that only 7 per cent of UK law was based on EU law made in Brussels. Farage argued that the figure was more like 70 per cent, and provided abundant evidence to support his claim.
If Farage is correct, it is small wonder that Scots — and, increasingly, the English — see the British government in Westminster as increasingly irrelevant to their daily concerns.
The author John Ballantyne’s Scottish forebears migrated to Australia just before Federation. This article is an updated and longer version of the one that appeared in the printed edition of News Weekly.
With four weeks to go, people across Scotland are waking up to the wealth of opportunity offered by independence.
The referendum has inspired an outpouring of ideas about the sort of Scotland we seek, the Scotland we want to see.
As the debate has progressed, some points have become clear. We all agree Scotland’s got what it takes to be a successful, independent country. We’re one of the world’s wealthiest countries — our gross domestic product per head is higher than the UK, France and Japan. Indeed, if Scotland votes Yes, we’d be the wealthiest country in the world ever to declare its independence.
[But] for far too many people it doesn’t feel that way. The gap between rich and poor is far too wide — and far, far too many Scots don’t have the chance to fulfil their potential.
At its heart, the case for independence is a simple one. It is better for all our futures if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland — the people who live and work here. Nobody is more likely to create the fair and prosperous country we seek.
As the referendum debate heats up, millions of Scots are debating their country’s future with friends, family and colleagues — and this can only be a good thing. It just shows how much people value having real power over their country’s future.
Appeal by the Rt Hon Alex Salmond, MSP, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and First Minister of Scotland since 2007, from the Herald Scotland, August 21, 2014.
The burden of proof lies on the apostles of negativity, who consistently disparage the last 300 years of Scottish history as if the Union had prevented all progress and sapped us of all self-respect.
Listening to them you would never believe that during these years we have successfully negotiated the industrial revolution, produced such world-class writers as Robert Burns and Walter Scott, nurtured cutting-edge scientists like Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and James Clerk Maxwell, and reared outstanding athletes such as Kenny Dalglish and Sir Chris Hoy.
Nor would you ever believe that since 1707 we have provided the UK with (at a quick count) seven Prime Ministers (and that’s before we count such other bearers of Scottish genes as W.E. Gladstone and Harold Macmillan); or that we have benefited from such social revolutions as free schooling, the Old Age Pension, universal franchise and the National Health Service….
The danger with the independence referendum is that few seem to have any idea of the scale of what’s envisaged. It’s not about what used to be called Home Rule. Nor is it a mere Devolution Upgrade. It’s about making England a foreign country. It’s about making Scotland independent in the same sense as Australia is independent: part of the Commonwealth, with occasional visits by HM the Queen as titular Head of State.
From the blog of Donald Macleod (www.DonaldMacleod.org, November 6 and December 4, 2013), retired professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, and a public affairs commentator.
Sir Menzies Campbell
It is now very clear that there are essentially two options: the break-up of the United Kingdom into its constituent units, or a modernised, federal United Kingdom.
I have been a supporter of home rule and a Scottish parliament all of my political life. Home rule for Scotland within a reformed, federal United Kingdom has long been the constitutional aim of Liberals and Liberal Democrats.
[It is] our conviction that the four nations of the United Kingdom are best served by continuing a partnership which has served them well; by recognising that constitutional reform is necessary to ensure that the structures of the United Kingdom reflect the aspirations of its people and the demands of modern democracy.
Our approach is federalism, a system of government used across the world which allows for the expression of different identities within one system, but combines with it the additional influence and strength which comes from co-operation and common purpose.
We argue for a distribution of powers among the nations of the United Kingdom, for joint action where that is necessary and effective, and for parliaments and assemblies across the United Kingdom to have substantial democratic choice and opportunity combined with the responsibility that comes from significant financial powers.
From remarks made by the Rt Hon. Sir Menzies Campbell, CH CBE QC, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fyfe since 1987 and a former leader of the party during 2006/07, from his introduction to Federalism: The Best Future for Scotland, a report, published in October 2012, of the Home Rule and Community Rule Commission of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell.