As Americans celebrate Independence Day, many Scots are plotting their own independence. In September Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to become an independent country or remain in the United Kingdom. Last week, on the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, dramatic reenactments portrayed Robert the Bruce’s victory over England’s Edward II. Bannockburn secured Scotland’s independence, but it didn’t last. Three hundred years later James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and the two kingdoms came under one monarch. Scarcely a hundred years after that an act of union made Scotland one with England and Wales to form Great Britain. It is this union that Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party, would like to break, hoping to ride the spirit of Bannockburn to referendum victory.
The upcoming referendum is obsessing Britain in a way I have not seen since Quebec sought independence from Canada a generation ago. The proponents of yea are full of passion, while the nay side scolds and threatens dire consequences. A Scottish friend said that he wished his countrymen would pay more attention to the last 300 years of union instead of Bannockburn.
And what a 300 years it has been. Although Scotland accounts for only about 10 percent of the United Kingdom’s population of 63 million, “Scots stamped their imprint on the Victorian world,” as historian Simon Schama writes, “disproportionally manning the government of the empire, civil and military, while their banks and businesses were powerful contributors to Britain’s global preeminence.”
Scottish soldiers have been over-represented in all of Britain’s wars, and the skirl of the bagpipes has stirred generations of British warriors as they stormed many a far-flung rampart. The Scottish Enlightenment produced philosophers whose thoughts have been woven into the fabric of British civilization, and Scottish inventors and engineers made the 19th century what it was. Five of Britain’s 13 post-war prime ministers have had Scottish names, and for many on both sides of the border a Great Britain without Scotland would be something less than great.
But the heavy industries that flourished in Scotland in generations past are gone, and workers keep getting squeezed. Many of them will vote yes. Scottish nationalists look to Scandinavia for socialist role models. They see England, especially London, going the way of an America that can’t do enough for the one percent. That’s why the Conservative Party scarcely exists anymore in Scotland, and the “New Labor” Party that accepted many of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms is viewed with suspicion north of the River Tweed.
In 2011 the Scottish National Party under Salmond, whom journalist Jonathan Freedman has called “the most accomplished retail politician anywhere on this island,” won an outright majority in the Scottish parliament. Scotland got its own parliament back under Tony Blair’s devolution strategy in 1999, but with only limited powers.
Salmond is running a campaign some call “Operation Reassurance,’’ telling Scots that independence will not be the agonizing split that English politicians say it will. He says Scotland can keep the queen, the British pound, membership in the UN and the European Union, as well as NATO, and live forever on North Sea oil.
The campaign against separation is called “Better Together.” But to many it is dubbed “Operation Fear,” threatening grave consequences if Scotland bolts: no British pound, no EU, strict border controls, declining oil revenues, and guaranteed poverty. As one Scottish academic told me, “Every time the English threaten us, 100,000 Scots go over to the independence side.’’
If the separatists are too optimistic, the unionists are too dire, and it’s ironic that England may take Britain out of the European Union in a referendum planned for 2017, while the Scots would choose to stay with Europe.
Polls indicate that the lackluster “Better Together” campaign will probably win, but it will be close, with many still undecided. Undoubtedly Scotland will gain more autonomy no matter what the outcome. But the real fear is that even if the nationalists lose, they will want another referendum in a few years, extending the divisive process that wags are already calling the “neverendum.”
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.