‘Braveheart’ they’re not. What’s Scotland’s problem with a United Kingdom?

By John Lloyd
August 19, 2014

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The collapse of empires has been regarded as a good thing for at least a century, much strengthened by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War One, where he sought to inscribe into international practice and law the right of all peoples to achieve a national state.

The lifting of the incubus of Soviet Communism in 1991 from the states of Central and Eastern Europe was opposed only by a few worried political leaders and rather more dispossessed Communists, but even they either put on a smile or kept their heads down. George H.W. Bush, in the White House when the Soviet center would no longer hold, tried to stem the communist tide by embracing his new friend, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, to avoid chaos in the east — in vain. Nationalism, which the Soviet Union’s ideologists had regarded as one of the cardinal sins and had filled the gulags for decades with those suspected of harbouring its sentiments, triumphed.

Now comes Scotland’s turn. The residents of Scotland, on Sept. 18, will vote on the simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Scotland? What’s the problem?

Though Scotland has been and remains a great creator of myths about itself, it has strained to make a strong case that it has suffered much under the domination of the English. For a few years in the late 1990s, it hooked itself  to the Braveheart phenomenon – the surge of anti-English nationalism unleashed by Mel Gibson’s gory piece of adolescent fantasy – but even Scottish nationalists are now embarrassed by that. The nation (no one doubts it is that) is the third-richest region in the United Kingdom, with a booming oil business and a financial sector that is still – even after the financial crash that almost finished the overextended Royal Bank of Scotland — the major such center after London.

It’s been part of the United Kingdom since the two parliaments were voluntarily joined in one – at London’s Westminster – in 1707. Indeed, that union is the reason why the country is called the United Kingdom because they were the only two parts of it that had developed a monarchical state. Vital to the union was that Scotland, then and now by far the smaller partner, would retain control of education, justice and, most important at that time, religion. It has done so since, and in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland became rich as the British Empire – in which Scots were disproportionately active and prominent – made the United Kingdom the world’s greatest power.

The mid-late 20th century was less kind, as Scotland’s coal, steel and engineering industries floundered, sought state protection but still closed. Yet in the 1970s, the big oil finds in the North Sea changed the equation, providing the fuel for the Scottish National Party rocket and its winning slogan: “It’s Scotland’s Oil.” Forty years later, it was providing the government in the devolved Scottish parliament, using its bully pulpit to press for full independence – or as Braveheart/Gibson screamed “Freedom!”

The English, who outnumber the Scots by 10-1, have been low key (in that English way) about all this, though Tony Blair’s Labour government brought in devolution,  which was, according to one Labour minister, going to “kill nationalism stone dead.” If so, it’s been slow to do the deed. Under a quick-witted and till now popular leader, the Nationalists have eclipsed the old established British parties – Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats – and are now the leading nationalist force in Europe.

This is one large reason why the independence of 5.5 million people with declining oil reserves matters. Europe has a raft of separatist stirrings: Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain; the Flemish Movement in Belgium; Corsica in France, and Padania in the north of Italy. Beyond Europe, many Quebeckers still yearn for independence from Canada. And to extend the separatist cause worldwide, few regions – among them the former Soviet Union, China and South East Asia, India, Africa, South America – do not host discontented areas and/or national groups that think they might do better alone. Scotland achieving the nationalists’ goal, thus breaking up one of the world’s most stable states, would be a powerful exemplar.

The other large effect of Scottish independence would be in Europe itself. The European Union still hovers between a return to economic health and prolonged weakness. Greece, and to a lesser extent Spain, continue to be worrisome. France remains politically and economically stagnant. Worst of all, Italy has slipped back into recession. Former Senator Antonio Polito wrote in Wednesday’s Corriere della Sera that four prime ministers over less than four years have all promised a new start, all failed to produce one and that the European Union leaders were beginning to ask: Can Italy reform itself? Were the United Kingdom, though semi-detached from Europe (it doesn’t use the Euro currency), to break up, it would be more evidence of European weakness, even irrelevance, in a steadily more threatening world.

When Nationalists’ leader Alex Salmond last week debated the leader of the “No” ( to Independence) campaign, he came off badly when pressed on economic issues but got the biggest cheer when he said that only those who lived and worked in Scotland should have a say in its government.  With these words, he drove a stake through the heart of three centuries of  a multinational state that brought the English into union with Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh and was thought to have made each respect the other more, as they worked together, fought wars together, voted for the same parties, married and forged friendships.

This in the name of … “Freedom!” But for what purpose? From what oppression?

PHOTO: Mel Gibson is shown as he directs a scene of his film “Braveheart,” in this publicity photo.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Alex Salmond on who should rule Scotland. Salmond’s first name was also misspelled. 

10 comments

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Why do all those who get into power always want to consolidate, instead of keeping their cultural identity? In a few generations we’ll all be light brown, have Asian eyes, cark curly fuzz hair and brown eyes.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

Is there some sort of universal template available to distressed Unionist gentlefolk for these pieces – vague threats and foretellings of doom all covered in a slick of nostalgic sentimentality?

And always with the Braveheart.

Posted by Theuniondivvie | Report as abusive

The British in 1898 leashed Sabah from the Sultanate of of Sulu of the Philippines, like in Hong Kong. The British gave Hong Kong back to China after the lease. In 1960 the British left Sabah and gave Sabah to Malaysia. The Philippines is the rightful owner of Sabah.

Posted by k4n4d4 | Report as abusive

Speaking as an English person, if I could vote for Scottish independence, I would vote yes. They have a very different political culture and frankly I think England would be better off without them. Their best and most entrepreneurial will end up in London soon enough after the reality of turning onto Cuba-on-the-Clyde sinks in, so win-win the the South I say.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

That last comment sums up the whole situation “Freedom!” But for what purpose? From what oppression? A separate Scotland will suffer on the world stage, Alex Salmond will go down in history as the man that destroyed Scotland. The rest of the UK on the other hand will adapt and prosper. If Scotland votes Yes in September we require strong leadership from Westminster to ensure that the rest of the UK are protected from Scotland grabbing what is not there’s. In addition a yes vote has to mean that Scottish voters have no say in the next democratically elected UK government in 2015.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

strange that a pro-independence comment isn’t posted on reuters? :-)

Posted by keviano | Report as abusive

What’s Scotlands problem with a United Kingdom? Let me see – being forced by the UK Government to pay hundreds of millions in contributions every year to the upkeep of a disgustingly immoral and redundant nuclear weapons programme being stored 20 miles from our largest city in the form of Trident is a bg problem for me. Being governed by the Eton boys club in London and told how we should spend our own money made from harvesting our own natural resources. Not being allowed to make our own decisions on issues regarding benefits and social security, immigration, defence, foreign policy, employment, broadcasting, trade and industry, nuclear energy, oil, coal, gas and electricity. England rules Scotland!

Posted by freebird1982 | Report as abusive

Salmond didn’t say ‘Scotland to be ruled by Scots’. More Unionist desperation.

He called for Scotland to be ruled by the people who live there. That’s an entirely different thing to the lie put forward by Lloyd.

Posted by ryongsong | Report as abusive

Scotland is not the second largest UK financial centre after London, Leeds is and that is where the Green Investment Bank should have been located. Instead, Scottish abject banking failure was rewarded with jobs going to Scotland that the north of England sorely needed.

Scotland has been a ball and chain holding England back for 307 miserable long years. The ONLY country in the world to have benefited from the United Kingdom is Scotland and the sooner England is shot of Scotland the better.

Posted by StephenGash | Report as abusive

King George III’s sentiments precisely.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive