Three cheers for an independent Scotland

Notes from the Western Periphery

FLAGS OF FREEDOM Saltire-waving campaigners at the base of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, during a rally in support of a ‘Yes’ vote in the first Scottish independence referendum, which was held in September 2014 and narrowly rejected.


Why Scotland’s progression to independence is different from Ireland’s

For many different reasons, 2021 is proving to be an interesting year. In Northern Ireland the creation of a devolved government is being celebrated. Here in Ireland, we have our own celebration of the centenary of the creation of the Free State, but in muted fashion so as not to upset the Northern unionists.
Meanwhile, in Britain, votes were cast in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election last Thursday. While the Scottish Nationalist Party fell one short of the 65 seats it needed to secure a majority, the SNP and fellow pro-independence party Scottish Greens now together control 72 of the Scottish parliament’s 129 seats, paving the way for a second independence referendum. In Wales, the popularity of the nationalist Plaid Cymru is rising inexorably, although independence is still far off.
When attempting to work out what the configuration of ‘these islands’ might look like in the future, I am reminded of what former Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald wrote in 1989:
“We have always in Ireland failed to understand the extent to which the British governmental system has weaknesses and inefficiencies. We tend, because of a traditional inferiority complex, to think they’re being clever when they’re being stupid. The failure of the Irish to understand how stupidly the British can act is one of the major sources of misunderstanding between our countries.”

Different paths
Scotland’s progression to independence is different from Ireland’s and driven mainly by the head rather than the heart. Both regions were constitutionally incorporated into a larger British entity: Scotland in 1707; Ireland in 1801. In both cases, the Act of Union was preceded and followed by insurrections, ending in Scotland at Culloden in 1746. However, there were some crucial differences.
The British never treated Scotland as a ‘colony’, but their rule of Ireland was essentially colonial. A religious divide existed in both regions; it was marginal in Scotland, but took a virulent form in Ireland. Scotland vigorously participated in the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and became a world leader in iron, steel, ship-building, engineering and finance. Ireland, after the 1801 Act of Union, became a dependent economic satellite of England. With the exception of the north-east region centred on Belfast, it did not industrialise. The partition of our island occurred well before 1921.
At no stage during the 19th century, nor for two-thirds of the 20th century, was there any movement in Scotland in favour of either devolution or independence. The currently governing SNP was not founded until 1934 but did not win a seat in Westminster until a 1967 by-election (Winnie Ewing), and lost it in the following general election.  
The rapid growth of support for the SNP was mainly due to the right-wing, austerity policies of Margaret Thatcher. During her premiership from 1979 to 1990, Scotland suffered a catastrophic collapse of its heavy industries and was unable to replace them with modern high-technology alternatives. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is quoted as saying “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for.”
The creation of a Scottish devolved Parliament in 1999 was favoured by the Labour Party which, misguidedly, thought that it would prevent defections towards the social democratic SNP and preserve their dominance of Scottish seats in Westminster. They wrongly believed that devolution would kill off nationalism. Little did they understand that they had opened a Pandora’s box. In subsequent elections Labour and Tory support effectively collapsed.

British threats
The post-colonial history of Ireland illustrates that the size of a country is not vital for economic success. What matters is having a stable political environment, strong political and civic institutions and policies that guarantee an appropriate mix of human and physical capital. So when the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2012, they called for and were granted a referendum on independence, which was held in 2014.
The SNP’s 2014 referendum manifesto, ‘Scotland’s Future’ (www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-future) is a stunning exposition of how Scotland could thrive as an independent small EU state in perfect harmony with the remainder of the UK.
In the final days of the campaign, when polls suggested that support for independence had surpassed 50 percent, the British government lashed out with two threats.
First, Scotland would not be permitted to share the sterling zone. Curiously, the Irish Free State had been permitted to do so, with a legal parity between the Irish and British Pounds. Small states are probably better off as part of a larger currency union since having to defend your own currency against international speculation is dangerous and destabilising.
The second threat was that the British government would oppose independent Scotland’s application for EU membership. The deep irony is that two years later, the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, while Scotland voted to remain (by 62 percent). The even deeper irony is that Brexit and the NI Protocol will have given the UK government extensive experience of trading across borders!
The uncertainty created by the UK government immediately before the 2014 vote had its desired effect. Anxiety about the risks of independence increased, and the vote was lost (45 percent ‘yes’, 55 percent ‘no’). However, membership of the SNP increased massively immediately afterward. The independence cat was truly out of the bag.
In the words of author Tom Devine, ‘Scotland remains a restless nation’. Surely this demands careful thought rather than further stupidity?

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.