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Scottish “Neverendum”?

13 May 2011

Scottish “Neverendum”?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’d grown up with the assumption that Scotland was a poor, wee, deprived place that had never had a fair kick of the ball and could certainly never stand on its own two feet,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose goal is an independent Scotland. He certainly doesn’t believe that now – and the SNP finally won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in the election on 5 May.

Salmond first formed a government four years ago, but that was a weak coalition in which the SNP had to bargain and compromise with the other parties. This time, with 69 out of 129 seats, Salmond doesn’t have to haggle. He can carry out his election promises, which include a referendum on Scottish independence.

If the voters said yes, that would be the end of the United Kingdom, the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England. Other things being equal, a majority of Scots might well vote for independence, but other things never are equal.

In the real world, many Scots are afraid that their small country, with only one-tenth of England’s population, would be too vulnerable to the financial and strategic storms that shake the world. Opinion polls consistently show that no more than a quarter to a third of Scottish voters would vote yes in an independence referendum. Yet they voted the SNP into power. Why?

The main reason is that the Liberal Democratic vote collapsed in Scotland in this election. Quite a lot of those Scottish Lib Dems gave their votes to the SNP instead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they support independence.

Since Salmond has been canny enough to promise a referendum, they knew that they could vote yes to an SNP government, and then say no to independence. He delivered sound government in difficult circumstances over the past four years; why not give him another go?

The reality is that Salmond is unlikely to persuade the Scots to vote yes in his promised referendum, even if he postpones it until near the end of his term in the hope that he can cajole or manipulate more of them into backing independence. (The smart money is betting on 2015.) So there shouldn’t be any big changes in Scotland as a result of this election – and yet it may hurt the country a lot, in the end.

Scottish separatists hate the analogy with Ireland, which they once held up as an example of how a small European country with few natural resources and a big but undercapitalised banking sector could do very well in the world. Now they just try to change the subject when Ireland comes up, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to Scotland.

The real danger is what would happen to Scotland if the separatists lose the forthcoming referendum but keep on trying. That’s what happened in Quebec, where the separatists first came to the fore politically in the 1960s. They held and lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, but for half a century the prospect that there would eventually be a referendum (or yet another referendum) on separation from Canada was there every year.

“Planning blight” is what happens when the word gets out that they may be running a freeway through the neighbourhood, and property values and new investment collapse. Quebec had it on a province-wide scale for half a century. It’s impossible to calculate the financial cost directly, but the population numbers are a good indication of what happened.

For the first half of the 20th century, Quebec and Ontario, the two biggest Canadian provinces, had about the same population and grew at about the same rate. In 1960, Quebec was only slightly smaller than Ontario, with 5.2 million people compared to Ontario’s 6.2 million people. By 2010, Quebec had only grown to 7.8 million, while Ontario had 13 million people.

The contrast is equally dramatic for the big cities. Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec, had always been Canada’s biggest city. In 1960, Montreal had 2.2 million people, and Toronto, the capital of Ontario, had only 1.7 million. Now Toronto has 6 million people, while Montreal has only 3.8 million.

It’s as if Chicago had started growing fast in the 1960s, and was now half again as big as New York City. It was the planning blight of the ever-looming next referendum on independence – the “neverendum”, as English-speaking Quebecers sometimes call it – that did this to Quebec. The same thing could happen to Scotland.

Independence for Scotland would not necessarily be a financial and demographic disaster, but the permanent expectation of another independence referendum certainly would be.

The Scots are unlikely ever to vote yes for independence, because the world has become a much harsher place economically for small Western countries with declining traditional industries and big debts. (An independent Scotland would presumably inherit about at tenth of Britain’s national debt.)

Yet Salmond has now put an independence referendum firmly on the Scottish political agenda, and it is unlikely to go away again in the foreseeable future even if he loses this one. Neverendum.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“The main…independence”; “Scottish…Scotland”; and “The Scots…debt”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Scotland: The Road to Nowhere

4 May 2007

Scotland: The Road to Nowhere

By Gwynne Dyer

On Thursday, 4 May, the Scottish National Party, which promises to hold a referendum on independence by 2010, won the largest number of seats in the election for the Scottish Parliament. It’s the first time that Labour has lost an election in Scotland in over fifty years, and the first time ever that the Scottish separatists are in a position to lead a government. So why does this not feel even a bit momentous?

