TORY TIMES ARE TAXING THE 285-YEAR-OLD UNION BETWEEN SCOTLAND AND ENGLAND
SCOTLAND’S SEPARATIST AIMS
TORY TIMES ARE TAXING THE 285-YEAR-OLD UNION BETWEEN SCOTLAND AND ENGLAND
In the recreation hall of St. Andrew’s Church on the outskirts of Glasgow last Wednesday night, two dozen elderly men gathered for their weekly lawn bowling match and a dose of politics. Their guest was James Sillars, Scotland’s best-known and most controversial nationalist leader, and he faced his skeptical audience armed with a brand-new argument for independence. Two days earlier, San Marino, a tiny landlocked republic in northeast Italy of just 23 square miles and 23,000 people, had taken its seat as the 175th member of the United Nations. “If San Marino can do it,” thundered Sillars, “then there must be something wrong with us Scots if we can’t be an independent nation. I mean, have we no pride?”
Scots have always been proud of their distinct identity, even throughout their 285-yearold union with Britain. And now, many are challenging their English neighbors with renewed calls for an independent Scotland, and boosting the fortunes of Sillars’ Scottish National Party (SNP). To the consternation of both English politicians and Scots who favor preserving union with Westminster, a quiet but determined mood of national assertiveness has taken hold across Scotland—as it has in many of Europe’s smaller nations (page 28). And while it is unlikely to result in complete independence, the restiveness “north of the border,” as the English refer to Scotland, has already affected Britain’s national political debate. Prime Minister John Major was expected to call a general election as early as this week—with voting likely to take place on April 9. And opposition leaders say that Scotland’s demands for change make the prospects for political reform throughout the United Kingdom much more likely.
Scotland’s disaffection deepened during the 1980s when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s brand of radical conservatism was strongly resisted in the region. While populous southern England gave Thatcher’s Tories three successive majority governments, Scots voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party and clung to the kind of class-based politics that Thatcherism aimed to eliminate. Now, under Major, the Tories hold only nine of Scotland’s 72 parliamentary seats—increasing the feel-
ing of many Scots that they, like Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland and nationalists in Wales, are ruled by a foreign government in London. And in January, a series of events intensified that sense of alienation.
First, London-based British Steel PLC announced the closure of a huge steel complex at Ravenscraig, near Glasgow, triggering the loss of 10,000 jobs and sparking outrage at the decision—made outside of Scotland. A few days later, a Scottish opinion poll put support for independence at an unprecedented 50 per cent, and writers and singers formed a group called Artists for an Independent Scotland to press for change. They signed up actor Sean Connery, a longtime SNP supporter, to narrate a five-minute television broadcast plugging independence. The Scottish edition of The Sun newspaper fuelled the momentum on Jan. 23 by endorsing independence—the first major daily to support separatism. Rival editors dismissed it as a cynical marketing technique, but The Sun seemed to have captured the new mood with a bold front-page proclamation: “Rise now and be a nation again”—words from the unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland.
Since then, support for independence has subsided somewhat. Most polls now put it at between 30 and 40 per cent, with more Scots backing a limited form of autonomy, or devolution, which would give Scotland a separate parliament, similar to a provincial legislature in Canada, with powers over local affairs. The Labour Party and the centrist Liberal-Democrats both favor that solution. Major’s Conser-
vatives are the only party still fully in support of the terms of the 1707 Act of Union that abolished Scotland’s parliament while leaving it with its own legal structure, education system and national church. Meanwhile, government leaders show clear signs of alarm. Major himself went to Edinburgh in February to attack independence as “pure poison” and devolution as “devastating” for both Scotland and all of Britain.
Other ministers have trooped north to point out the advantages of the union. Scots, they note, receive more money per capita for education, health and other services than do the English—$950 a year for hospital treatment, compared with $750 in England. But many Scottish Tories acknowledge that their party has failed to capture the popular mood and risks losing most of its remaining seats in Scotland. “We’re no longer dealing with heads—we’re dealing with hearts,” said Michael Hirst, a prominent Glasgow Conservative.
