Scotland Votes

Photo by Maria Navarro Sorolla, Creative Commons, via Flickr

Opinion polls put the result of today’s Scottish vote on independence on a knife’s edge, but no matter the outcome the referendum will have fundamentally changed Britain’s modern balance of power.

The United Kingdom has been together for better, and worse, since 1707 when Acts of Union formalized a union that was already in many ways in effect, through a century-old joint monarchy. A Yes vote will lead to the hard work of disentangling it. Custody battles will be fought over assets and liabilities, from British nuclear arms to the national debt to North Sea oil. But a No vote — given 11th-hour promises for far more Scottish autonomy, made by the pro-union side in the last frantic days of the referendum campaign — will also fundamentally change  Britain.

Of all the analyses that tried to pick out the strands of history that drew Scotland to this precipice, one consistent is that Scots and most other residents of the U.K. have a fundamentally different view of society. Scottish politics are consistently more communitarian than in England, where individualism and hard-edged capitalism tend to reign. As a profile in Der Spiegel of Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond noted, he “became political during the 1980s because of Margaret Thatcher — as a result of her cuts to social welfare, privatizations and the poll tax that was introduced in Scotland one year earlier than in the rest of Great Britain. The Iron Lady inspired an entire generation of Scottish patriots.” Canadian political scientist James Laxer called the Scottish referendum the “World’s first vote on economic inequality.”

Alex Salmond © Scottish Parliament
Alex Salmond Photo © Scottish Parliament.

The man at the centre of this sea change in the U.K.’s status quo is Salmond, First Minister in the Scottish Parliament and the architect of the referendum.  An economist, former student of medieval history, and a consumate politician, Salmond has devoted his life to his country’s independence. F&O offers a short profile in Dispatches, Players — ALEX SALMOND: The Independent Scot, by Scottish political scientist Murray Leith. An excerpt:

If there’s one figure that anyone anywhere would associate with the Scottish referendum campaign it’s Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the man who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. But who is he, where did this political whirlwind begin and where will it take the man and his party?

His political opponents may label him everything from “driven” to “smug” but among them a common theme is that Alex Salmond is intensely private; a man “difficult to know”, and about whose private life very little is known. Many in Scotland could probably not confirm if he is even married. He is, although his wife Moira is 17 years older than him, they have no children, and she rarely appears in public. He likes the horses and gambles on races, likes his golf too, and knows his history. He is considered a natural politician by many, although some dismiss him as cold and calculating, but he is certainly the face of Scottish nationalism today. … read ALEX SALMOND: The Independent Scot.

In case you missed it, F&O posted earlier this week a “Cole’s Notes” sort of guide to the referendum by Coree Brown, a Scottish PhD student — Scotland’s independence referendum: a beginner’s guide:

Voters in Scotland will go to the polls on September 18 and answer the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The result will be determined by a simple majority vote, and is expected to be announced on the morning of September 19. … read Scotland’s independence referendum: a beginner’s guide

F&O International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe’s column in April addressed the complexities of a breakup, for Britain but also for  Europe. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s column Scottish leader downplays difficulties of independence (subscription):

Scotland’s First Minister and Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond is generally reckoned to be the canniest politician in the British Isles.

So it was entirely in keeping that he chose today, the day when the English patron saint St. George is celebrated, to cross the border to the northern English city of Carlisle to promote Scottish separation.

Salmond’s aim, with the campaign for Scottish independence heating up ahead of the September 18 referendum, was to calm anxieties. Little will change when Scotland becomes independent, Salmond underlined as polls show pro-separation supporters significantly narrowing the gap on the “no” vote’s slim majority …

It is in Salmond’s interests to minimize the implications of Scottish independence, which might come in 2016 if there is a majority for separation in the September referendum. But the potential fall-out not only for the United Kingdom, but also for Europe and the European Union is profound. …  read Scottish leader downplays difficulties of independence (Subscription or day pass required*)

Much of the world is transfixed as Scots take their future into their ballot boxes today, with the tally expected Friday morning. But keep in mind that the Scottish quest for independence is ancient: two millennia ago fierce Scots not only kept their lands free but put the Romans on the defensive, and in 1320 Scottish leaders wrote the Declaration of Arbroath and sent it to Pope John XXII, claiming Scotland’s status as an independent, sovereign state. (You can watch a video of  professor Ted Cowan speaking of Arbroath on YouTube, here.) Deep history suggests that today’s Scottish referendum on independence will not be the last of the matter.

 — Deborah Jones

UPDATE September 19: The pro-union “No” campaign won the referendum by about 55 to 45. Nearly 85 per cent of eligible voters made a choice on one single clear question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”  The results by late Friday Scottish time,  55.25 per cent No and 45.65 per cent Yes, are on this Scottish site. Alex Salmond resigned the day after the referendum.

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