One reason is that Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, will have to form a coalition government. The SNP won 47 seats to Labour’s 46, but for a majority in the Parliament in Edinburgh it needs 65. Its most likely partner is the Liberal Democratic Party, which won 16 seats. Add a couple of Greens and one “independent” who is actually a former deputy leader of the SNP, and he can probably reach the magic number — but the Liberal Democrats are dead set against a referendum on independence.

Salmond will probably yield gracefully and postpone a referendum on independence until a second term, because he knows that the Nationalists cannot win a referendum now. The SNP got more votes this time because Scots wanted to punish the Labour Party, which had been in power long enough to wear out its welcome, but popular support for actual independence for Scotland has been stuck at around 25 percent for the past thirty years.

What Salmond and the SNP really need is a long period in office when they can pick fights with the British government on issues where they will look like defenders of Scottish rights. The SNP’s programme for the “first hundred days” is rich in symbolic demands of that sort: “repatriation” of North Sea oil revenues (i.e. all for Scotland, none for England); a separate Scottish Olympic team; Scottish control over British negotiations with the European Union on fisheries issues, and so on.

But even that strategy won’t get very far, because the SNP’s prospective coalition partners will not want perpetual confrontations with London. The SNP is now beginning the same long and thankless process that the separatist Parti Quebecois entered when it won its first election in Quebec in 1976.

Quebec is the right analogy, because in both cases “independence” is mainly of emotional importance — and the emotion is not all that powerful. Basque separatists in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, and Tamils in Sri Lanka have bitter memories of mistreatment and repression by the majority nationality in relatively recent times, but for French-Canadians and Scots it is mainly a legacy issue.

The basic argument of separatists in both of these places is that history took the wrong turn a few hundred years ago. Even if things are comfortable at the moment, it is our duty to make the history come out right at last. But things ARE pretty comfortable: Scots already control most domestic issues in Scotland through their own parliament, as does the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec. GDP per capita in Scotland is 95 percent of the average figure for all of Britain, the same as Quebec’s in relation to the rest of Canada.

No doubt an independent Scotland or an independent Quebec would do well economically, but they’re doing well economically now. Do they really need to go through all the political turbulence and economic uncertainty of creating an independent state, in order to end up not very far from where they are now? In Quebec, the answer has always been no.

The Parti Quebecois was in power in Quebec for most of the past thirty years, but it only twice dared to call a referendum on independence, and both times it lost. Like the PQ versus the Liberals in Quebec, the SNP may establish itself as the only practical alternative to Labour in Scotland. It may form the government there for most of the next thirty years. But even that would not mean that it will ever achieve its objective of independence.

After a generation of futile effort to convince Quebecers to vote for independence, the Parti Quebecois tumbled to third-party status in last March’s Quebec election. The SNP is riding high at the moment, but the same fate may await it further down the road, because the majority response to its grand project is likely to be: why bother?

There is one big difference, however. A majority of English-Canadians always wanted to keep francophone Quebec within the country, and were willing to make major economic and political concessions to persuade French-Canadians to stay. Whereas 59 percent of English people, according to a recent opinion poll, are in favour of Scottish independence — more than twice the proportion of Scots who are.

The numbers are suspect: ask a slightly different question, and you’d get a quite different answer. The English aren’t actually eager to push Scotland out of the Union. But it is true that most English people would hardly notice if the northernmost bit of Britain, containing less than a tenth of the country’s population, became a separate country. After all, it would still be in the European Union, so what’s the difference?

