Scotland’s Referendum in Perspective

If I type the word “Scotland”, what pops into your mind? Kilted men playing bagpipes? “They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”? A blurry image of something claimed to be the Loch Ness monster? Beautiful hills covered in thistles? A Scottie dog? Epic tales of Rob Roy? A style of golf that involves howling winds, bunkers capable of swallowing a man, and grass that can hide a ball from even the eyes of an eagle? Sean Connery or Andy Murray? The lovable accent for which Scots are famous? Shortbread cookies?

All of these things form part of the public image of Scotland, but if you look up the word “Scotland” on Wikipedia, this is the first sentence you will read (as of this writing): “Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom.”

This is actually a good sentence with which to begin the article, as it addresses some of the primary questions I receive regarding Scotland. “Is Scotland a country?” “Is Scotland part of Britain?” “Are Scottish people British?” “What all makes up the United Kingdom?”

Allow me to explain for those of you who are still a bit confused. Yes, Scotland is a country, but it is not a sovereign state, i.e. It does not have a separate currency, follow its own independent foreign policy, or have a seat on international governing bodies like the United Nations. This is because Scotland is, as our friends at Wikipedia so helpfully pointed out, a part of the United Kingdom. (Full name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) The United Kingdom is a sovereign state.

Wikipedia image by user Matt Lewis

Wikipedia image by user Matt Lewis

So what is Great Britain? That would be the largest island in the British Isles, which includes the countries of Scotland, England, and Wales. Anyone from one of those countries can be referred to as “British”. However, due to the strong regional associations of people in Wales and Scotland, they are more commonly called “Welsh” and “Scottish” respectively. Those from England, on the other hand, tend to get called “British” at least as much, if not more, than “English”.

In additions, various parts of Ireland have been under Britain’s control practically since time immemorial. (I like to use the term “time immemorial” because it is one of the few examples in the English language where the adjective is properly placed after the noun it modifies, as is often done in other languages. Another good example would be “attorney general”.) As things currently stand, the southern portion of the island is an independent, sovereign state known as the Republic of Ireland. The northern third or so is the fourth major component of the United Kingdom and is called Northern Ireland. Smaller islands such as the Isle of Man are semi-autonomous within the United Kingdom as well.

Scotland is indeed part of the United Kingdom. Now that we’ve cleared that up, allow me to make it more complicated, because Scotland may not be part of the United Kingdom for long.

There has always been a segment of the Scottish population that wanted nothing to do with the English. When the Romans invaded Great Britain under Julius Caesar and his successors, they were unable to conquer the entire island. The native population (known today as the “Celts”, who were themselves immigrants to the island many years earlier from continental Europe) was able to maintain control over two areas in the West and the North.

The Emperor Hadrian built a rather impressive wall at the northern edge of the Roman-controlled territory to keep these people out, and hundreds of years later the Anglo-Saxon king Offa (the Anglo-Saxons being another group that immigrated to the islands from Europe) built a barrier to the west, likely for the same purpose, which is now known as Offa’s Dyke. The areas of Celtic control were roughly where the modern-day countries of Wales and Scotland now sit.


Over the centuries, more powerful English armies engaged in various wars with the people of these two areas. Wales was eventually conquered by England, but the kingdom of Scotland was a harder egg to crack. One of the best places in Britain to see castles is in the border land between England and Scotland, because there were so many conflicts there over the years. Despite being overmatched on many occasions, the Scots were able to maintain at least some degree of control over their own territory until the early 17th century, when something most extraordinary happened.

King James VI of Scotland, son of the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots and a relative of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, inherited the throne of his more powerful southern neighbor when Elizabeth I died childless, causing the Tudor dynasty to become extinct. He then became known as King James I of England and reigned on both thrones for the remainder of his life. It must have kept him awfully busy, but he still found time to oversee a mildly accurate translation of the Bible that would nonetheless be adhered to by many Christians down to the present day: the King James Bible.

For a little over a century, James I’s descendants continued to rule over these two separate kingdoms in unison. Finally, someone must have said, “This is stupid. Why don’t we just make them one kingdom?” It was in the reign of Queen Anne (Those pesky women!) that the parliaments in both England and Scotland finally agreed to the Acts of Union, formally joining the two nations into one.

Ever since that point, Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom, the capitol of which is located in London. The British identity has been extended to include Scots, and the two countries are now so closely interlinked that many foreigners don’t even know there is a difference between them, as evidenced by some of the questions I have received that I mentioned earlier.

