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?


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