Glasgow, Scotland – A referendum on Scottish independence, due to take place on September 18, 2014, will mark the most important constitutional event in British history since the Act of Union united Scotland and England in 1707.
But, as the nationalist Scottish government prepares to unveil its long-awaited prospectus, or White Paper, on its detailed vision for independence, it will find little comfort in a British state that has given scant support to the independence cause.
Ever since March, when Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond officially announced the date of the poll, the struggle over the nation’s political future has taken on a fresh urgency, as the pro-independence and pro-union sides battle for the hearts and minds of the Scottish people.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), whose decisive victory in the May 2011 Scottish parliamentary election gave them the required majority to pursue their dream of independence, has found the going tough – and this constitutional blueprint, expected in October or November, will present a rare opportunity for them to lead the debate after countless months spent on the back foot.
The Scottish government will need to see, in the course of their October/November paper and into May next year, a dramatic change in Scottish public opinion to get to that potential yes vote.
Behind in the independence polls, under sustained attack from an overwhelmingly pro-union media – both north and south of the border – and suffering repeated blows from an unyielding Westminster government, the SNP administration in Edinburgh is learning the cost of taking on the full might of the British state and establishment.
Gerry Hassan, a Scottish writer and commentator, said the SNP’s current travails partly stem from the fact that very few in the party actually thought they would be conducting an official campaign for Scottish independence so soon after the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in 1999.
Hassan, editor of The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, describes the SNP as “in a way, a profoundly British conservative party – not that they believe in Britain, but they bought into a story of Britain… So, to some of them, [the reaction from the British establishment] has come as a bit of a shock. But for the conspiracy theorists, it’s a great validation of their view of the world.”
Scotland’s historical role
Far from being a bystander in the actions of the United Kingdom, Scotland – while never giving up its status as a nation in 1707 – is closely woven in the fibre of the British state. During the days of empire, Scotland played a disproportionately large role in establishing the fortunes of Great Britain.
Indeed, in the mid-18th century, some 50 percent of the employees of the East India Company, the British trading giant, were Scots. With many British colonial governorships occupied by Scots and Scottish regiments at the forefront of Britain’s military forays abroad, Scotland’s own fortunes have been inextricably linked to those of the British state, says Iain Macwhirter, a Scottish political commentator and author of Road to Referendum.
With the referendum campaign essentially challenging Scotland’s historical role in the creation of modern Britain, the Salmond-led administration has also found itself struggling against a British government that has had the ability to out-gun them on policy matters, says Scottish author David Torrance.
“There’s a huge imbalance, particularly in the official war with policy papers, which have been produced so far by the UK government,” explaineed Torrance, author of Salmond: Against the Odds. “And, although they’re not without fault, they’re quality pieces of work – very thorough. Clearly the full weight of Whitehall, particularly the Treasury, has been applied. In contrast, the Scottish government promised to do the same, and it’s not really delivered.”
While SNP ministers will be hoping that the forthcoming publication of their independence blueprint will help to even up the match, Torrance says the Scottish government should be applauded for its efforts to get its own message across in the face of the British storm.
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“The Scottish government have held their own,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to the view that somehow they’ve crumbled completely… I don’t think that’s happened.”
Indeed, in recent months, many commentators have accused the UK government of adopting negative campaign tactics in a bid to scare Scottish voters into remaining within the union.
“I think the UK’s prosecution of its case has been absolutely dire,” said Macwhirter. “The suggestion that they might create a new colony on [Scotland’s] River Clyde to keep Britain’s [nuclear weapons] after independence, and the idea that Scotland would be denied use of the pound are ludicrous… And that’s not to mention the pronouncements from UK ministers saying that oil is a hugely important resource for the UK – but then they say in Scotland, ‘it’s running out, it’s really bad, it’s terrible’. I think they’ve made almost every mistake possible.”
So, why haven’t such tactics collapsed around the ears of the British government and the rest of the pro-union campaign in Scotland?
“I think that it’s partly that the Scottish media is very opposed to independence, so it tends to backpedal these stories,” noted Macwhirter. “If these were things that Alex Salmond was saying, it would have been open season. But they’ve gone to great lengths to protect the embarrassment of a lot of the UK arguments.”
But, with voting for independence implying a leap into the unknown, Hassan believes the Scottish government must make a very persuasive case for Scotland making the transition from constituent nation to nation-state, starting with its eagerly anticipated White Paper.
“There’s been consistent poll leads for the union for the last 10 to 15 years… and that means the proposition for independence has to be won,” says Hassan. “The Scottish government will need to see, in the course of their October/November paper and into May next year, a dramatic change in Scottish public opinion to get to that potential yes vote.”
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