Thinking Carefully About the Future: The Scottish Referendum on Independence by Jocelyn B. Hunt

Today marks the day that Scotland will decide whether to remain a member of the United Kingdom or become a sovereign nation. Much has been written on this issue, including in Canada where its similarity to Quebec is often raised, but many articles don’t fully explore the nature of Scotland’s separatist campaign.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the ‘Yes’ campaign, explains that he and his supporters have simply “yearned to be a good neighbour, not a surly tenant.” The pro-independence campaign maintains that Scotland is still British, as it has shared familial and business networks, history, and culture. Salmond even quips that after independence the Scots will still be “eating chips for tea” and clearly they will keep watching EastEnders, Dr. Who, and Strictly Come Dancing alongside their southern neighbours. The separatists aim to maintain a shared British culture and thus rarely bring England’s historical oppression of Scotland to the forefront. Instead, the Yes campaign looks to the latter half of the 20th century and, more importantly, to the future for reasons Scots should vote for sovereignty. But it is important to at least partially consider Scottish independence through the long history of their relationship with England (for this is more a separation from England than the UK).

Following the 1707 political union that merged England and Scotland into Great Britain, Scotland largely continued along its own path. Its aim was to be more than simply a Union of Crowns and move towards joint government, but Scotland asserted that several of their traditions were sufficiently distinct from England that they must remain under Scottish control. So for the last three hundred years, Scotland has maintained a separate established church (Presbyterian), an independent education system (with leading international universities today), and a distinct judicial tradition. While Salmond maintains that Scotland will preserve British culture, it is clear that there is a distinct cultural heritage in Scotland, ranging from the distinction between the Highland and the Lowland, food and drink (their whisky is perhaps more popular than their haggis), and a vibrant history of unique intellectual achievement. Historians have recently begun to recognize that the “Scottish Enlightenment” was not only distinct from Continental trends but also from England. Thinkers like economist Adam Smith, philosopher David Hume, and poet Robert Burns, were all a part of a generation of Scottish intellectuals who have shaped the modern world as much as modern Scotland.

Most political unions have to overcome cultural tensions of some sort – we know this all too well in Canada. In Scotland’s case, the relationship with England has been strained for some time. Scotland has moved towards complete independence over the course of the last century. Westminster created the Scottish Office in 1885 to officially recognize Scotland’s “distinctive culture and institutional and political identity [which] required specific and full-time representation.” Scottish nationalism was on the rise in the 1930s with the creation of the now popular SNP and while their membership was a small 2,000 at the outbreak of the Second World War, by 1944 the SNP was the major opponent in several Scottish ridings. In the late 1970s, Scotland held a referendum for devolution which garnered a majority support for separation but it was not recognized because an insufficient percentage of the electorate supported devolution.

In 1999 Scotland accepted a partially devolved system with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, informally known as Holyrood, but a long history of Scottish oppression and an unrecognized voice made it difficult to believe that devolution alone would end the question of separation. The 2011 Holyrood election was largely a referendum campaign for the SNP. The party won the country’s first majority government since it had gained its partially separate parliament from Britain. With 45% of the popular vote while competing against four other federal parties, the SNP has known since their 2011 victory that a significant portion of the country was open to independence.

Today, over 97% of Scotland’s adult population (17+) has registered to vote. In the last few weeks, support has been swinging between a Yes and ‘No, thanks,’ with enough of an undecided group that Scotland’s future is still uncertain. In a poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, 47% of decided voters want to leave the Union, while about 9% remained unsure. Salmond and his Yes campaign have made a convincing case, as almost half of the population is willing to walk away from 307 years of shared history with their English neighbours.

One of the most compelling sides to the Yes campaign however is their clear view of what Scotland would look like as an independent state.

This future Scotland would join the European Union and continue to be a member of the Common Travel Area with the rest of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man; an agreement in place since 1920. An independent Scotland will remain in the Union of Crowns with Queen Elizabeth II as the Queen of Scots. However, with Scotland’s long history of largely non-Anglican worship, they will demand an end to the monarchy’s religious discrimination that disallows a Catholic from taking the throne. As a consequence of remaining in the Union of Crowns, the Yes campaign hopes Scotland and the UK can continue to fly the Union Jack across their territories. Lastly, an independent Scotland would have its own passport with room for dual citizenship with Britain, and any non-resident whose parents or grandparents could claim Scottish citizenship are encouraged to apply.