Perhaps the best recent example of this phenomenon has been the tennis player Andy Murray. He was born and raised in Scotland to Scottish parents. However, when he plays in tournaments he is described as being from the United Kingdom, which is also true. When he started having success at the annual Championships at Wimbledon, which a British man had not won since time immemorial (Ok, not quite that long, but almost…), the English were quick to embrace him and label him as “British”. When he won the tournament last year, in 2013, the curse was said to be broken.

Should credit for Andy Murray go to the entire United Kingdom or to Scotland in particular? In the crowd the day that Murray won were both British Prime Minister David Cameron and, seated directly behind him, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of Scotland’s parliament and the head of the Scottish Nationalist Party. The SNP is the major organization within Scotland pushing for a break with the rest of Britain and a return to complete national sovereignty. Both men seemed to want to associate themselves with Murray and proclaim him to be one of their own. In the video above, you can see Salmond waving a Scottish flag (some would say rudely) during Murray’s victory interview…right behind Britain’s Prime Minister.

Starting in 1997, a process of devolution in the United Kingdom began providing greater autonomy to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Their own governing bodies were given increased powers, while the most important were still reserved for the main British parliament in London. This move was sparked by the increasing nationalist sentiment in Scotland and elsewhere, but it is equally accurate to say that it has contributed to those nationalist feelings. With the rise of the SNP and its success in claiming the majority in the Scottish parliament in recent years, the desire for a referendum on Scotland’s continued presence within the United Kingdom has become stronger.


British Prime Minister David Cameron foreground – left) and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (foreground – right) at the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012, which granted powers to the Scottish government to hold its referendum. Official UK government photo

In 2012, it was finally announced that such a referendum would take place. The date was set for September 18, 2014, giving advocates on both sides of the issue plenty of time to make their case. Given that Scotland is really an integral part of the UK, it may seem surprising that such a move would even be allowed by the British government. After all, the U.S. federal government would be unlikely to cooperate if Texas ever did follow through on the desire (either real or hypothetical) of some of its residents to secede from the Union. We all remember what happened when the southeastern states attempted such a move in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, there were some good reasons for the government in London to endorse a referendum, two of which I will point out here. The first is that if the referendum proposal is struck down – i.e. if the people of Scotland vote to stay in the UK – it will likely put to bed the question of Scottish independence for at least a generation and siphon power away from the SNP, whose main purpose for existence is achieving Scottish inedependence.

Second, if Scotland actually does vote to leave the UK, the British political party that is likely to suffer the most is the Labour Party, which has more supporters north of the border than its main rivals, the Conservatives (also known as the Tory party). As things currently stand, it is the Conservatives and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who have control of the House of Commons. While they publicly have voiced their support for Scotland remaining in the UK, the Conservaties have to know that if the vote goes the other way, it will deal a major blow to their chief political opponents and could make it significantly more difficult for the Labour Party to achieve a parliamentary majority in London for some time.

I’m not saying that the Conservatives actually want Scotland to break away, but the political math does seem to favor them. Look how the Scottish constituencies voted in the last three general elections for the UK Parliament:

Table 1

Labour gained the largest share of Scottish seats in each of these years, with the Liberal Democrats (popularly known as “Lib Dems”) coming in a distant second. The SNP picked up a few each time, but the Conservatives have been stuck on one measly seat. Now, I’m sure that the Conservatives would love to win more of the Scottish constituencies, but a deficit like that suggests an unclimbable mountain. How would the Conservatives have done in those years if Scotland was not part of the UK?

Table 2

This table compares the number of seats held by the Labour Party in comparison to the Conservative Party, the other major party in the House of Commons. (The Lib Dems and others consistently have far fewer seats.) In 2001, Labour won 247 more seats than the Conservatives, a massive amount. Had all the Scottish seats been removed from the equation, that Labour lead would have been reduced to 192: still a sizable margin, but a significant decrease nonetheless.

In 2005, Labour politicians only won 158 more seats than their rivals. Subtract all the Scottish seats, and that drops to 118. Once again, you can see what a big difference Scotland makes for the Labour Party. It really is an essential part of their base.