That has given Sillars’ SNP a chance for a breakthrough in the general election. The party holds just five seats now, but a poll last week gave the SNP 30-per-cent support, compared with 39 per cent for Labour and just 18 per cent for the Scottish Tories. Officially, Sillars is the SNP’s deputy leader—the leader is Alex Salmond, a low-key 37-year-old economist— but he is its most flamboyant figure. A radical Labour MP in the early 1970s, Sillars left the party in 1976 because it would not endorse more power for Scotland. He joined the SNP in 1980, a year after the nationalist cause suffered its biggest setback in a referendum that defeated a proposal for a Scottish assembly. Sillars, who is now 55, then helped move the SNP sharply to the political left, away from its nostalgic vision of Scottish heritage. “You’ll never catch me in a kilt,” he says. And he developed a policy that linked Scottish independence firmly to continued membership in the European Community.
In an interview last week at his Glasgow constituency office, Sillars acknowledged that his party’s slogan of “Independence in Europe” is key to its renewed popularity. The SNP has traditionally argued that a separate Scotland, with its highly educated population of five million and its North Sea oil wealth, could flourish. But, said Sillars, the Brussels-based EC’s campaign to complete its single market by the end of this year has finally convinced many Scots that the EC framework guarantees economic stability. “That takes away fears of being cut out of the British market or the European market,” said Sillars. “We just want to go straight from Edinburgh to Brussels without going through London.” A Canadian parallel would be the Parti Québécois’s former position of sovereignty-association—favoring independence with the insurance of continuing links with the rest of Canada.
There are few other similarities between the Quebec and Scottish situations. Under Canada’s federal structure, Quebec already benefits
from devolution by having its own national assembly. Said Jan Penrose, a lecturer at Edinburgh University’s Centre of Canadian Studies who submitted a report last week to the Canadian High Commission in London that compared the two brands of nationalism: “What Scotland wants, for starters, is what Quebec already has.”
Most importantly, noted Penrose,
Scotland has no internal minority committed to fighting looser ties with England, as Quebec has with anglophones and natives who oppose independence. That situation has helped to keep the Scottish debate remarkably even-tempered, with few rallies or demonstrations to raise the political temperature. Even such staunch independence supporters as Sillars bear no evident ill will towards the English.
“The folk in London are not malicious,” he said. “They don’t sit and think, ‘How will we sock it to the Jocks [Scots] this week?’ It’s basically oversight and a patronizing attitude.”
Despite his new prominence, Sillars’ goal of independence still appears somewhat distant. In his speech last week at St. Andrew’s Church, he received a polite but skeptical hearing from his audience. It was made up mostly of retired men who had spent their lives working in the area’s heavy industries, many of which fell into bankruptcy during the 1980s. Wallace Black, 59, who was laid off eight years ago after 20 years at the nearby RollsRoyce aircraft-engine factory, said: “It’s all right being nationalist, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, folk won’t go for it. They’ll be too nervous.” Alec McKinley, a 64-year-old mechanic, added: “People are rooting for a halfway house, some kind of assembly for
Scotland. If that works, maybe we could take the next step.”
Those views reflect the caution of most older Scots, who worry, for one thing, whether their pensions would continue after independence. Younger Scots tend to be bolder and stronger
supporters of independence. Patrick Kane, the 27-year-old lead singer for a Glasgow rock group, Hue and Cry, and a key organizer of Artists for an Independent Scotland, linked the more assertive attitude among Scots to an upsurge of cultural activity during the 1980s.
That was the case in Glasgow particularly, he said, where novelist James Kelman and other writers have promoted a new sense of Scottish identity. “There’s a self-confident culture that has given Scottishness a legitimacy and an articulateness it didn’t previously have,” said
Kane. “At the same time, younger people don’t have the sense of British identity that older people who went through the war and the postwar period had.”
Whatever the effects on the Scots themselves, their national debate has implications for all of the United Kingdom. Because Britain does not have a federal system, a separate Scottish assembly would effectively give Scots more representation than English or Welsh voters: they would control their own local affairs, while at the same time sending MPs to London to vote on English issues. Critics of devolution say that the result would be a constitutional mess.
As well, many proposals for a Scottish parliament involve some form of proportional representation—a radical departure from the first-past-the-post system now used to elect parliamentarians under the British system. Paddy Ashdown, leader of the centrist Liberal-Democrats and a strong advocate of electoral reform, last week described Scotland’s demands for its own assembly as an “explosive charge” that could open the road to reform throughout the
United Kingdom. For traditional English politicians, that would be an added—and serious—concern if Scotland does succeed in joining San Marino and the 174 other members of the United Nations.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.