Will Scotland secede?

The "yes" on secession campaign is gaining momentum. If it passes, the United Kingdom will get smaller, less relevant in military and diplomatic matters - and a lot more conservative politically.
Crosscut archive image.

Scotland is seeing a surprising surge in support for independence.

The "yes" on secession campaign is gaining momentum. If it passes, the United Kingdom will get smaller, less relevant in military and diplomatic matters - and a lot more conservative politically.

Scotland is a nation without a country; or so say those who back a September 18 vote to break three centuries of union with England under the United Kingdom.

It is the most serious of many threats to cut ties with the English, and the vote is being closely watched in Europe, where similar threats abound in Spain, Belgium and elsewhere. And it just might happen.

Despite all odds and in the face of determined opposition from traditional party leaders and much of the business and financial world, Scots may secede. In fact, the “yes” campaign recently took the lead in polls. (The best place to follow the trend and latest news is at The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s major daily.)

Scotland is a small country, but large enough to hold its own. Five million Scots are in a league with Denmark, Slovakia, Finland and Ireland within the European Union. In many respects, Scots are closest to Scandinavia’s small nations — the farther you go, the more blue-eyed Norski descendants of Viking raiders. Scots are socialist in the Scandinavian way, much more so than their cousins to the south.

Does what happens in Scotland matter to Americans? It certainly would change the face of the U.K., which would be smaller, less a factor in military and diplomatic matters, and much more conservative politically. Scottish votes are the most reliable Labour votes in Parliament; Conservatives have only one Scottish seat. No wonder Labour is opposing independence — but so are the Tories. This would be a bigtime change in the status quo.

A smaller U.K. might be less likely to join American military adventures. Scots will certainly be less eager, despite Braveheart and the images of “The Ladies from Hell” marching to their death with bagpipes playing. Trade and cultural ties with Scotland would remain. The Land of Burns will continue producing bards, writers, playwrights and thinkers — and good malt whisky (yes, spelled without the “e”).

Scotland is rich enough to be independent, particularly as long as North Sea oil is pumped. In terms of job growth (2010-2013), it trails only London as the U.K.’s job leader. Edinburgh is second only to London in banking and financial affairs. Scots are heavy into high-tech and their higher education system is one of the best in the world.

Perhaps none of these statistics will decide the vote; perception will likely rule. Polls show the heaviest “No” votes are among over-65 voters (68 percent) and age 16-24 (53 percent). Yes, 16-year-olds will vote, a special dispensation for this election on the part of First Minister Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP). That gamble hasn’t paid off; young people and old people both fear economic security. Jobs on the one hand and pensions on the other, and they are buying the “No” arguments. From age 24 to 65 the race is too close to call.

Salmond, a short, portly man who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Scotsman, is by many observers labeled the best U.K. politician since Margaret Thatcher. But he is the exact opposite of Thatcher, who is widely reviled in Scotland. The SNP, in the words of noted historian Tom Devine, “could be depicted as the rightful heir to old Labour values.” Although Scots, notably Gordon Brown and Allastair Darling, were leaders in the New Labour movement of Tony Blair, the British role in the Iraq War went down badly in the North, as did some Labour economic policies. Scotland got from a Labour government in 1997 the power (devolution) to govern itself on some major areas, including education and local government, but the U.K. still holds the major cards on revenue and defense, among others.

Under Salmond, the SNP has gained the respect of most Scots in terms of the way the nation is governed. Labour has continued to alienate Scots with a perceived preference for the Parliament in London over the Parliament in Edinburgh. The Liberal Democrats, which had footholds in Scotland, lost sentiment when they allied with the hated Tories in the current Parliament. Salmond promised an independence vote when the SNP won power in 2011, and he is delivering the election if not the result he promised.

Few nations as small as Scotland have produced as distinguished a history. The “Scottish Enlightenment” of the late 18th Century brought us Adam Smith, James Hutton, David Hume and a host of other intellectuals. Scottish entrepreneurs and industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, military leaders and colonial managers dot the history books. In the Pacific Northwest, the Scots were the heart of the Hudson Bay Company. The names of Fraser, McLoughlin, Mackenzie and Douglas are enshrined in our heritage. John Muir was a Scot, so was David Livingstone.

My Highland ancestors are not in the history books, although I cannot be sure because I’ve never traced them to their roots. Not necessary; when I am in Mackay Country, I am home. My wife and I with two bedraggled and tired children arrived there in 1975 on a cold and rainy day that was our spring vacation, not theirs. We stayed in cheap B&Bs, ate out of our lunchbox . . . and loved it. In four decades, I’ve lost count of our returns.

What we found in 1973 was a Scotland on its heels. Edinburgh was black, sooty (“Auld Reekie,” it was called) and dull. The Highlands were full of poverty — buildings vacant, fences neglected, roads narrow and rutted. My image of that Scotland is of old men standing beside the road in weathered suit coats and flat caps, with nowhere to go. There weren’t many children and even the dogs looked downcast. But the people were wonderful, hospitable and generous — the Scots are frugal, not cheap — and the scenery was glorious.

On our last trip, in 2013 yes, that's me down below Edinburgh blazed with color, awaiting its world-famed Festival; the old soot was scoured off its historic buildings and commerce bustled. Glasgow, still damaged by poverty in some of its old working-class neighborhoods, was named European City of Culture in 1990, and continued to grow that legacy. In the Highlands, we saw happy children, frisky dogs and active oldsters. Highlanders had taken their region in hand. Cooperatives boomed and tourism was welcomed without widening the single-track roads we had come to love. The sheep and cattle were fat.

Crosscut archive image.Scottish historian James Hunter reminds us that the father of modern Canada, John Macdonald, came from Highland roots: “Glasgow-born Macdonald,” he writes, “taken as a child to Ontario by his Sutherland father and Badenoch mother, devoted his career to ensuring that Canada, then a precariously bundled-together set of ex-colonies, was kept clear of union with the neighbouring, and hugely more powerful, United States – whose politicians long expected to take over the territory to their north.”

Highlanders will not determine the Independence vote. It will likely be working-class voters in Glasgow and smaller industrial towns who make that call. Many have been on the fence, but recent Scottish media reports show the “Yes” vote gaining momentum. Turnout is the key. Salmond predicts an 80 percent turnout. He will need it.

Increasingly, the vote is splitting along class lines; Scotland is not as class-bound as England, but there have always been splits, based in large degree on education.

A Scotsman article in late August spotted the trend. “Doorstep chats with more than 18,000 voters in 90 working-class communities across the country showed almost two-thirds of voters in favour of independence once the undecideds were stripped out,” according to the pro-Independence group, Radical Independence Campaign. The findings were confirmed by a university think tank, which found a 46-27 split for Independence among the lowest incomes. “The higher the position on the social scale, the lower the support for independence,” the study concluded.

More recent polling has shown a continued trend in that direction. Upper-income Scots are more likely to have been educated in England, to have business or social connections there, and be oriented to Europe. Their finances and pensions may be tangled with British institutions. Voters in aging housing estates are more likely to feel slights on the part of the English, and to favor a return to Old Labour’s social-services emphasis. There will be patching to do after this vote, regardless of the outcome.

My heart is in the Highlands, in the words of Rabbie Burns, but I cannot tell you how I would vote. I have seen Scotland blossom as it is, but I have seen the resilience, the optimism and the pride of its people in the Highlands and elsewhere.

Scots are canny, they will examine the issues carefully. But they are Scots, not Brits, at least in most cases. I have a Saltire at home. It will fly on September 18, regardless of the outcome.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.