The most recent general election in 2010 was particularly bad for Labour. They ended up with 49 fewer seats than the Conservatives, who were able to form an alliance with the Lib Dems in order to make a coalition government. (No single party won a majority of seats that year.) Without those Scottish constituencies, Labour’s deficit would have risen to 89 seats. Basically, losing Scotland would not sink Labour’s chances of gaining a majority in Parliament, but they would be fighting an uphill battle.

Perhaps it should not surprise us then that two of the main Scotsmen leading the “Better Together” campaign, which is encouraging Scots to vote “no” on leaving the UK, are Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, the most recent Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, respectively. (The Chancellor is typically considered to be the second most powerful man in Britain’s Parliament.)

They know that, were Scotland to separate from the UK, not only would their own status within the Labour Party change (as they would no longer be British citizens), but the party itself would suffer serious damage. Thus, they have come out of semi-retirement – having gotten the sack from the voters in 2010 following a rather disastrous few years of leadership – to urge their fellow countrymen not to give up on the UK. If you like, you can assume that they really think Scotland is better off as part of the UK as well. I suppose a few politicians must still have principles.

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament. Photo by Wikipedia user pschemp

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament. Photo by Wikipedia user pschemp

It really is a fascinating situation. As for who will win, the Brits have political polling organizations just like we do here in the States, and the major surveys have been showing since the referendum was announced that “No” voters (those who want to stay in the UK) outnumber “Yes” voters. The margin may have shrunk a bit, and the spread now appears to be under ten points with less than a month to go.

Given the unique nature of the vote, which has no real precedent in British history, it is difficult to predict who exactly will turn up to the polls and which way undecided voters are likely to break at the last minute. My assumption would be that turnout will be high as the vote has an obvious significance that people can see in their daily lives, and the media coverage (and therefore public awareness) has been extensive.

That does not answer the question of how the Scots will vote. Everyone has been making appeals to them, with some warning of dire economic consequences following a split and others promising a land of milk, honey, and massive profits. There are the important questions of who will control oil reserves in the North Sea if Scotland leaves the UK and what currency the a newly independent Scotland might us (pound or Euro?). Much of the rest of Scotland’s economy depends on services and tourism. Oh, and sheep – lots and lots of sheep. (Fun fact: there are more sheep in Scotland than people.)

It is unlikely that either the worst horror stories or the greatest predictions of riches will come to pass if Scotland goes its own way, but the unknown has an incredible power to induce fear. Staying in the UK is a known quantity. Things will continue much the way they have, whether for good or ill. Conventional wisdom suggests that voters might prefer to stay the course and not take a big risk. Could the powerful myth of Scottish nationalism, and I use the word “myth” here in the more positive sense of the term, trump any reservations that people might have?

My gut feeling is that the majority of voters will decide to stay in the UK, but it will likely be close enough for the debate to continue for the forseeable future. A couple decades down the road, we might see the same vote occur again, but with a different result. I think it makes the most sense both economically and geostrategically for Scotland to remain with the rest of Britain: I don’t normally buy into the glorious promises that politicians make when they are trying to win a vote.

A statue of Adam Smith, author of the famous economic work "The Wealth of Nations", in front of St. Giles' High Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A statue of Adam Smith, author of the famous economic work “The Wealth of Nations”, in front of St. Giles’ High Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

I suspect that it is better for Scotland to be part of a nation of 64 million+ than to be an independent nation of 5 million+. To put it in perspective, Scotland has less than half the population of the state of Ohio. There are more ethnically Scottish people in the United States than in Scotland itself. Small countries tend to be non-factors in international affairs unless they have something special that makes people take notice, and I don’t think that the amount of oil that Scotland possesses can allow it to become the equal of one of the Gulf states. Based on its location, Scotland will always be somewhat reliant on its larger neighbor to the south, England. So it has been throughout Scottish history, and so it will be in the future.

Of course, the Scots are welcome to disagree with me. I have no right to lecture them or influence their vote – not that I could anyway. My two trips to Scotland were both thoroughly enjoyable. For its small size, it contributes a disproportionate amount of beauty and goodness to the world. America in particular owes a great debt to Scotland: it gave birth to Adam Smith, who wrote the classic text Wealth of Nations that is essentially the handbook of capitalism. He wrote that just before the United States came into being, and his ideas helped to influence America’s founders. The 20th century revealed the U.S. and not the UK to be the truest adherent to Smith’s methods.

We will just have to wait and see what the Scots decide on September 18. Once the answer is revealed, we can switch back to wondering what the heck “Auld Lang Syne” is supposed to mean.

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