Is Scotland heading towards independence?
The result of the Elections for the Scottish Parliament of May 5 has been widely described as historic. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which was created to gain independence, won an overall majority, something no other party has achieved in the devolved Scottish Parliament. In fact, the electoral system was designed by a previous UK Labour Government especially to make such a result unlikely, if not impossible. Labour, LibDem and the Conservatives all lost seats: Labour even in areas in and around Glasgow which they have held for decades. There is now a mood of optimism and confidence in Scotland, and the SNP is committed to holding a referendum on independence in mid-term.
Scotland is one of oldest nation states in Europe and we resisted English invasion for centuries. In 1603 the Scottish King, James VI, whose grandmother was an English princess, succeeded to the English throne. After the failure of the Darien scheme which the English Government did their best to disrupt, the Scottish Parliament in 1703 passed a bill to restore full independence on the death of Queen Anne by electing a separate Scottish monarch on her death. The English Government responded by first threatening invasion and then offering negotiations. The Scottish delegation was appointed by Queen Anne and during the talks the English side refused to discuss any proposal except their own. This led to a draft Treaty for the Union of the two kingdoms. The consent of the Scottish Parliament was achieved by the heavy bribery of some members. At that time the Scottish Parliament, like others, consisted almost entirely of the aristocracy and representatives of the landowners. The people of Scotland declared their opposition to the union in a flood of messages, but they were ignored.
Scottish opposition to the union continued for decades, although at that time the Parliament did not interfere greatly with the lives of most of the population. Even after the union many important Scottish institutions remained under Scottish control; the Church, the legal system, education and local government. Scotland continued to develop its distinctive intellectual and cultural life.
During the nineteenth-century many Scots became reconciled to the union mainly because of the Empire. This was valuable for Scottish trade and many Scots had important roles in its development and administration. A complete false view of the origin of the union of 1707 became widely accepted. At the end of the Second World War many of the Empire’s colonies achieved independence, but not, so far, Scotland. Since that time the study, appreciation and revival of Scottish cultural and intellectual life has become very vigorous and along with this, so has the desire to recover independence.
In the last few years opinion polls have suggested that a majority of Scots are opposed to independence, but in earlier years the opposite was true. Polls are volatile. After all, only a few weeks ago they predicted a Labour victory in the May elections. The strong support for the SNP in that election and the evident admiration and widespread approval of Alex Salmond and his team of ministers is likely to influence opinion in favour of independence.
The union has recently had some very adverse effects on Scotland. In particular, the seizure by the UK Government of the proceeds of the oil in Scottish waters which could have made Scotland a very rich country. Then, the creation of a fleet of nuclear submarines on the Clyde and war in Iraq, both of which are opposed by the majority of Scottish people. Scotland does not share the evident anxiety of English politicians to cling to the dangerous illusion that the UK is still a Great Power.
David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, in one of his essays said that small countries were the best form of government because everything lies under the eyes of the ruler. That this is true is apparent, for example, from the fact that small countries in Europe, many much smaller than Scotland, are among the most prosperous.
In fact, as I said in a recent book, A Nation Again (Luath Press): “The advantages of independence are so great and so obvious that it cannot be long before we demand it in a referendum. At my age, I only hope that I can live long enough to see it.”
Paul Henderson Scott has written numerous books on Scottish history, literature and affairs, including ‘A 20th Century Life’ and its sequel, ‘The New Scotland’. He has been Rector of Dundee University, President of the Saltire Society and of Scottish PEN and a Vice-President of the Scottish National Party. The opinions expressed are his own.
Image – Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is seen gesturing in front of the national flag during the launch of the St. Andrew’s Day and Winter festival programme at St. Margaret’s Primary School in Loanhead near Edinburgh, Scotland in this November 2, 2007 file photograph. REUTERS/David Moir