The Scottish referendum on independence, in September of 2014, made headlines as the world wondered if the Britain was to lose another piece of its empire. Before this moment, probably few outside of the UK had really paid attention to the current state of the 300 year old “union of the crowns.” After All, the memory of the violence of the Irish Revolution was still fresh, and there was not much need to pay attention to the non-violent movements taking place north of England proper. For many there was a vague notion that Scotland was a place distinct from England, but it did not have the means to have a completely separate identity from the UK. But now, in what feels sudden from the perspective of the global audience, the balance of British politics is changing. The Scottish National Party not only controls the Scottish Parliament, but has become the third largest party in Westminster. As events continue to unfold, it is important to understand what makes up the Scottish national movement, the goals and history it incorporates, and what it means for the future of the United Kingdom as well as global relations.
At the heart of the issue of Scottish independence, is the question of whether a Scottish nation exists, and if so, how to address its concerns. The idea of “Scotland” first appeared hundreds of years ago in reference to the Gaelic people who inhabited the northern third of the isle of Great Britain. Today the territory remains the same, but the people that live there are much more ethnically diverse. This does not change that a Scottish nation exists, however. A nation can be defined as a collective group of people who are “united by shared cultural features (myths, values, etc.) and the belief in the right to territorial self-determination” (Barrington, 1997). The Scottish nation has changed in definition over the course of its history. Early on, the cultural features they shared were mainly the result of a shared ethnic identity, but now are politically and socially constructed. While the actual boundaries of the territory to which they claim has also changed with battles, negotiation, and common acceptance, the idea that the territory existed has stayed relatively consistent. In order for any nation to remain established, nationalism must be present to a certain degree. Nationalism is both an idea and a process that allows a nation “[to pursue] -through argument or other activity-of a set of rights for the self-defined members of the nation, including, at a minimum, territorial autonomy or sovereignty” (Barrington, 1997). Therefore, Scottish nationalism can be thought of as a movement that attempts to distinguish a Scottish national identity and actively works to acquire power and influence for that identity.
One obstacle in discussing Scottish nationalism is that it is constantly redefining itself in order to be relevant to what is seen as the current needs and desire of the nation, yet it feeds off of the progress of the previous form. It would seem that the greatest defining factor of Scottish nationalism is found in its drive to distinguish itself from England and how many methods it has employed in order to do so. This can be found as far back as the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries with the Treaty of Arbroath setting up a political movement that fought for the rights of all Scotsmen, not just rights and freedoms of the privileged classes, which was unique for a medieval movement (Walton, 2006). Attempts to establish national identity are also seen in as early as the thirteenth century through actions like the assembling a 2000-year list of the kings of Scotland by John de Balliol in an effort to establish national continuity and declare Scotland as older than England, thus discrediting their authority over the Scottish people. Even after becoming part of the United Kingdom, Scotland continued to operate under many of its own laws and institutions, a tradition that continues with surprising strength today.
Though Scottish national thought relies heavily on being able to distinguish itself from England, Scotland owes much of its autonomy to English policies and exceptions. Under the Union of the Crowns, Scotland was given much leeway in keeping her institutions. James Mitchell writes, “There was little direct communication in the form of transport links between Edinburgh and London in the century after the union. To a very large extent, London was content to let the Scots run their own affairs. It had little choice” and “Imposing strict authority across the union was not required at the time nor would it have been feasible.” By allowing Scottish institutions to remain with relatively little supervision or English direction, England allowed a sense of “Scottishness” to be preserved through difference of practice (Mitchell, 2014), and also set the stage for how their political relationship would continue to develop. Also under the Treaty of Union, Scotland was promised 45 seats in the Westminster parliament, which was disproportional to its citizenship at the time. Today, Scotland is still slightly over-represented at 59 of the 650 seats, or roughly 9.1 percent, while it made up just 8.3 percent of the total population of the United Kingdom in 2012 (BBC News, 2013). On a more abstract note, England has fueled the creation of Scottish identity by continuing an attitude of allowing exceptions in policy for Scotland and, in turn, fostered the Scottish attitude of exceptionalism which has pushed for greater and greater autonomy and devolution of power from London to Edinburgh.
