Fàilte gu Alba!

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For those who believe that the European project is over and a success, the Scottish independence referendum and the 1.8 million man march for Catalonian freedom in Barcelona last week should serve as a rude wake-up call. Even as the intellectual descendants of Jean Monnet seek to make their Union more perfect, fissiparous tendencies persist in pockets. Europe has dozens of separatist groups and though few of them are of concern, many have a long history.

United Kingdom

The strength of the Scottish independence movement has caught many by surprise. If polls are to be believed, the referendum, to be held on September 18, may just result in the reemergence of the Scottish nation after 307 years of English rule. Those old enough, however, will remember that this is no bolt from the blue – while preparations for this referendum have been going on since 2011, the minority government of the Scottish National Party put forward a similar bill in the Scottish parliament in 2007 but withdrew it on account of little support from the Opposition. The bill suggested four avenues along which to proceed: 1. maintain the status quo, 2. devolution of power from London to Edinburgh as per the Calman Commission, giving Scots greater but not complete fiscal autonomy, 3. greater devolution, leaving only foreign and defence policies in the hands of Westminster, and 4. full independence.

Even before 2007, the Kilbrandon Report of 1973 had put forward the idea of a devolution of powers over education, health, the environment, social, and legal services to Scotland; a referendum held in 1979 had supported the devolution of powers to Scotland but was overturned on a technicality. It was the 1997 referendum that allowed the Scottish parliament to finally reconvene after 290 years and gave it some powers over taxation, transportation, and unreserved matters.

Perhaps most famous are the exploits of Scottish Covenant Association, who stole the Stone of Destiny, a block of seat associated with the coronation of Scottish – and later British – monarchs, from Westminster Abbey on Christmas, 1950. The Stone was left beside the altar of Arbroath Abbey, a significant venue known for the famous declaration of Scottish independence, the Declaration of Arbroath, in 1320. The SCA supported total independence for Scotland when even devolution was talked about in hushed tones. Although a fringe group in its day, the SCA made great efforts to spread awareness about Scottish home rule in a postwar era when nationalism was held to be particularly abhorrent.

The slight swing towards the ‘Yes’ campaign – the referendum has one question and is worded, “Should Scotland be an independent nation?” – has already chased $27 billion out of British investments and raised threats from the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Bank that they would move their headquarters to London if Scotland secedes from the Union. Furthermore, senior officers at BP (Bob Dudley) and the Deutsche Bank (David Folkerts-Landau) have cautioned against an independent Scotland, citing uncertainties in their currency and their role in the European Union.

Responding to the threat by UK Chancellor George Osbourne that England would not entertain a currency union with an independent Scotland, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and head of the SNP, has dismissed the economic fears and capital flight as bullying. Interestingly, it was the discovery of oil in the North Sea that first gave legs to the Scottish home rule movement. While any new government or nation generates uncertainties in the short-term, it is difficult to argue that Scotland will be an economically unviable state.

However, the referendum is not about economics, something most opponents of Scottish independence fail to acknowledge. Scotland’s disagreements with England over nuclear power or reduction in welfare payouts hardly seems serious enough to warrant a secession and can be easily resolved at the local level. Economics, social policies, security, nuclear power, and the geopolitics of NATO, the EU, and beyond are convenient justifications for what is at the core a nationalist yearning.

It is ironic that Englishmen who wish to see Scotland remain in the Union are asking the Scots not to be nationalistic when they themselves are considering a referendum with a nationalistic flavour on joining the EU in 2017. To add to the irony, the SNP, though nationalistic, is best described as a centre-left party than the expected, typical right-wing party. One of the wedges the ‘Yes’ campaign has used is the fear of a long Conservative reign in Britain with irregular support from the UK Independence Party. Scotland’s Future, the 670-page document released by the SNP explaining its agenda for an independent country, is closer to the social democratic ideals of continental Europe than Tory England.

For those whom it matters, the history between Scotland and England has not been all pleasant. As much as many would deny it, there is a sectarian component to this difference; it is telling that the largest rally organised in favour of staying in the Union was by Protestants from all over the United Kingdom. Pride in Scottish identity is not dead, however muted it might be. Scotland has its own sporting identity, one of the more popular sports t-shirts reading, “I support two teams – Scotland and anyone who plays England.” They also have a fine sense of humorous self-deprecation if their official song for the 1998 World Cup – Don’t Come Home Too Soon – was anything to go by. Anyone who believes in the universalising power of the English language will be flabbergasted by a trip north (though outside London will probably suffice). Admittedly, their cuisine is an acquired taste, but their whiskey has conquered hearts and minds worldwide.

Should Scotland be an independent country? There will surely be a few smirks in former colonies like India, Ireland, and Palestine that went through partition themselves (which were a lot more violent than the Scottish referendum), but ultimately, this is a question for the Scots. There are as many good reasons for Scotland to leave the Union as there are for it to stay. Economics can be mended, security negotiated, and relations renewed but identity, however nebulous, is persistent. Are Scotsmen comfortable with being a distinct region within the United Kingdom – at once Scottish, British, and (maybe) European – or is it Alba gu bràth?


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on September 16, 2014.