ACROSS THE European Union, many established parties are floundering. Reelection to office is a rare outcome, but the Scottish National Party (SNP) is one of the few ruling parties to be thriving. Since taking charge of Scotland’s autonomous government in 2007, it has enjoyed high poll ratings and has strong expectations of being reelected for a third term in 2016. Except for a four-year break, it has been led by the same individual for nearly a quarter century: a self-confident, popular and utterly disingenuous rogue named Alex Salmond.
A referendum on Scottish independence will take place on September 18, 2014, and the SNP is entering the third year of campaigning. Back in January 2012, the British prime minister, David Cameron, worried by the growing dominance of the SNP, announced that he wanted Scotland to be given the choice between continued membership in the United Kingdom and full independence. The SNP has ever since been in its element. The business of government has been left to a loyal civil service while the party pours its energies into campaigning with an evangelical fervor.
In polls taken in March, “Yes for Scotland,” the party’s proindependence front, is catching up with “Better Together,” the alliance of prounion forces, and in one of them was only five percentage points behind. The SNP is making inroads into voting groups where support has previously been weak, from the numerous liberal professionals in Edinburgh to downscale voters living in moribund postindustrial communities.
Until a few years ago, the SNP was a protest party stuck in the political wilderness. The majority of Scots were skeptical about its claim that the oil wealth discovered in Scottish waters during the 1970s could easily bankroll a separate state. A British outlook endured, though impaired by policies during the 1979–1997 period of Conservative rule that were widely thought to have contributed to the destruction of Scotland’s manufacturing base. It was the difficulties of the normally dominant Labour Party that were crucial, providing an opening for the SNP to working-class voters. Labour in Scotland suffered from the mounting unpopularity of Tony Blair’s ten-year government in London. New Labour’s close ties with corporate interests together with ill-starred interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq went down badly in a Scotland that was tired of Britain’s high-profile foreign commitments and where even much of the middle class is comfortable with a state-directed economy.
The SNP ran a minority government from 2007 to 2011, before winning an outright majority. But the party’s social and economic vision is little different from Labour’s and it has left the civil service to run the country on social-democratic terms. Even during the marathon referendum campaign, it has declined to reveal any kind of political and economic model for the future that would set it apart from the British one. Its 670-page white paper on independence released in November 2013 turned out to be a largely aspirational document that was vague about the shape of things to come.
This reticence makes sense: the SNP’s vision is a reprise of the proglobalization outlook of Blair, the party’s distrusted foe. There is a strong commitment to membership in the European Union even as the readiness of this entity to interfere in the domestic affairs of its members shows no sign of waning. Salmond outstrips Blair in his commitment to green energy, with the SNP claiming that most of Scotland’s energy needs can be derived from renewables by 2020. He is also an ardent supporter of immigration in order to fill skills shortages in the public sector and boost population levels in parts of Scotland that locals are reluctant to live in.
PERHAPS THE secret of the party’s popularity derives from its ability to be seen as an effective resistance force keeping at bay a still-dominant neighbor—England. Resentment toward a territorial partner often depicted as insensitive and overbearing was a powerful subtheme in Scottish popular culture even when the union thrived. Now it has become a mainstream one even as England’s practical influence over Scottish affairs has ebbed away.
The existence of such a powerful neighbor, with a history of subduing the Scots in fierce medieval confrontations, is a lifeline for modern Scottish nationalism. Without an England that can still be depicted as “neocolonial,” it is hard to see what would give such an anemic variety of nationalism any real momentum. Without its own cultural, religious or economic distinctiveness, or widely spoken local language, Scotland lacks some of the building blocks that usually allow a nationalist project to flourish.
The austerity measures pursued by London after 2010 (which were extremely mild in comparison with those applied in EU countries reeling from the euro crisis) were fiercely denounced in Edinburgh. The Scottish government has promised to renationalize the Royal Mail service, raise the minimum wage, maintain universal welfare benefits and increase pensions.
