Support for independence in next month’s referendum is driven more by sentiment than economic arguments
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

Tartan Scotland, a mixture of fantasy and cash, is much in evidence in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. There are shops with stocks of kilts, sporrans, bonnets, pipes skirling on their sound systems, a display of tartans for every name.

Sir Walter Scott, a Scots patriot in poetry and prose, and a British Tory in politics, penned the fantasies; an English textile manufacturer invented the kilt. The tartans were conjured by English brothers named Allen, conmen posing as descendants of Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who catalogued this “invention of tradition” in his book The Invention of Scotland believed that mythmaking was a Celtic habit.

The Scottish National party, Scotland’s most popular political force in a devolved government, has dabbled in such myths. In the 1990s, it made militant use of the Hollywood film starring Mel Gibson as “Braveheart”, an evocation of the anti-English campaigns of Sir William Wallace and wildly popular in Scotland.

But in the past decade, the SNP under Alex Salmond’s leadership has been more Anglo Saxon than Celtic. It has stressed the benefits of “Scotland’s oil”, of a divorce from an anti-EU England and of freedom to escape the “neoliberalism” that English politicians clamp upon it.

Yet this hard-headed appeal is being undermined, while the ardent yearning for a New Jerusalem holds the best chance in the September 18 referendum of securing a majority for an end to a 307-year old union between the two countries.

“It’s Scotland’s Oil” has always been the SNP’s most potent slogan. Paul Collier, the Oxford economist, says that “everywhere, national resource discoveries provoke nationalism: Scots nationalism isn’t shrouded with the mists of time, it’s just a greedy resource grab”.

It is a grab with a real purpose. Even an April 2014 report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, dubious of independence’s benefits to Scotland, admitted that “the Scottish economy would be likely to gain from North Sea Oil revenues” if it left the union.

Jim Gallagher, a former high civil servant advising the No campaign in the referendum, says: “North Sea oil financed public spending in the 1980s: had Scotland been independent then, it would have run a substantial surplus.”

But he adds: “Oil is already in decline . . . Scotland’s relatively strong fiscal position [has] turned into a much weaker one.” Turmoil in Russia and the Middle East could keep oil prices high, and further oil finds are possible, especially west of the Shetlands, where BP and France’s Total have exploration programmes.

Conditions 50 miles into the Atlantic are tough, though, and much will depend on the oil price for profitable exploitation of the wells.

Furthermore, the Scottish islands’ population is sceptical about independence. The leaders of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles have even met to discuss a form of “home rule”, with the islands claiming rights to the waters around them. Were the Yes campaign to be successful, an early entrant to the government’s in-tray could be a claim for independence from Scotland.

The matter of a post-independence currency is yet more vexed. The SNP has floated three main alternatives: a Scottish currency; the euro; and the UK pound. The latter is its present position. To all objections, Mr Salmond and his colleagues say: “It’s our pound too!” George Osborne, the UK chancellor, backed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, says repeatedly it will not be backed by the Bank of England.

The Scottish government argued last year that a shared pound is a mutual, post-independence interest. That is not clear to the UK government. In a 2013 analysis it said, with the euro in mind, that it would be “extremely challenging” to “sustain a successful formal currency union without close fiscal integration”.

The rest of the UK would prefer not to have the increased transaction costs of trading with an independent Scotland. But no political party could be seen to destabilise sterling because of a country that quit a three-century-old union.

Mr Salmond’s worst moments in a television debate last Tuesday came when Alastair Darling, the former UK chancellor and leader of the No campaign, pressed him on the currency. He was reduced to a tetchy repetition that there would be a currency union, no matter what Mr Osborne said.

Corporate attitudes are mostly bad news for the nationalists. At best, as in the case of Wood Group, which provides oil management services, there is a polite “no preference”. Others, such as Standard Life, BP, Shell and Royal Bank of Scotland, have signalled fears on independence, or an intention to move to England should the vote go in favour of the Yes campaign.

A report commissioned by Weir, the engineering group, said independence would “create a number of costs and uncertainties, but fewer and more uncertain benefits”. The bus company Stagecoach warned investors in June of risks from changes in the regulatory environment with independence, even though Sir Brian Souter, its chairman, is a strong and generous supporter of the Yes campaign.