Alongside being separate from Englishness, the creation of Scottish identity has included emphasis on commonality. Scottish pride has been connected to highland culture (which reflected the Gaelic roots of the Celtic Fringe), instead of lowland culture (which had been heavily anglicized) and the preservation of Gaelic literature, language and traditions (Hunter, 1975). Both the Scottish and Irish national movements recognized the importance of the ideals of Gaelic culture, and their perceived oneness of history and oppression allowed each movement to gain momentum from the success of the opposite one at specific points in time. However, Scotland was distinct from Ireland in that it relied much less on romanticized notions of self-rule and had latched on to more concrete issues of independence, as it had become socialist in political ideology far more quickly than the English (Hunter, 1975). The increase of socialist thought in Scottish national identity may have been an attempt to reconcile the disparities felt by much of the celtic fringe as compared to the English-core. There were significant differences in infrastructure and economic development that had resulted from original colonial-like occupation by the English of the celtic peoples compounded with failed modern regional policies (Rawkins, 1978). It is interesting to note that the Scottish nation has a distinct advantage by being able to identify with a heritage in this regard, because Northern England suffers from much of the same economic deprivation as the celtic fringe, but is unable to mobilize action against the core due to a lack of cohesive identity (Rawkins, 1978).
It is clear that Scottish nationalism did not begin with the establishment of the Scottish National Party, rather the establishment of the Scottish National Party allowed for a legitimate political avenue for people who feel isolated from core political seats to voice their discontent and advocate for specific issues with the current state of affairs (Rawkins, 1978). Originally focusing solely on achieving the goal of Scottish independence, the SNP had trouble gaining following, however it was able to gain success gradually. This was largely due to its decentralized organization appealing to developing urban populations and overflow regions by creating strong links between the SNP representatives and the local communities (Rawkins,1978). The success of the SNP has been largely proportional to the decline of the Labour party, as its fluidity of understanding what the local-level desires contrasts the rigidity of the Labour party in these areas. A similar pattern can be observed with the rise of the Cymru Plaid, the Welsh nationalist party, and the decline of the Labour party. However, the Welsh national movement has not been able to gain as much attention because it has had to divide its attention for constant maintenance of the Welsh way of life. It would seem that the Scottish National Party has benefitted tangentially from the start it was given in England in being joined as an equal with the union of the crowns, rather than having to compensate for the assimilated identity that the Welsh received when declared as part of the English State in the Tudor Acts of 1526 and 1542 (Rawkins, 1978).
After the failure of the 2014 referendum, the Scottish National Party gained support swiftly as the 45 percent of the population who voted Yes returned to the polls and overpowered the multi-party system to support the SNP in the elections for both the Scottish Government and Westminster seats. The Scottish National Party has now shifted its focus away from proposing another referendum on independence to learning how to handle being a true governing party and advocate for Scottish issues. They have taken up a stance of pushing devolution and of education and healthcare reform. This has been a challenge in Westminster, as the SNP members of parliament are essentially asking to take more power away from parliament, which is not a popular sentiment for others currently in power.
The shift of the Scottish National Party from a focus on independence to maximum devolution of power does not signify a decline in Scottish nationalism. Nationalism pursues either “territorial autonomy or sovereignty” (Barrington, 1997) and should do so with the best interest of the nation in mind. Maximum devolution, or DevoMax, may be a softer form of “self-determination of territory” for the Scottish nation, but it seems to be the better choice for Scotland today, and for the United Kingdom as a whole, than complete independence. An independent Scotland may not be impossible to achieve, but it would be an economic and political headache. In the face of globalization and interdependence of markets, it will be harder for smaller economies to be competitive without attachment to a larger union. If Scotland were to secede, then both fragments would suffer from decreased influence of trade and loss of stability of the pound sterling. Debate over whether Scotland would continue to have the right to mint the pound has no clear answer nor does the issue of distributing the national debt of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government would not be ready to accept the role of complete governance as it is still establishing its own procedures of governing under the partial responsibilities it now holds. In addition, the Scottish Government is now controlled by a party whose main purpose is to achieve Scottish autonomy. Once that is fulfilled, a possibility for a power vacuum is created while the governing officials attempt to redefine their priorities. Independence from the United Kingdom would also mean that Scotland would lose the benefit of military protection of the UK. This would further add to the vulnerability of the newborn state. In addition to being a positive alternative for total independence, granting maximum devolution to the Scottish national movement could also benefit the United Kingdom more so than ongoing union. If given greater autonomy of governance, then Scotland could be expected to raise its own funds for public services and thus become less of a drain on the UK treasury. Maximum devolution of power has the possibility to allow the nationalists to have control over their territory and alleviates strain within the politics of Westminster, but does not sacrifice stability in the world arena.
The idea of a Scottish nation has endured for centuries. It has existed in the hearts of individuals through the presentation of rhetoric, the preservation of common identity, and pride of distinctiveness. Scottish national identity has existed aside from and in combination with the concept of British identity, and the two will never be easily separated. Whether Scottish nationalism proves to continue down the path of maximum devolution or again redefines its priorities as seeking total independence is up to the Scottish people and how they wish to proceed.
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