Domestically, Scotland will embrace a Scottish cultural heritage that is wholly inclusive and peaceful. The SNP has already introduced several policies that focus on preserving and nurturing their culture. These range from museums focused on fishing and coastal living, a Robbie Burns app to make his works more accessible to youth, and apprenticeships to preserve traditional arts. An independent Scotland believes its cultural heritage will be strengthened by an inclusive immigration policy. The current UK immigration policies are viewed as stymying immigration to Scotland, so they would highlight a more positive reception for non-Anglos in a future Scotland. They will encourage newcomers from any country with any language to immigrate with the understanding that Scotland adheres to certain social values.

In many ways, despite the obvious economic argument, an independent Scotland is more than an economic break with the UK. While they seek to preserve cultural ties to the UK, the SNP are advocating for clear political break from Britain’s political trajectory. The future Scotland presents more liberal politics, as reflected in their social policies, such as providing better state childcare services so families can choose whether to be a one or two income family. Salmond also intends to remove the nuclear weapons stored in Scotland because they are an “affront to basic decency.” Scotland would also join most modern states by having a written constitution, which is a meaningful break from British common law. Future Scotland would push towards being a global leader in environmental policies. They have offered the ‘2020’ whisky to other nations who agreed to meet their environmental goals by 2020.

It’s clear that the Yes campaign has proven that it is more than a few Scottish people in kilts and face paint yelling for independence. While many of these global, regional, and domestic promises sound great on paper, the pragmatic question still remains whether it is fiscally possible. Undoubtedly that will be the most important question in voters’ minds today as they go to the polls.

As outlined above, there are historic cultural, political, and intellectual traditions that could be used to rally support for independence, but a significant proportion of Scotland’s contemporary issues with the UK (but really England) are economic. The SNP points out that 10% of the UKs population owns over 43% of the wealth while the majority of Westminster’s fiscal policies disproportionately favour London and South Eastern England. These policies include the ‘bedroom tax’ which affects over 63,000 Scottish households and increasing child poverty from Westminster’s welfare cuts. Here in Canada, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board describes the pro-independence movement as believing “in the unreasonable proposition that you can improve your marriage by getting a divorce.” From the perspective of Salmond and his supporters however, this would be analogous to telling a victim of abuse that good marriages just take a bit of work and compromise.

The Yes campaign has focused on Scotland’s financial contribution to the UK as well as the ways in which the UK limits Scotland’s potential. Pro-independence supporters highlight that per head, Scotland’s economy produces close to the same output as the rest of the UK combined. Add in current wealth from oil and gas and their economic output further increases by an fifth. Although current projections claim this wealth will significantly reduce by 2040, Westminster has prevented Scotland from oil and gas exploration on its west coast, which could uncover more resources for the independent nation. Many in Scotland also hope to expand their sources of green energy, including wind and tidal energy (they also claim solar, but if you’ve been there, you know that’s hard to believe), to counterbalance a reliance on the oil and gas industry. Salmond’s movement regularly reminds his audience that Scotland is the sole UK country to consistently maintain a public sector surplus, which he frames as Scotland paying for England’s mismanagement. So based on current calculations, Scotland could financially survive as an independent nation because they would no longer be thwarted by Westminster mismanagement, lack of foresight and the absence of long-term development.

The previously mentioned Globe editorial explained in slightly condescending terms that what the pro-independence Scots really want is the form of federalism seen in Canada. Westminster appears to believe the same. They offered a Bill with tri-partisan support that would devolve the UK’s political system even further and grant a number of current Scottish demands. This Bill was conveniently offered the same week that the polls projected the Yes campaign to be in the lead for the first time. This olive branch will make the decision more difficult for many in Scotland because pragmatically it provides what they want without breaking a union over three hundred years old. But it has also been viewed as reinforcing the belief that Westminster will only take Scotland seriously when it is forced to, rather than considering it an equal. Unlike in 1977 when Scotland and Wales voted on devolution, the Queen has not taken an official stance on today’s issue. However her statement is perfectly fitting and hopefully millions of voters remember her advice today: “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.”  Whatever the future brings, it’s clear that Scotland’s separatists have thought about it carefully.


Jocelyn B. Hunt studied British History and has written about the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s.