Somewhere between the heart and the head rests the claim that an independent Scotland would be social democratic, protected, as the pro-nationalist journalist Neil Ascherson claimed in July, from “ barbaric neoliberalism”.

Many Scots believe Scotland is more leftwing than England. The Scottish Labour party successfully portrayed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as an alien, destructive force in the 1980s. The SNP has continued that tradition, positioning itself as a leftish movement, protective of the public sector. That is possible because of the extra £1,400 of public spending for each Scot which the annual Treasury grant to the country makes available as unstated compensation for the loss of oil revenue.

The non-Labour Party (and often non-SNP) left is the most energised group on the nationalist side. David Greig, Scotland’s most successful playwright, has argued at meetings up and down the country that independence would force the UK to scrap a “state built for empire”.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation, named after the country’s most famed trade union activist, a communist-turned-Labourite-turned-nationalist who died in 2010, produces sketches of progressive policy for an independent Scotland.

Only George Galloway, the leftwing maverick leader of the Respect party, broke the line, arguing – until now the mainstream socialist position – that a nationalism crafted to appeal to both proletarians and capitalists, be they ever so Scottish, was not for him.

Mr Salmond’s prime point in the TV debate was that Scotland could recast itself as Scandinavian, portraying Mr Darling as – in the FT Janan Ganesh’s phrase– “a visionless bore”. His best card, which won him cheers, was for a Scotland run by Scots: a nakedly nationalist appeal that drives a stake through the Union.

Mr Gallagher dismisses leftist nationalism, saying: “Scottish opinion tracks English quite closely and, in both, the proportion of the population who would like taxation and public spending to grow is a decreasing minority.”

But Annie Dana, an SNP activist, disagrees: “There’s a big realignment of the left – you go out to the council estates and you get more and more support. People want a real change; not a Tory government they didn’t elect, but not Labour promises either.”

Tony Blair’s winning centrism (Labour won in Scotland, too, in the elections that he led) and his Iraq engagement are frequent tropes. Nationalists see the pledge to close the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde as an absolute commitment, irrespective of jobs lost.

Owen Dudley Edwards, for long a spirited presence in Edinburgh university’s history department and a former SNP branch chairman, says: “With independence achieved, we get rid of the WMD submarines. The money saved could be put to good use, health and people’s welfare.”

He welcomes a military scaled back to a little army which might be used for UN peacekeeping, and a country “no longer dragged into post-imperial adventures”. He is insouciant about threats to the economy, even if realised: “If RBS moved away, it would be great for Scotland, to be rid of it.”

He has support from George Mathewson, the former RBS chairman, who wrote recently that the bank was “in reality run from London, where [it is] regulated”, and argued that an independent Scotland could, like Luxembourg, create a booming centre for financial services.

Dudley Edwards and Mr Greig also express enthusiasm for a Scotland freed from what they call a sagging British state clinging on to an imperial past with a militaristic present. That chimes with the rhetoric of Mr Salmond and other nationalists.

Once uncoupled from neoliberal, militaristic imperialist England, they see energies unleashed to create a pacific, caring and wealthy state on a programme to unify the country. Both Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy, sought to link the success in organising the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to the notion that they could run a successful state.

As he touched home to take gold in the 400m medley in the Glasgow games, the Scottish swimmer Danny Wallace cried “Freedom!”, Braveheart’s best-known line. Such sentiment – blood up, confidence high, the certainty that Scots governing Scots will transform each and all – reflects the Nationalist view that they will carry the day, and the old nation be revived with “Freedom!”.

From what oppression? The question is the subtext of the Unionists’ position. It sees not a loss of ethnic essence but a uniquely successful multinational mixture, and asks what is the problem for which independence is the answer?

The latest poll of polls shows Yes support at 45 per cent and rising. The surge might take it yet. The heart and the gut could combine to make history, for good or ill.

This article has been amended to reflect the fact that the US group Chevron has not withdrawn, as previously stated, from a project off the Scottish coast.

——————————————-

Letter in response to this article:

A No vote is not a vote for the status quo/ From Mr Doug Matheson

Get alerts on Scottish Independence when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article