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Quebec…issue”; and”No…no”)

Scotland’s Unhappy 300th

9 January 2007

Scotland’s Unhappy 300th

 By Gwynne Dyer

A forthcoming television documentary to mark the 300th anniversary of Scotland’s union with England is called “A Chip on Each Shoulder,” which pretty much sums up the attitude of the Scots towards England. Britain will get a Scotsman as prime minister when Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair this spring, but when Scotland votes in May for its own devolved parliament, there is a good chance that the separatists of the Scottish National Party will win the most seats.

It won’t necessarily mean the break-up of Britain. Even if the SNP comes in first, it would certainly have to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. And even if almost half the people in Scotland vote for the SNP, it doesn’t mean that they all want independence: voting for the SNP is the only practical way to get rid of the current Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has long outworn its welcome. Still, it would be an odd way to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the union.

It was on 16 January, 1707 that the Scottish parliament passed the Act of Union and put an end to itself, but the union with England wasn’t popular then either. The two countries had shared a king ever since James VI of Scotland succeeded the childless Queen Elizabeth as James I of England in 1603. In the following year he started calling himself “King of Great Britain,” resurrecting the old Latin name for the island, but the two countries stayed separate for another century.

Scotland’s reluctance was understandable, since it has always only had about a tenth of England’s population. It had its own history, its own laws, its own version of the Protestant faith (Presbyterianism), and no desire to be swamped by the richer and more numerous English. It could only be bribed into voting for union after financial disaster befell a large part of the Scottish bourgeoisie and gentry at the start of the 18th century.

Jealous of England’s growing overseas empire, the Scottish elite had persuaded themselves that Scotland also needed a colony in the New World, and invested heavily in a scheme to create one in Darien (Panama). It failed disastrously, having consumed about a quarter of Scotland’s investment capital, and many of the most influential people in Scotland faced ruin. Whereupon the English parliament offered to make good their losses if Scotland agreed to union — and of course these were precisely the people who dominated the Scottish parliament.

Scotland kept its own legal and educational systems, but what emerged from the negotiations was not a federal state; it was a unitary state with strong Scottish representation in the new “British” parliament in London. Most ordinary Scottish people rejected the union as a sell-out — a mob rioted and held Glasgow for a month — but they literally didn’t have a vote on the matter. And in the long run, the resentment died down, because the Act of Union gave the Scots equal access to the rapidly expanding British empire.

For over two hundred years, most Scots saw the empire as their own and prospered greatly from it, though they always had a chip on their shoulder about the English. Then the empire came to an end, Britain’s power went into relative decline, and Scottish dissatisfaction with the union with England started to grow. The rise of the SNP has been driven not by oppression or exploitation — Scotland gets almost 20 percent more public spending per capita than England — but just by a vague, pervasive sense of grievance.

From P.G.Wodehouse (“It has never been difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”) down to the present, this has given rise to a litany of patronising English jokes about the petulant Scots. (“How can you tell when a plane from Scotland arrives at an English airport? They switch off the engines and the whining doesn’t stop.”) But now, apart from the budget subsidy, there’s no particular reason to Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom.

Most English people don’t care much about that one way or the other, but the Labour Party certainly does, because a parliament elected solely in England would have an almost perpetual Conservative majority. That’s why Tony Blair’s Labour government resurrected Scotland’s own parliament in 1999 after almost 300 years. He “devolved” power over health, education and most other domestic matters in Scotland to the newly created Scottish Executive — but Scotland kept all of its (mostly Labour) MPs in the parliament down in London too.

The idea of devolution was to kill separatism, but it also gave the Scottish Nats a chance to govern Scotland. The SNP has promised a referendum on independence if it wins power this May. It reassures nervous voters that an independent Scotland would still be safely contained within the European Union. It argues that revenues from North Sea oil (most of Britain’s share would end up on Scottish-owned seabed) would make up for the subsidies from English taxpayers. It could win — and then things would get quite exciting for a time.

But the North Sea oil is rapidly running out, and the Scots are a cautious, prudent people, so the excitement is unlikely to end in actual separation. Much Ado About Nothing, you might say.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“It won’t…union”; and”Jealous…parliament”)

TRANSLATORS NOTE: “Much Ado About Nothing” is the title of a Shakespeare play, but choose whatever phrase feels best.