Terrorist attacks, economic collapse and a sad queen. This nightmare scenario is about to play out in Britain and it’s all Scotland’s fault. Or perhaps not.
That’s right—forget Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay, this could be the break-up of the century, as Scotland prepares to vote on whether to leave Great Britain and go it alone. The referendum takes place on 18 September, and now, for the first time, it looks like the Yes (to independence) camp is in the lead—but only just. The only winners so far have been the Clash, whose 1982 classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go” has been staple fare for uninspired TV news magazine programs.
Scotland has had its own devolved government since 1999 in the form of the Scottish Parliament. This has limited powers in areas like education, health and policing, over which it generally has a more progressive approach than the rest of the UK. For example, university education in Scotland is free, while in the rest of the UK it costs up to £9,000 a year. But other issues, like welfare payments, foreign policy and government borrowing, are outside the Scottish parliament’s remit.
So the Scottish government, currently led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) under Alex Salmond, managed in 2012 to secure a referendum. At the time, the UK government probably thought it wasn’t worth worrying about, with pro-independence sentiment traditionally held by a minority in Scotland—albeit a sizable one. That certainly seemed the case for quite a long time–one poll by YouGov just a month ago suggested a 20 per cent lead for the pro-union No campaign.
But–oops–something seems to have gone wrong for the British establishment, with recent polls putting the Yes campaign several per cent ahead of the Noes. To say it’s a shock to the political elite is an understatement. It’s a little like the story of the tortoise and the hare–with the hare not bothering to leave the starting blocks until it realized that its opponent had somehow got hold of a McLaren F1.
The UK is currently led by an unpopular coalition between the right-wing Tories and the not-as-right-wing Liberal Democrats, the latter facing poll meltdown having been widely seen to cast aside all principles to hop into bed with the former at the first whiff of power. The opposition is Labour, which has—perhaps—taken a small step leftwards since the disastrous days of Tony Blair but which is still, I’ll be charitable, not quite the bastion of the poor it once claimed to be.
One of the reasons people in Scotland are taking up the call for independence is the grinding austerity meted out on some of the poorest people in the UK following the economic crisis. These cost-cutting exercises have arguably affected people in Scotland more than elsewhere in the UK, despite Scotland’s natural oil wealth which flows direct to the UK government. The public sector cuts are being administered by a cabinet of upper class English former public schoolboys whose own experience of austerity has probably been limiting themselves to just two bottles of Krug Champagne at lunchtime before moving onto Moët & Chandon.
You might remember that the crisis was caused by big finance and greedy bankers, but it’s since been blamed on poor people selfish enough to want enough money to afford their rent and have three meals a day. London is the UK’s financial centre. Scotland used to have a thriving manufacturing sector, until former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed huge swathes of it in the 1980s.
But you get what you vote for, right? Well, that’s part of the problem. Since the end of the Second World War, Scotland has spent half of its time with governments it didn’t vote for, having to endure the same leadership voted for by the UK as a whole.
So the establishment has started to engage in a public brainstorming of half thought out policy promises to woo Scotland’s voters while at the same time making wild threats and scare stories to terrify them into submission. All at the same time. It’s little wonder that the pro-union’s Better Together campaign has been unkindly renamed “Project Fear”.
The party leaders decided, for example, that they had better go to visit Scotland this week and forego the traditional pantomime of Prime Ministers Questions in Parliament to tell Scotland that we’re still BFFs. It all feels like a distant cousin who’s just found out that Aunty Betty is about to die and thought he’d pay a visit to talk about inheritance. Many Scottish voters have reacted in the same way that the Islamic State might do if Donald Rumsfeld turned up in Falluja to convince them to swap their guns for miniature American flags.
Speaking of the Islamic State, they’re even speaking about the Islamic State. Because if all else fails: terrorism. Prime Minister David Cameron actually said that one of the “strongest arguments” against independence was the threat of terrorism. His logic is that Scotland would lose out on the defense and security services of the UK, which have done so much in recent years to foster world peace. Others have even suggested that IS are threatening to kill kidnapped Scottish aid worker David Haines in an attempt to strengthen the vote for independence. You don’t want to vote with TERRORISTS, do you?
