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