In a crowded Inverness bar, Scottish folk singer Davy Holt played a hymn to Scotland’s centuries-old yearning for independence—a yearning that Scots will vote on in 2014.
“From every angle I look the British are through,” he sang. “I wait for bonnie Scotland to give me her hand, and we’ll walk towards the sunrise of an independent land.”
If a majority of the Scots feel like Holt and vote for independence, it will have a tremendous impact on Britain as well as the European Union. Almost all of the oil and gas produced in Britain’s North Sea wells would be in Scotland, and 90 percent of the revenue would no longer flow to London. If this occurred, the five million Scots would be very well off indeed, while the fifty million in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would lose important revenues.
In addition, Scotland could inherit Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarine base at Faslane, making it the tenth nuclear power. But the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is a fairly leftist affair, and it wants to get rid of all nuclear weapons.
A British official told the Guardian newspaper on July 10 that the cost of moving its nukes away from Scotland was prohibitive and considered annexing the base as sovereign British territory—an idea soundly rejected by many Scots.
In addition, an independent Scotland could be voted into the European Union, which fears the independence virus could inflame separatist movements in places like Spain and Belgium.
On July 7, Scottish-born Andy Murray won the Wimbledon tennis championship—the first such victory by a Brit in seventy years. As he did, British prime minister David Cameron was seen on television applauding the victory. But just behind him in the stands, SNP first minister Alex Salmond unfurled the Scottish flag. It was seen as an insult, a challenge and yet another effort to drag celebrities into the political issue of independence.
While Sean Connery has not been very active in recent years, the actor was a leading force in launching the independence effort about ten years ago. And the 1995 American film Braveheart retold the tale of British suppression of Scotland’s freedom fight in the thirteenth century. Now tennis victor Murray is being courted to declare himself a Scot and join the separatist movement.
The Scottish independence movement, which has scarcely been noticed in the American press, was launched inadvertently by Labor prime minister Tony Blair in 1999. He hoped to inoculate Britain from separatism by allowing the “devolution” of power from the central government in London to local parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the three non-English parts of the United Kingdom or Great Britain.
A senior political reporter in the Scottish capital Edinburgh told me that “Blair hoped to kill nationalism” by allowing local self-rule. Instead, the taste of independence was like blood in the water, and by 2007 the separatist SNP won a stunning victory in the Scottish Parliament, housed in a modern building opposite the British royal palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. In 2011, the SNP won a majority and decided to hold a referendum on independence in 2014.
Polls have been taken extensively in Scotland and those favoring independence have never scored higher than 40 percent. But this remains an emotional issue, and in interviews with Scots in July, many showed willingness to sever ties to Britain.
In Inverness, where a golf tournament was about to begin, a British civil servant posted to the northern Scottish city discussed the issue with a Scottish woman managing a downtown shop. “Doesn’t every Scot feel in his or her heart a longing for independence?” he asked. “Yes,” responded the woman. “I will also vote for independence.”
In London, all three major political parties are united in opposing Scotland’s independence, and they have launched a public-relations campaign called “Better Together” to persuade the Scots not to leave. The campaign has been seen as trying to scare the Scots, harping on questions such as: would Scots retain access to the British state-run medical system? Would Scots with a heart attack be prevented from crossing the border to seek help at the nearest hospital?
Security is also on the chopping block. Scots are a civilized, gentle, prosperous, educated people, while also providing a large number of British troops. These could remain in the British forces or be inherited by Scotland. But an independent Scotland wouldn’t have jobs for many soldiers and would need naval and air forces.
Another scary topic raised by the debate is the fate of the Scotland’s military shipbuilders on the River Clyde. Britain currently is ordering two new aircraft carriers and several small warships. But the orders may be cancelled at independence, leaving thousands of people out of work.
Education is another issue. Scotland, with a more leftist inclination than England, has kept its acclaimed university education free, even as the rest of Britain installed U.S.-style annual fees approaching $9,000 a year. Will English students be ousted from Scottish schools? Will Scottish students in England be charged the higher rates paid by foreigners?
Then there is the phone scare: the Better Together campaign implied that Scottish cell phones would be charged roaming fees inside of England or charged extra to call English numbers if Scotland went independent. Later the phone companies denied it was true. But it seems the backlash against the scare campaign is pushing many towards independence.
And finally, SNP leader Salmond muddied the waters and said he wanted to keep the British pound as the currency for a free Scotland. This would let the Bank of England make critical decisions affecting interest rates and currency supply that would have major consequences for Scotland.
Nearly twenty-five years ago when the Cold War ended, some spoke of the “end of history”— an ideological triumph of capitalism and globalization over socialism and isolated nation-states. That proved illusory. Instead these past two decades have been punctuated, if not obsessed, by a series of ethnic and religious conflicts leading to splintering of multiethnic societies. Quebec nearly split from Canada in 1995. Slovakia left the Czechs in the Velvet Divorce. Yugoslavia erupted into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Russia lost its Baltic states as well as the Central Asian “stans.” The Kurds, the Palestinians, the Tutsis, and many groups in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the Western Sahara, Catalonia, Chechnya, Western China, South Sudan and Senegal continue their struggles for independence.
Scotland seems so advanced, decent and civilized that we can be fairly sure its independence would not be a violent transition. But the inner transition within the dreams and ideas of the Scottish people is deeply felt. And even an objective senior analyst of politics in Edinburgh said to me: “we’ve been running everything since 1999. Health, education, services. And it’s all going pretty well. Why not go for the whole thing, independence?”
Ben Barber is a journalist, photographer and consultant. He was a senior writer for USAID from 2003 to 2010.
Image: Flickr/Amanda Slater. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A version of this article first appeared at the Huffington Post.