Elsewhere, Labour leader Ed Miliband, a lackluster premier-in-waiting whose strategy to win next year’s general election seems to be to remind people he’s not the Tories, has argued that they may need to create a border complete with guards to inspect your passports. Even the Queen is said to be “privately horrified” at the prospect of independence. The mainstream Yes campaign actually wants to retain the Queen, but republicanism is far more entrenched in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK.
But the Queen can surely take some comfort in the fact that Prince William and his millionaire everywoman wife Kate Middleton have just announced they are expecting a new royal. That the announcement came just after the news that the Yes campaign was ahead in the polls is purely coincidental. London’s Metro newspaper carried the front page headline: “A royal baby to the rescue: Duchess is expecting… and could that swing Scottish independence vote?” The only way that could possibly have been anything other than a tragic misinterpretation of UK-Scottish relations is if the copy below it said, “Of course not. LOL.”
More serious though is the international implication of all this. Chinese premier Li Keqiang has said that he would prefer the UK to stay in one piece. So did Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose bewildering intervention began with him saying that he didn’t want to tell anyone which way they should vote, before adding, “I think that the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, not the friends of freedom, and that the countries that would cheer at the prospect of the break-up with the United Kingdom are not the countries whose company one would like to keep.”
As for the US, Hillary Clinton said she opposed independence, while Barack Obama seemed to damn the UK with faint praise, saying it “worked pretty well”.
The US should be worried, because the UK state is important to it. There is still a certain delusion of grandeur among many in the British establishment about our role in the modern world. For example, historian Tim Stanley claims, “Everyone in Britain has the incredible fortune to be living in the greatest country on the Earth. Probably in history.” Economist Andrew Lilico, meanwhile, seems to have written his defense of the union from an alternate version of 1877: “Britain is great. It is great in just about every way. It is free. It is peaceful. It is friendly. It is rich. It is powerful… The UK is the second or third most powerful country in the world… and almost never below sixth.”
But while it’s easy to mock the fact that the special relationship between the UK and US is a bit like the special relationship between a golfer and their caddy, those golf clubs are still important.
Scotland is home to the UK’s weapons of mass destruction—the nuclear-armed Trident submarines. They are located on the Clyde in the Faslane naval base. The SNP has vowed to remove them should it get independence. The problem is, they can’t find anywhere, er, safe enough in England to put them.
Added to this is the simple fact that a fragmented UK is less powerful an ally for the US.
If Scots vote Yes it will mean the end of the United Kingdom as we know it, and potentially open the doors to further disintegration. Independence for Scotland would strengthen the case of Republicans in Northern Ireland in their push to rejoin the Republic of Ireland. And nationalist movements in places like Wales and even Cornwall would also be bolstered. But the domino effect would likely be felt further afield, with places like Catalonia, currently part of the Spanish state, watching the Scottish result carefully.
This would all be pretty embarrassing for the UK. How is it going to go on telling the rest of the world how to manage its affairs when we can’t hold our own state together?
So with a week to go, everything’s to play for. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, himself Scottish, has been delegated by the British political establishment to pull together an as yet largely undefined last ditch attempt to win voters to the No camp. This is basically a promise that if the No vote wins, Scotland will get the prime cuts of independence anyway. But the danger for Better Together is that it looks a bit like someone who owes you money suddenly realising they need you to testify on their behalf in court and suddenly finding £20 down the back of the sofa.
And as the timer counts down, we can probably expect a few more desperate manoeuvres by both camps. Rupert Murdoch is rumoured to bring out his newspaper empire in favour of independence, while Tony Blair has yet to foul things up by saying anything.
There are lots of things that will have to be ironed out. What currency would an independent Scotland use? Could it—or should it—join the European Union? Just what the hell will what remains of the UK and Great Britain call itself once Scotland jumps ship?
The funny thing is, the UK doesn’t know. A recent parliamentary discussion revealed that the UK has no plan B for a Yes vote. That’s right—it has literally no contingency plans for the state’s break-up, so convinced were the unionists that they would win. Of course, this might be yet another scare tactic, but either way it’s not the most inspiring thing to hear from a government.
Scotland isn’t oppressed in the same way that, say, Northern Ireland has been. This isn’t a struggle for independence like that of former colonies. But it does offer the chance to give others in the UK hope that the London-based elite can be challenged. It also gives the opportunity to break up a union whose global activities have caused such devastation around the world throughout its history.
The Yes campaign has seen an unprecedented number of people get involved in the political process and realize the potential for change. Whatever the result, things will have changed forever after 18 September.