Many Americans seem baffled that Scotland isn’t already independent – after all didn’t they win their freeeeeeddddoooooommmmmm at the end of Braveheart? Many more seem confused as to how they’re being allowed to vote on independence at all since in most places and times Nation-States don’t let their provinces walk away. If Tibet or Chechnya or Texas could vote on independence from their respective world powers the map might look very different.
The thing is, the United Kingdom is in sort of an odd place right now. A century ago they were an Empire with colonies and possessions all over the world. Today almost all of those former imperial possessions have gone their own way, albeit as part of a Commonwealth of Nations that includes special provisions for trade and migration. Somewhere along the way, the political elite realized they could not hold on to the empire any more and made a choice to outsource maintenance of the remaining problematic areas (Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, etc) to America while letting the rest go. It makes sense. If the Irish had been able to just line up and vote on Easter Sunday back in 1916 they might have turned independence down – business interests weren’t keen to give up their linkages to markets in the UK any more than their modern counterparts in Scotland are. Instead, Britain fought them and ended up in a grueling and expensive guerrilla war that they could not win. So when popular sentiment in Canada and Australia swung towards independence, keeping things nice and tidy with a proper election was the obvious Brittish response. Perhaps unfortunately for the political elites in London, that set a precedent. So that’s the first piece of the puzzle.
There has always been a strong sense of national identity in Scotland, albeit subsumed into a British regional identity for many. But up until very recently this national identity had no political expression – Scotland and Wales had no more self-governing authority than Northumbria or Cornwall. That changed with Devolution and the first steps towards a more Federal UK.
Now for Americans the word “federal” conjures up images of our federal government which is large and fairly centralized and often perceived as a big blundering bully. The thing is, when you compare a system like ours to a Unitary system (Like France or China or pre-devolution UK) the amount of power devolved to the State governments is striking. Parents in Bretony, the Celtic region on France’s west coast settled by refugees from the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain centuries ago, cannot educate their children in their own language – Breton – because racist voters in Paris who didn’t want immigrants setting up Arabic schools passed laws saying that all education in France must be in French and in the French political system all power flows from the center.
Elites in London ruled the same way for most of Britain’s history. The resentment felt by the other parts of the UK over this basic fact has been a major driver towards independence movements. In an effort to quell such feeling, the UK set up regional national Parliaments for all of those smaller nations that are included in the UK. English Nationalists point out that this leaves them relatively unrepresented because there is no strictly English Parliament, but in real terms the British Parliament IS the English parliament and always has been. There just aren’t enough Scottish and Welsh MP’s to make a difference when 86% of the UK lives in England and there are more people in London than all of Scotland. In 1974 when Scotland elected SNP candidates for 1/3 of their delegation to Westminster the talk of devolution suddenly got serious and in79 there was a referendum on devolution, complete with scare stories from the UK parties about how it would wreck the economy, but people voted for it anyway. The Scottish parliament was relatively powerless at first but every time the secessionist parties make headway in the polls London offers more powers – in fact they’re offering a whole slew of (unspecified and nonbinding) powers right now to try and bribe the Scots to stay. So the trend toward devolution and decentralization is the second big factor.
The third and final piece of the puzzle is the disgust and disillusionment many if not most Scottish voters feel towards the UK political parties. UK Labour completely abandoned its Socialist roots a decade and a half ago and moved to the right in an effort to capture conservative voters in the south of England – much to the dismay of Scottish voters who had supported Labour overwhelmingly for decades. When Blaire took the UK to war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition, the Scottish National Party was perfectly positioned to provide a left alternative and they won a narrow majority in the Scottish Parliament. That majority was consolidated further in the last election and – true to their word – set the wheels in motion for this week’s referendum. With a clear democratic mandate for the referendum and strong historical precedents, the UK parliament had no choice but to let the vote go ahead.
And that’s why, 80 years after the founding of the SNP, Scotland gets to vote on independence this Thursday.
Don’t let the fact that it was an SNP victory that laid the groundwork for the vote make you think it’s all about them though. One of the things that makes this campaign so interesting is the broad cross-party coalitions that have been thrown together. But more on that later…