Scotland’s leaders portray the British central state as tight-fisted, but in fact it has shown marked liberality in its approach to financing Scotland’s public expenditure. The Scottish government does not need to raise its own taxes. Instead, Scotland receives a block grant from London; it is not tied to particular spending requirements, leading to levels of public spending in Scotland higher than in much of England. In theory, Edinburgh is free to raise up to 3 percent of its budget through internal taxation. But the SNP has advanced no projects requiring this power to be exercised. It suits its purpose to continue complaining about London’s meanness, insisting that this is what prevents the party from implementing a modernization strategy. Of course, a requirement for Scotland to run its own budget from the taxes of its own citizens would beam the spotlight on the SNP’s spending habits, and the party’s extended honeymoon with the voters might even splutter out.
The SNP’s rhetoric of empowering the poor and needy and standing up to an “imperialistic” English elite plays to a sense of victimhood that currently thrives in Scotland. Polls regularly show that there is not a huge variation between Scottish and English attitudes toward the redistribution of wealth. But there is still no sign of a countermobilization from deductive and practically minded Scots impatient with the SNP’s populist rodomontade. Unless a new center-right party emerges that is able to offer a vision of genuine self-reliance within a decentralized union, the SNP appears unassailable.
Scottish nationalism’s shrill protests about English arrogance and greed doomed a party founded in 1934 to impotence for most of its history. British identity enjoyed strong endorsement down to at least the 1960s. A sense of solidarity operated across society based on vivid memories of common wartime endeavor and post-1945 policies of social reform endorsed by political forces that enjoyed support throughout Britain. But British identity frayed due to the decline of institutions that had helped to maintain cohesiveness. Numerous policy failures—protracted industrial unrest until the mid-1980s, conflict in Northern Ireland and infrastructural failures stand out—encouraged the belief that the political system directed from London was broken. Britain experienced accelerating levels of social change that made it an increasingly complex society to manage. Yet the quality of political leadership failed to keep pace. In power for thirteen years until 2010, the Labour Party played down, and sometimes even mocked, the values and traditions that had reinforced Britishness. Instead, it extolled group identities often based on ethnicity.
The SNP had gotten nowhere when political culture was shaped, as it had been for many generations, around a stoic identity inspired by Protestantism, attachment to the British Empire (in which Scots were prominent at all levels), sport, local institutions, industrial crafts and personal restraint. But in the postindustrial era beginning in the 1980s, a more volatile identity has arisen. Community life and civic activism have retreated. Instead, behavior has grown more privatized, reactive and self-centered. A media culture based around a cult of celebrity, the ridiculing of religion and rampant consumerism has greatly influenced public awareness and tastes. In this environment, an ebullient (not to say egocentric) politician like the SNP’s Salmond has positively thrived.
This edgy, self-obsessed and emotion-laden Scotland has displaced the sober, flinty society of yore. A strong dependency culture has sprung up. Levels of economic inactivity in Scotland are high (in Glasgow, its largest city, the figure in 2012 was 32.7 percent of the adult population). It is downscale Scots whom Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon target with increasing success. Polls indicate that they are most likely to vote in favor of independence. They increasingly accept the SNP claim that being part of the United Kingdom has deprived Scotland of the income from oil lying off the Scottish coast that could have been used to create a thriving socialist economy. The prounion response is that the transfer of oil income out of Scotland has been nearly balanced out by annual block grants for over four decades and that declining oil revenues simply rule out a new socialist dawn. Some economists warn that to be viable, an independent Scotland will have no choice but to sharply cut back on social expenditures. In early 2014, it was revealed that Salmond’s government was anticipating cuts to jobs, welfare benefits and pensions after independence.
