The pro-independent Scotland campaign has gained the momentum to win as Scots go to a referendum next week to decide on whether the country will secede from the United Kingdom. As the contest comes down to the wire, the Yes campaign is edging ahead after months of trailing in polls behind the No campaign. The latter faction, whose rallying call is Better Together, is canvassing for Scotland to retain its 307-year-old union with England.
The decisive factor seems to be the large pool of hitherto undecided voters, who now appear to be casting their ballots in favor of independence. This late surge in support has prompted what can only be described as panic among the London-based Westminster political establishment. All three main parties in Britain have been stridently backing the No campaign. But this week the leaders of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, made surprise visits to Scotland in a bid to bolster the faltering No vote. Labour leader Ed Miliband also traveled north to rally would-be No voters with promises that the Westminster Parliament was going to fast-track more devolution powers to Scotland if it remains within the Union.
But the pro-independence movement, spearheaded by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) led by the pugnacious Alex Salmond, is not buying the last-gasp attempt to dissuade a Yes vote. Sounding more confident that usual, Salmond dismissed the «Westminster gang» of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband in desperation mode.
Scotland already has a devolved government, with Salmond as its First Minister. It was established in 1999 and has its own assembly based in the ancient Scottish capital of Edinburgh. Its legislative powers, however, are limited. London still retains the executive power on the major issues of economic and foreign policy. The move towards devolution was granted by the central London government under Labour when Tony Blair was prime minister in the late 1990s. It was seen then as a stopgap against a movement for full independence. But with the SNP dominating the new Scottish parliament, the long-sought-for referendum on secession was eventually granted. On September 18, the Scots will vote on establishing a distinctly sovereign state.
«I will be heartbroken if Scotland decides to leave our family of nations», said David Cameron while on the campaign trail. Heartbroken he will be too because the rank-and-file within his own Conservative Party are now grumbling that if the No vote loses next Thursday then they will call for Cameron’s sacking as leader and prime minister. The feeling among the Tory benches is that Cameron made a fatal tactical error in granting the go-ahead for the referendum in the first place. «He will be seen as the British prime minister who dismantled the United Kingdom», was how one Conservative MP put it.
There are other potentially damaging repercussions for Cameron’s government if Scotland should quit the Union. The secession of Scotland will place the center-right Conservatives into sharper competition with the more rightwing UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has risen dramatically in recent polls to upend the three main parties. The vociferously anti-European Union UKIP wants Britain to quit the EU altogether over grievances of immigration and alleged infringement of sovereignty by Brussels. It has been stealing traditional Conservative voters and even MPs away from Cameron’s party. Cameron has vowed to put EU membership to a referendum if his party wins parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. That move is partly Cameron’s way of stemming the loss from his party to the rival UKIP. If Scotland goes independent then it will not participate in any future UK referendum on Europe. Since the Scots tend to be more Europhile than the English the upshot could be a referendum pulling the plug on London’s EU membership. That would have major strategic implications for London’s foreign policy and its crucial importance as an international financial centre.
Another factor that the London establishment is having deep misgivings over is the issue of North Sea oil and gas. Scottish independence would see 90 per cent of all future tax revenues being directed to Edinburgh rather than London since most of the oil and gas fields will lie within Scottish maritime territory. Since the North Sea began pumping hydrocarbons from the early 1980s, billions of dollars-worth has flowed into the London exchequer. A poignant campaign issue for the pro-independence people is that Scotland has missed out on much oil wealth that was arguably theirs by right. The oil bonanza propped up London-centered governments, both Conservative and Labour, which squandered it on tax cuts for the rich and overseas wars, while Scotland underwent deindustrialization and poverty from the loss of its heavy industries of coalmining, shipbuilding and steelworks.
The peak of oil and gas production from the North Sea may have passed, but Salmond’s SNP reckon that there are still trillions of dollars-worth to be tapped over the next coming decades. The pro-independence people want the proceeds to be used to diversify the Scottish economy and to transform into what they say should be one of the world’s wealthiest states – after years of neglect under successive London governments. Scotland has a population of just five million against a UK population of 60 million.
David Cameron said of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour heave-ho this week for a No vote: «There’s a lot that divides us, but there’s one thing on which we agree passionately – the UK is better together.»
Behind Cameron’s soothing words is a fear among the UK establishment of what the knock-on constitutional impact of Scottish independence will be for the remaining and much-reduced Union.
A headline in the Guardian newspaper this week intimated the danger. ‘Scottish devolution timetable triggers call for more powers for English regions’. Even if the referendum on September 18 does not produce a victory for Scottish independence on this occasion, the dynamic towards decentralizing power from London seems irreversible. And from the British ruling class point of view, the danger is not just from Scotland seceding; a growing separatist current is undermining the entire political and economic construct of the United Kingdom.
The debate over Scotland’s independence is bound to stoke similar sentiments in Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions, from Newcastle and Tyneside in the far north to Cornwall and Dorset in the far southwest.
The United Kingdom is something of a forced marriage between England, Scotland (in 1707) Wales and Ireland (in 1801). The powerful English aristocracy and mercantile class, with its moneyed-centre in London, used the United Kingdom as a political means of control over peripheral regions, including those of England. Centuries of contrived British identity have papered over deep-seated separatist sentiments. This was why British governments ruthlessly suppressed Irish republicanism over the past century in order to prevent the «separatist rot» spreading to the other parts of the kingdom.
This fear of implosion of the United Kingdom and the power base of the British rulers is what underlies their «panic mode» ahead of the Scottish referendum. Salmond’s SNP is not calling for a republican revolution, and many of his party’s economic policies seem no different from the London neoliberal consensus. But the repercussions for the United Kingdom from Scottish independence could have far-reaching diminution of Britain’s political and economic power. And that’s got to be a good thing, given its propensity for overseas wars and imperialist meddling otherwise.
David Cameron has ordered the Scottish flag, the Saltire, to be flown over his Downing Street residence until voting day. It may well turn out to be a surrender flag.