The official 16-week campaign in the lead-up to the referendum on Scottish independence on September 18 has begun. It is the most momentous election in British electoral history.
Given the stakes involved – whether or not a union that has lasted over 300 years is to end - it has inevitably attracted international attention.
The ‘Yes’ campaign, led and dominated by the SNP (Scottish National Party) and its leader, Alex Salmond, is banking on the detestation of the right wing Conservative Party (Tories) that has long existed in Scotland. This is reflected in the fact that despite being the current party of government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, there is only one Tory MP in Scotland at this point in time, thus exposing a democratic deficit that has lain at the heart of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s message.
This hatred of the Tories in Scotland is more than deserved. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 she set in train a revolution from the right which dismantled the heavy industry upon which Scotland had depended for generations, providing the employment and social cohesion responsible for giving the Scottish working class a decent quality of life.
Over three decades later and in Scotland poverty, inequality, unemployment, under-employment, low wages and the erosion of public services is the new normal for an increasing number of people. Fueling a desperate need for change has been the political degeneration of the Labour Party in Scotland which, particularly during the Blair years, shifted to the right, embracing Thatcher’s free market nostrums rather than challenging them.
The political space created by Labour’s shift to the right has been occupied by the SNP over recent years, culminating in the landslide victory it won in 2011 at the last Scottish elections, winning the party an outright majority within the devolved Scottish Parliament. It was this election victory which set the country on the path to the referendum on independence in September.
Meanwhile, the official ‘No’ campaign – which goes by the name Better Together – has been decidedly unimpressive. Led by former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, it includes a mishmash of Labour Party grandees, Tories, and Lib Dems, and has been distinctly lacking in credibility or verve. Indeed, it has been so woeful at points that its pronouncements on the issue should have come with a cringe-factor warning.
Regardless, the Yes campaign has a mountain to climb to convince enough Scots - particularly those of the working class who are natural Labour voters and whose votes will determine the outcome more than those of any other demographic - to take the leap of faith which, in the last analysis, is what a vote for independence comes down to.
The question of identity is crucial to the outcome. Scots have grown up accustomed to possessing a dual British and Scottish national identity. Currently, some 800,000 Scots live and work in England and throughout the rest of the UK, while there are tens of thousands of English people living and working in Scotland. Whether through family ties, work and business relationships, trade unions, and so on, the bonds that connect people throughout the British Isles are deep and longstanding.
In this regard, it has not only been the Scottish working class who have suffered at the hands of Tory governments at Westminster. Working class communities in the North of England, in the Midlands, in South Wales, have also come under attack, posing the question of whether or not the key divide across the United Kingdom is not nationality but economic and social class.
Making the Yes campaign’s task all the more difficult is that despite having to put up with Tory governments they never vote for, the Scots are not an oppressed national group. The Treaty of Union in 1707 which brought the United Kingdom into being was not the product of military conquest, occupation, or colonization. It was certainly the product of bribery, economic coercion, and corruption in some respects, but it was voted into existence by the Scottish Parliament at the time. In its wake Scotland and Scots played a key role in the forging of the British Empire, deriving handsome fortunes and financing Scotland’s industrial development in the process.
By contrast, Ireland’s relationship with both England and Scotland involved the worst excesses of British colonialism, responsible for almost unending conflict throughout the centuries as the Irish consistently took up arms to fight for their freedom and independence.
The campaign for Scottish independence, then, has none of the historical weight that Ireland’s struggle for national liberation has had, and still has with regard to Northern Ireland – not unless we go all the way back to the 14th century, which no serious person could countenance. Instead it hinges on the ability of the SNP – the mainstay of the Yes campaign – to convince a majority of Scots voters that Scotland will be more prosperous, progressive, and better as an independent country.
Here, though, we must define ‘independent’. The SNP/Yes campaign’s white paper, released at the end of 2013, which sets out the vision of what an independent Scotland will look like, was notable for the lack of a significant alternative to the status quo. Whether it’s the intention to join NATO, retain the British monarch as head of state, join the EU, or embrace the economic nostrums of the free market, it really does stretch the meaning of the word ‘independence’ to breaking point.
Despite this, many who support it view it as a step in the right direction, the catalyst for progressive change. On September 18, we will see if they have managed to persuade enough Scots to take that step with them.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.