Irish nationalists and northern unionists will be fascinated by the current goings-on in Scotland. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist First Minister, has locked his politically astute horns with Westminster in a tantalizing bid to shake Scotland out of the United Kingdom. A referendum on Scottish independence will take place in September which will offer a straight choice between the status quo and absolute independence. The nationalists preferred a ranked choice vote on three options: the status quo, absolute separation, or “devo-max” in which all major powers are transferred from Westminster to Edinburgh. Devo-max would be effective home rule for Scotland with only foreign policy and defense managed at United Kingdom level, and could well have been a major step towards complete separation. Polls in Scotland have shown support for this option as high as 70%, but it is not on the table.
All of this raises several fascinating questions, one of which is how did Scotland end up in this union with England in the first place?
The answer lies partly in a looming 17th century succession crisis that was set to strengthen the hand of the exiled catholic King James Edward Stuart who was living in France. The English feared that he would make a bid for the throne with French backing and Scottish support. Removing Scottish independence, something that had been attempted by force many times, now became a priority.
An opportunity for the English came with an ill-fated investment made by the Scottish people in the 1690s. After years of pestilence and food shortages, a group of merchants and bankers saw an opportunity to turn Scotland into an international trading powerhouse by establishing a trading post in Panama. The idea was to develop the Isthmus of Darien, the most narrow point of the Americas, into a trading route. Ships would unload their cargo on the Caribbean side, and the cargo would be hauled a mere 40 miles over land to waiting ships on the Pacific side. This fore-runner of the Panama Canal would shave thousands of miles off the journey between Europe and Asia while eliminating the risk of navigating the treacherous Straits of Magellan. All of the world’s global shipping would be funneled into this one point at which the Scots would collect a fee from all comers. All of Scotland’s financial problems would be solved.
With pound signs in their eyes, the Scottish people invested heavily in the scheme, many of them pouring their life savings into what they believed to be a sure-fire pathway to wealth, but soon after the first expeditionary ship set sail, forty crew and passengers died on the journey. When they reached land they found a mosquito-infested swamp and not the tropical paradise that had been promised in their poorly-sourced information, and illness quickly wiped out most of the colony. The English parliament outlawed any investment in or support for the beleaguered enterprise, and before long the scheme died taking a third of Scotland’s liquid capital with it. The heavily indebted Scottish were offered a bail-out by the English government in exchange for joining a unitary British state with its parliament in London. The English and Scottish parliaments both passed the necessary legislation, the union came into being in 1707, and it has remained long after the Darien scheme has been largely forgotten.
For Irish people, this story of unwise investments fueled by the greedy pursuit of seemingly certain easy wealth, heavy losses incurred by the population, and a bail-out in exchange for a loss of sovereignty has a certain familiar ring to it.
So how viable would a modern independent Scotland be? Mr Salmond used to refer to an “arc of prosperity” that included Iceland and the then booming Irish Republic, a line that has been quietly dropped for obvious reasons. A more apt comparison would be with Norway which has exploited North Sea oil reserves and wisely invested the tax takings in education and infrastructure to build a prosperous economy outside of the European Union that has thrived like a Nordic equivalent of the oil-rich micro-states of the Persian Gulf. However, North Sea oil production peaked in the 1990s and the remaining reserves are increasingly difficult (i.e. expensive) to get at. Much of Scotland’s economy is heavily dependent on the state and some doubt how competitive it could be if it went alone. Nevertheless Salmond, a former oil economist, has made a great deal of the fact that Scotland’s natural resources have effectively subsidized the UK for decades, so there may still be some political capital to be found beneath the waves.
Should Scotland secede? The original purpose of the union is long gone and forgotten, but it did form one of the most successful and powerful states in history. The United Kingdom was the engine of the industrial revolution and has left an indelible mark on the world for better or worse. But that does not mean that Scotland should stay in a union that many feel benefitted England at the expense of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Those countries would be better governed and their own interests put first if they were left to govern themselves and not subject to the interests of more numerous English legislators in Westminster. Neither should anyone discount the importance of preserving national identity through self determination.
Another question is how Scottish independence would affect Ireland. Northern unionists proclaim their loyalty to the “British” Queen and their “British” identity. What happens when “Britain” ceases to exist as a single political entity? Other northern unionists justify the union with Britain citing historic cultural and ethnic links with Scotland. In building up an identity for the northern state they have emphasized the Scottish ancestry of the planters and more recently concocted an “Ulster Scot” identity. After Scottish secession would they come to realize that the whole idea is a farce because they were Irish all along? Unionism is already divided between who wants to cooperate with Irish nationalists and who does not. It is divided to a lesser extent between those who want integration with Britain and those who support devolution. Scottish independence would likely divide it further as the dominoes of the UK start to fall and Celtic nationalism thrives.
However this may all be academic. Current polling shows recent gains on both sides with 41 percent saying yes on secession and 46 percent saying no, an increase of 2 percent for each side since last month. The ‘Yes’ campaign has made impressive progress, but it still has much work to do if it is to have a realistic chance of getting over finish the line in first place.