SALMOND ENERGIZES those Scots for whom the emotional cry of freedom resonates far more strongly than any economic warnings about the future. The SNP has long drawn sustenance from the imagery of Mel Gibson’s 1995 Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart, in which plucky Scottish resistance fighters are depicted taking on a brutal fourteenth-century English foe. An army of bloggers known as “cybernats” relentlessly pursues this theme online, and, according to Iain Gray, leader of the opposition Scottish Labour Party from 2008 to 2011, these people “threaten newspapers and broadcasters who fall short of the required sycophancy towards the SNP.”
Very late in Scotland’s democratic story, the classic populist gambit of extolling the powerless while keeping power concentrated in few hands has been rolled out. London finds itself playing the role of Uncle Sam, accused of behaving badly north of Hadrian’s Wall just as the United States was perceived to do for all those years south of the Rio Grande. Just like Latin American populists of old and more recent vintage, the SNP points to national failures that may in fact have local roots rather than originating in imperialist machinations.
The huge challenges that would confront the SNP in preserving a social-justice agenda in an independent Scotland and its own unpreparedness for the task of state building together suggest that the condition of the country cannot be improved as a result of obtaining full sovereignty. It is heretical to even suggest that Scotland may not have what it takes to persevere with self-rule. Talking down the nation is a cardinal sin in the lexicon of the SNP and its cybernat followers. Even its prounion foes see independence as attainable. But they add that the Scottish national interest would be best served by preserving a union where Scotland enjoys political influence and a range of economic advantages.
Perhaps, deep down, the SNP has no real desire for full independence either. Its leadership would rather berate London for withholding the devolution of real economic powers and total control over welfare when it has shown little enthusiasm for exercising many of its existing range of powers. Elected officials of the proindependence force have come to enjoy the trappings of office. Many know that the SNP’s popularity is likely to remain high as long as it can exploit the politics of grievance while still inside the union.
Meanwhile, the European Union has steadily extended its control over Scotland by devising laws and norms that all member states have to comply with, even as London has relaxed its grip. But it is hard to find a party more willing than the SNP to endorse a European project that is now in crisis thanks to a flawed currency union dreamt up largely on political grounds.
Rather unwisely, Salmond has insisted that automatic membership in the EU awaits Scotland if it quits the union. He stuck to this script even as top EU decision makers and the leaders of states with restive minorities, fearing the precedent of a British breakup, stated the opposite in plain language. The presidents of the European Commission and the European Council and the heads of government of Spain, Croatia and Belgium have all stated that a fresh relationship between Scotland and the EU would have to be negotiated over a lengthy time period.
Having recently distanced itself from the euro, the SNP has courted fresh controversy by insisting that it could combine independence with the retention of the pound in a “sterling union.” It is easy to understand the SNP’s reasoning. A Scottish currency would have potentially serious drawbacks, as Scotland trades mainly with the rest of the United Kingdom. The likelihood is that in the challenging times of early statehood, the value of the new currency would drop below the British pound, with consequences for interest rates, debt financing and deficits. But a British currency union in a post-British state would mean that many of the terms and conditions concerning Scottish borrowing, spending and taxation levels would continue to be shaped by London.
In February, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne felt obliged to visit Edinburgh to say definitively that this was not going to happen. He declared: “The pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between two countries after a break-up like a CD collection. . . . If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound.” He was immediately endorsed by the chief financial spokesmen for the other main British parties.
One of the main reasons for this emphatic statement was that the Cameron government feared that Britain would have to rescue Scottish financial institutions that got into difficulty. This was not a totally hypothetical scenario, as it was the British taxpayer who intervened to effectively nationalize Scotland’s two main banks when they nearly collapsed in 2008.
The SNP’s currency-union idea was originally meant to reassure nervous Scots that a “social union” with the rest of Britain would persist in the independence era. As well as retaining the pound, the BBC and the monarchy would be preserved and there would be no border controls between England and Scotland. But Salmond grew bellicose in the face of London’s hostility to his currency plan. He has frequently warned that without a sterling zone Scotland would not assume a share of the trillion-pound British national debt. The SNP leader’s fixation on debt is understandable. If Scotland inherited a per capita share of UK debt, that could leave it paying approximately £6 billion in debt interest in the first years of independence. That would be close to 10 percent of total government spending.
