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Scottish Independence: Deep Roots

90px-Flag_of_ScotlandAt the outset I would like to establish that I am a Canadian with a Scottish heritage (among other nationalities) who really didn’t know much Scottish history until recently. However, thanks to a family who was very proud of their Scots heritage, I probably knew a little more than the average Canadian. This summer I watched the BBC’s A History of Scotland hosted by Scottish archeologist and journalist, Neil Oliver. The last program with its host’s barely disguised nationalist fervour had just aired on TVO when I heard the news that on October 15, 2012 British PM David Cameron and the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, had signed an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014.

There are a couple of points of contact for me. As intimated, my family history goes back deep into the roots of Scottish history. The Clan Mar, of which Marr is a sept, is one of the seven ancient kingdoms of Scotland. Those roots have planted themselves firmly in my DNA.

Additionally, as a Canadian, I have some experience of separatist movements. In my youth Canadian political news was filled with reports about the Front de Libération Québécois (FLQ), René Lévesque  and the Parti Québécois (PQ), and the 1972 October Crisis when civil liberties were suspended and the army sent into Quebec after the British Ambassador was kidnapped and the provincial Justice Minister kidnapped and later murdered by the FLQ.

I lived through two referendums on Quebec independence in 1980 and 1995. The latter squeaked out a victory for the federalists (those in favour of remaining within Canada). I felt very Mrs. Miniver-like when we said goodbye to our neighbour’s husband (British-born) as he volunteered his time to drive a bus filled with Canadian citizens  to Quebec  to rally Quebec’s citizens to the Federalist cause.

The modern Scottish Independence movement, led by the now-ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament, has a less dramatic history. But the Scots in their own way are as passionate as the nationalist French-Canadians. Whether that bodes greater or less success for the Scottish movement, time will only tell.

These are the reasons for this information hunting and gathering. The results follow.

The Scotsman’s article, “The Elephant We Can’t Forget“,  takes its title from former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau’s famous quote that living next to the US “…  is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”. Like Canada, Scotland has 1/10th the population of its neighbour to the south and is also subject to its larger neighbour’s twitches and grunts. The difference is that Canada is an independent country. Written by Scottish historian Tom Devine the article is an excellent backgrounder on the history of Scotland’s union with Britain and the emergence of the Scottish independence movement.

Written before the signing of the referendum agreement, The National observed in “Scottish Independence Movement Gains Momentum”  that rather than killing Scottish independence, the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament has fueled it. As to what independence would mean for Scotland, David Torrance, author of the Alex Salmond biography, Salmond: Against the Odds, offered, “I tried to think the other day of what Scottish independence as defined by the SNP would actually entail – and all I could come up with was the lowering of corporation tax, which they can’t do just now under the existing settlement, and the removal of nuclear weapons, which would take an awful long time anyway.”

Ewan Crawford, former private secretary to one-time SNP leader John Swinney offered more, “What independence will do, among other things, is give Scotland control of macro-economic policy, full taxation – the opportunity, as the SNP would see it, to create a better and more prosperous society.” 

The EU has taken a dim view of Scottish independence and promises a rocky road for the Scots if they seek to join the EU according to Walter Russell Mead’s article, “Scottish Independence Movement Shot Down by Europe“. Mead writes, “What the Scottish nationalists seem too dim to have figured out is this: The EU is a club of countries, and many countries besides the UK face secession movements. None of the central governments want to encourage breakups because they all fear the fever will spread.” Which leads me to muse, how much strength would the French-Canadian nationalists derive from a break-up in the English mother country? It would certainly be a strong talking point.

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail had some interesting things to say about Scottish independence and Quebec independence. William Johnson, former leader of Alliance Quebec  compares Quebec’s two referendum questions and Scotland’s referendum wording in “Independence Referendum? Scotland has it Right,” and appears to be trying to head off any favourable comparison  between Quebec’s nationalism and Scotland’s.

Another Globe and Mail article, “Scotland Could Thrive on its Own,” says that thanks to Scotland’s North Sea oil it could do very well economically on its own within the EU, and might even prefer the euro to the pound.

The Globe and Mail’s David Saunders explores some of the thorny issues that would bedevil separation from the UK in “A Disunited Kingdom: The Promise and Perils of Scottish Independence.” What about the offspring of this union: the oil, the submarines and the debt in the event of a split?

The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt says that Scottish opinion in favour of independence is at a record high, as high as 49%, in “‘Liberty’s in Every Blow’ as Scots March to Referendum”. She also notes predictions that the vote will be held on June 24, 2014, the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn,when Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II, and gained freedom for the Scots. Too on the nose, perhaps? We will see. One thing I’m learning through my reading is that First Minister Salmond is a canny Scot.

Ms. Delacourt also points out that Scotland is traditionally more left-leaning and having to endure Margaret Thatcher, a PM whom Scots did not vote for, was an important factor in the resurgence of Scottish nationalism.

Recently, former US president Bill Clinton commented on the wider implications of Scottish independence, stating that “… the issue of independence was a “classic case” of identity politics which, would dominate 21st century.

“We’ve got to keep working for common ground all around the world,” he said. “I think the 21st century will be decided by how we handle the identity crisis. How do we keep our special identity? You’re going to see this, you’ve got the Scottish referendum here. Classic case.”

I was interested to see what the New York Times had to say on the subject. They noted that Mr. Salmond had wanted to include the option for greater powers for Scotland within the union (devo-max, as some articles labelled it) in the referendum, but had been forced to limit the question to a “yes-no” on independence.

So where does that leave me?  I have a lot more information than when I started. I entered the search with my sympathies aligned with the independence movement, and I remain of that mind, largely because Scotland is a unique country with its own long history and unique identity. I also believe Scots deserve a representative government of the people, by the people and for the people, as the Scots who settled and influenced America believed. I also recognize that there are many issues at stake that the Scottish people must weigh. I will remain an interested observer, whose ancestral ties ensure that a piece of her heart remains in Scotland.

December 1, 2012 updates: The BBC reports that 143,000 Scots have signed the Yes, Scotland independence petition. Alex Salmond aims to have 1,000,000 signatures by 2014.

In the November 30, 2012 Montreal Gazette, Harry McGrath, a Canadian now living in Scotland, wrote an opinion piece entitled,  An independent Scotland could look a lot like…Canada?  Sadly, under our current government, it’s the Canada of the past.


Image attribution: By Cayetano – (Scotland flag  Uploaded by Smooth_O) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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