British Unity Still in Jeopardy
Last Thursday, when asked, “Should Scotland be an independent country?,” the “No” side proved the winner by over 10 percent. The unromantic cause prevailed on a massive 85 percent turnout. On Friday, Alex Salmond announced that he was quitting as head of the autonomous Scottish government and as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). He was proud that the base-camp for the climb to Scottish freedom had been established so near to the peak, but now it was time for someone else to attempt the final assault.
Tributes declaring that “he served Scotland well and leaves a huge gap on the political stage” were offered from media critics previously alarmed by his ruthlessness and radical plans for Scotland. The international media was already fast packing its bags. Scotland it seems was already returning to the attic where it had slumbered for over three hundred years. Frayed European unity and international relations based on cohesive states which did not split except in the most extreme circumstances, was reasserting itself after the quelling of this north British insurgency.
But somehow it did not seem to be a victory for the exponents of British continuity. Journalists noticed how unwilling still “No” supporters were to appear on camera. “Yes” posters remained visible on countless windows in big cities after the vote. In the final campaigning stages, the “Yes” side had portrayed itself as “Team Scotland.” It branded “No” voters as stooges backing “Team Westminster,” the despised London elite and its unpopular “plastic politicians.”
Communities, workplaces and families had been torn asunder in the thirty months of campaigning, which David Cameron had naively granted to Salmond. He turned a supposedly impartial civil service into a propaganda tool for his independence cause. Social media was used in a virtuoso manner to reach out to previously apolitical 16-18-year-olds given the vote especially for this event, and indeed many others. Under the eyes of the police, open air “No” meetings were attacked and posters systematically defaced, causing Salmond’s predecessor as First Minister, to question police impartiality of the police (however, a leading police official praised the conduct of the campaign).
Tom Bradby, the political editor of one major news channel, ITN, found the ill-will to be worse than that experienced when working in Ulster of the 1990s: “the level of abuse and intimidation” was “highly unusual in the democratic world.”
Scots grouped themselves in two antagonistic camps. On the one hand, there were those gripped by fervent emotion. Independence was an existential choice that needed to be made irrespective of any economic downside. An army of outside experts, such as Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman or Niall Ferguson, to name but a few, could do the sums and deem the separatist route to be a perilous one, but they were merely dupes of a desperate UK government’s “Project Fear.”
Young people, the intelligentsia, men more than women, and above all, economically underactive Scots often dependent on state welfare, were the backbone of the “Yes” side. Ranged against them were “the coping classes,” small-town, rural or suburban Scots, far more self-reliant and long term in their approach to life’s challenges. The failure of the separatists to even make a half-hearted economic case for breaking up the UK was crucial for them. They saw how businesses had been threatened with reprisals from the very top of the SNP for daring to express their own misgivings. The latest economic figures showed Britain’s rate of growth to be well ahead of all other major Western states. Indeed, this month, more Scots are in work than at any time in the country’s history.
In all but four districts the “No” side won. But one of the exceptions was Scotland’s main city, Glasgow. Perhaps no other place in Scotland benefits so clearly from the fact that per head of population the country receives £1,700 more than the rest of the UK. This post-industrial city has relied on UK funding to maintain a strong social and educational infrastructure. The local economy is based on a service sector dependent on consumers from across the UK. Yet in a city, which had never been a separatist stronghold, the “Yes” side got 53.49 percent of the vote. Salmond had already deemed it “Freedom city” in July. The turbulence of this unruly city had been expressed in football rivalry, crime and leftist militancy. But now it was being harnessed to power the energy for the independence drive and I predict it will continue to be a focal point of agitation that will unnerve the old political order.