Scotland's Challenge To The Anglosphere


You might be hard pressed to decide what unites the Pope, Richard Dawkins, Mick Jagger, Tony Blair, Paul McCartney, Hillary Clinton and J.K. Rowling.

Apart from the fact they’re all millionaires, they’ve all spoken out in opposition to Scottish independence.

On 18 September, over 4 million residents of Scotland, aged 16 and over, will vote on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The Scottish National Party (SNP) and other nationalist forces have united behind the Yes Campaign, which presents a measured and optimistic program for a transition towards independence in 2016.

In opposition, there has been a well-financed campaign from Better Together, the unionist movement led by former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling, which highlights the economic and political dangers of breaking with the rest of the United Kingdom.

After the SNP’s overwhelming victory in May 2011 elections for the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond relaunched his party’s long-standing commitment for a referendum on independence.

Last November, the SNP launched “Scotland's Future”, a white paper setting out the Scottish Government's vision for an independent Scotland. The white paper presented a minimalist vision that would increase Holyrood’s control of the economy, taxation and finance, but do little else to scare the horses: the SNP pledged to maintain the Pound and the monarchy, remain in NATO and avoid nationalisations.

Over the last year, the Yes campaign has been trailing in the polls. It’s hardly surprising given the array of forces advocating a No vote: the Labour Party, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have all railed against the SNP’s policies; the British press, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, have editorialised against independence; and even nominal leftists like George Galloway of the Respect Party have denounced independence as a blow to the unity of the British working class.

Our own English-born Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has weighed into the debate, arguing that “that the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, the friends of freedom”.

Pressed into action by an anxious UK government, Barack Obama has said that the United States “obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.”

The US government is concerned about one of the few radical proposals in the SNP independence manifesto: the removal of Trident nuclear submarines from Scottish waters. To rid Faslane and Holy Loch of nuclear missiles would have a fundamental impact on the current British debate on the renewal of Trident, which will have an 80 billion pound price tag, regardless of who rules in Edinburgh or London.

Scotland remains a deeply unequal society, with half the country’s land owned by just 432 people and most industry controlled by overseas capital. For much of the Scottish Left, a vote for independence is a chance to challenge the long held support of Scottish elites for the British Empire.

In their book ‘Yes – the radical case for Scottish independence’, James Foley and Pete Ramand argue that “a Yes vote would close a dark chapter of Scottish history and force all UK nations to confront our colonial past. It would end the fantasy of holding Europe down with nuclear force, rather than diplomacy. And it would weaken, beyond redemption, one of the most reactionary American client regimes in world affairs. As internationalists, we welcome these prospects.”

Since the 2011 elections, the SNP has positioned itself to the left of the British Labour Party on many policy questions, working to protect the social democratic advances that Scotland holds over the rest of the United Kingdom (no tuition fees at university, free medical prescriptions for the elderly and disabled and higher rates of investment in the National Health Service).

Yes campaigners have proposed that an independent Scotland could further develop a Nordic-style social democracy, breaking from UK capital’s focus on “banking, bullshit and bombs” (financial speculation, public relations and the arms industry – the sectors that have survived British de-industrialisation under Maggie Thatcher and the global financial crisis).

Scotland has not elected a Tory majority since 1955, suffering through Conservative Party administrations under Heath, Thatcher, Major and now Cameron (the Radical Independence movement and the National Collective – a movement of artists and writers in support of a Yes vote – would add Tony Blair to that list, given widespread Scottish opposition to the UK’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq).

Labour supporters in the No campaign highlight the SNP’s conservative heritage, but for many working class activists, this perspective carries little weight. Polling clearly shows that workers are more strongly in favour of independence than the rich.

Polling during the final weeks of the campaign also shows a much closer vote than predicted, with a surge of support for independence. In response, more and more celebrities are being wheeled out to campaign for unity in the United Kingdom.

The “Let’s stay together” letter has been signed by hundreds of celebrities, from astronomers (Stephen Hawking) and actors (Dame Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Cowell) to atheist philosophers (Richard Dawkins). You can defend the United Kingdom according to your own musical taste, with endorsements for the No campaign from Mick Jagger, Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Bowie, Sting and Bryan Ferry.

For radicals in the independence campaign, the SNP’s pragmatic decision to retain the Queen as head of state misses an opportunity to highlight the democratic deficit in the United Kingdom, which has no constitution, first past the post voting and an upper house full of Church of England bishops, superannuated politicians and the few remaining hereditary peers.

Colin Fox is a former Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) from the Scottish Socialist Party who serves on the Yes campaign advisory board. In his latest polemic ‘For a modern democratic republic’, Fox argues: “Feudal institutions based on hereditary privileges and divine rights passed down to monarchs from The Almighty have no part to play in modern political structures and democratic constitutions, let alone at their apex. The British monarchy is clearly not modern, it is patently not democratic and it is certainly not egalitarian.”

Beyond the question of democratic rights, debate about the economy, the future of the Pound, British investment and control of North Sea oil has been central to the referendum campaign.

Independence would not mean paradise, given the extensive British investment in the Scottish economy and the cost of a post-UK transition. But the Yes campaign has sparked extensive debate on the potential for reinvestment through a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund, using revenues from the remaining North Sea oil.

Could five million people rebuild manufacturing, promote renewable energy and draw on existing tourist infrastructure (think golf courses and whisky)? If independence came tomorrow, Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the OECD, based on GDP per capita, ahead of the rest of the UK, ranked number 15.

Whatever the result on 18 September, Scotland has begun a discussion about democracy and development in the Anglosphere. It’s a debate that Australians might like to join.

Some extra reading

Yes campaign

Better together

Scotland's Future 

Yes – the radical case for Scottish independence 

Colin Fox – For a modern democratic republic

Let’s stay together

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.