THE SNP claims to be a broad political movement, but in practice it often acts as if it has no enemies to the left. By Western European standards, the Far Left in Scotland is quite influential. Its activists provide much of the campaigning strength for “Yes for Scotland.” Front groups have been set up that convey the impression that there is an irresistible tide of popular feeling for separation. Common Weal is a social-justice manifesto drawn up by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, named after a popular Communist labor-union figure. It has attracted religious radicals, academics and municipal figures with its program for growth and redistribution in an independent Scotland. Artists and writers who have formed the proindependence group National Collective have lashed out at what they see as English cultural overlordship. In Ireland eighty years ago, comparable sentiments led to public symbols of British identity being systematically uprooted.
But Salmond’s party shows little appetite for active citizens running local communities. It is removing power from local government and amalgamating public services that were once decentralized. Those at the top of the civil service are delighted and are prepared to look sympathetically when Salmond asks them to carry out political work in favor of his party. By 2008, the public-wage bill had reached one-third of Scotland’s £33 billion budget.
Until recently, many business leaders were fearful about offering their views on what the breakup of the union could mean for Scotland. The business sector is one of the few branches of Scottish life where the SNP’s post-2014 independence vision has few backers. Business figures worry that companies with plants in Scotland but whose customers are found mainly in the rest of the United Kingdom would relocate there owing to the climate of uncertainty. But until this spring, such views were usually only expressed in private. This is a telling demonstration of the SNP’s authority and ability to silence inconvenient voices. Business figures fear general vilification, harassment in the media and consumer boycotts orchestrated by nationalists. Four of the United Kingdom’s biggest supermarket firms experienced the SNP’s wrath in December 2013 when their senior executives indicated that the higher costs of distribution in Scotland would no longer be absorbed in their UK businesses in the event of independence: the new state would be treated as an international market and price rises would follow. A leader of the Yes campaign urged these companies to quit Scotland despite employing tens of thousands of Scots, and an SNP city councilor in Glasgow called for them to be boycotted.
Opposition figures have regularly protested the government’s defiance of the freedom-of-information machinery, which was introduced so that Scotland could be seen as a model of open government in contrast to London. Hundreds of requests have been rejected by the civil service, acting on behalf of the ruling SNP. In the most publicized example, Salmond refused to publish the opinion of his government’s law officers, who he claimed had confirmed Scotland would inherit EU membership automatically. After a costly thirty-month wrangle, it finally emerged last autumn that no such legal advice about an independent Scotland’s EU status had ever existed. Salmond had simply made it up.
Scotland’s political elite is largely drawn from professionals in the public sector as well as the media and law. The talent pool is small even in a proindependence party with such bold ambitions. A declining number of parliamentarians have work backgrounds that give them a wide experience of life outside the political bubble. Salmond himself has been a full-time politician since his early thirties, after a stint as an economic researcher in a leading bank.
The priorities of the ruling SNP have been increasingly defined by Salmond. Foreign affairs and defense remain policy areas reserved to London, but he has boldly pursued his own foreign policy, going on regular trips to some of the emerging financial and economic powers in East Asia and the Middle East in order to lure investment to Scotland. Tapping into the sovereign wealth funds of newly prosperous states has been a core objective that he hopes might convince Scots that it is safe to embrace a post-British future.
Occasionally, his efforts to carve out a role on the world stage appear unsettling. In 2009, he ordered his civil service to badger world statesmen to issue statements supporting his release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Only a handful of leaders did so. Fifteen years ago, on March 29, 1999, he condemned NATO’s bombing of Serbia after Slobodan Milosevic had attempted to deport much of Kosovo’s Albanian population as “an unpardonable folly,” comparing the action with Luftwaffe raids in wartime Britain. And in an interview this March, he offered qualified praise of Vladimir Putin (which he later refused to retract), describing the Russian leader as an “effective” politician who had “restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” Upon being published on April 28, the interview caused an uproar.
