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.