Despite what appears at times to be Salmond’s proprietorial approach to national office, parallels with Andreas Papandreou’s Greece or Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela may still appear fanciful in the context of Britain. But evolving social and political trends have lowered inhibitions about a politician behaving in a quasi-regal manner. Populist appeals based on identifying an external foe and a local liberator with a simplified message of change now connect with a sizable number of Scots.
Polls show that a disproportionate number of men warm to the rowdy Salmond. The young were once seen by the SNP as ideal material for an emotion-laden message, and the voting age was duly lowered to sixteen. But it turns out Scots below twenty-five are among the most antipathetic to nationalism. Members of the Facebook generation are international in their outlook or else completely turned off by politics. Women—by a large margin—are also resistant to the SNP’s plans.
Most Scots are still reticent about the SNP’s stated objectives. Salmond, aged fifty-nine, will not be around forever and his successor is likely to be a more prosaic figure. An improving UK economy and recent events demonstrating the appeal of Britishness (such as the 2012 London Olympics) both work against the SNP. So does the dawning realization that the division of the British landmass could have huge economic consequences for a great many Scots. Thus, it will still be an uphill task for the SNP to secure a referendum victory. But such a victory may in fact hardly suit its purpose.
RATHER THAN be thrust into the demanding role of building a new state, many in the SNP would probably prefer an extension of autonomy. Two years of campaigning have enabled Salmond to bathe Scotland in a sense of victimhood and insist that only his party can assuage her grievances. The populist rhetoric against London’s rule and a range of stunts at home and abroad are likely to continue. But what if England cries enough and even marches Scotland to the union exit?
Dissatisfaction has been mounting over the perceived financial advantages Scotland enjoys in the union and the ability of its fifty-nine members of Parliament to influence purely English matters. In some polls, more English than Scottish voters say they would prefer Scotland to secede. The electoral rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been a lightning conductor for British nationalism. At least one-quarter of the electorate is strongly opposed to the pro-European integration and globalization agenda that each of the established parties embraced until very recently. The UKIP promises to take Britain out of the EU, scale back immigration and take back power from an ingrown metropolitan elite that seems to have lost touch with the country beyond London. It favors decentralization and wishes Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. This form of nationalism, driven primarily by politicians with a strong English identity, has risen far more swiftly than Scottish nationalism.
If a surging English national identity obtains a successful political outlet, it is bound to be awkward for the SNP. In many ways, the party is a postnationalist force whose desire for self-determination seems to extend only to curtailing London’s influence and establishing its own local absolutism. In most other respects, it adheres to a one-world philosophy and is comfortable with the globalization agenda that has powered the EU, the environmental movement, and the cause of free movements of people and trade.
If England were shaking off external overlordship and reclaiming its sovereignty, the task of creating a viable state would be immense. Many of its institutions and elites now lack vigor and legitimacy. Too many of its once-dynamic cities only hang together thanks to regular injections of state funding. Absent a booming financial-services industry that is largely dependent on foreigners, Westminster might be facing bankruptcy. Nevertheless, there are forces of improvement capable of harnessing national energies that might even have the resolve to turn England into a tolerably contented and efficient maritime Switzerland.
In Scotland, by contrast, an ambitious “change” party relies on a sprawling bureaucracy and a clutch of progressive interest groups to build a self-reliant nation. These are not exactly forces equipped to give a new state the very best start in life. As a result, at least for now, a majority of Scots (albeit a shrinking one) appear to glimpse the void behind the rousing rhetoric of Alex Salmond and his votaries.
Tom Gallagher is the author, most recently, of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction & Christian Crisis (Argyll Publishing, 2013).
Image: Scottish Government. CC BY 2.0.