Imagine 100 years from now. Scotland has been an independent country for the best part of a century and historians are evaluating its long, bumpy, but ultimately successful journey of self-determination. Wade through the chapters devoted to economic hardship, diplomatic struggles, and cyclical oil crises, and you’ll find praise for the less-tangible: the notable resilience of the Scottish identity. Adam Smith himself would be proud.
Unlikely parallels may be drawn between the 1707 union of Scotland and England, and Poland’s Third Partition. A victim of its own enlightenment, Poland did not exist as a nation state between 1795 and 1918, its territory divided between Russia, Prussia and the Austrian Empire. Yet Polish culture thrived, transcending geographical boundaries with romanticism in the 1820s pioneered by Adam Mickiewicz, and the progressive Positivist movement in the 1860s. Even the proud Polish Legions fought briefly alongside Napoleon as a quasi-autonomous force.
In 2014, Scotland finds itself at a similar crossroads. For centuries, it has boasted a strong, internationally recognisable identity and culture. Although never deconstructed at the hands of a foreign power, and currently enjoying considerable autonomy, it remains embroiled in a culture-versus-economy independence debate increasingly steered by a suspicious corporate lobby. Almost every argument preached by Alistair Darling’s Better Together campaign has been built upon a realist macro-economic foundation; the cost of defence, the cost of ‘sterlingisation’, the risk of life outside the EU and NATO. The status quo is a tough sell without flagging the pitfalls of going it alone, but so is peddling an emotive leap of faith away from Europe’s fastest growing economy.
Whilst there is no denying that the economic implications of independence are very uncertain and leave little to be recommended, The Times is right to accuse the Better Together campaign of having become ‘dry, factual, condescending and clunking’ as voting day nears. Ewen Stewart, Director of consultancy Walbrook Economics, has perfectly epitomised the sceptical pecuniary arguments put forward by the unionist cause: ‘Scotland’s public sector is too large for the size of its economy, and its fiscal deficit post-independence would be one of the weakest in Europe. And with a highly cyclical economy, dependent on a banking sector larger, relative to GDP, than Ireland’s prior to its disaster, alongside highly volatile oil, the country would be vulnerable to significant negative shocks.’ A damning assessment in anyone’s book.
But this approach somewhat misses the salient point. For many Scots, no amount of ‘pennies in your pocket’ scaremongering will compete with the prospect of an autonomous identity, a written constitution, and a sovereign Scottish government. After all, nearly half of those polled have expressed some degree of sympathy for, or agreement with, these ideals. Mr Darling is asking Scots to reject a momentous opportunity but in the wrong way; stick with the UK or face ruin and collapse. He plays on household anxieties such as the cost of child welfare, and is banking on even the most impassioned nationalist to renege on his convictions. There is little consideration for the fact that many see short-term instability as a worthwhile risk in return for long-term independence.
Fundamentally, there has been little by way of an emotional plea from the ‘no’ camp. Better Together has nonchalantly left this responsibility to conscientious public figures, and was fortunate that 200 celebrities penned an open letter last month appealing to Scottish hearts: “we want to let you know how very much we value our bonds of citizenship with you, and to express our hope that you will vote to renew them.” Westminster has made no such appeal. The more that it aggressively repudiates the claims of the Scottish National Party with threats and chooses to differentiate Scotland from the rest, the more that the ‘yes’ campaign will be defiantly supported.
Prime Minister David Cameron needs to effectively use what could be the last days of the United Kingdom, as we know it, to vocally appeal to the Scottish public at a cultural level. Why? Because whatever the outcome on 18th September, Scottish nationalism will not simply disappear. It will return with potentially stronger grievances in decades to come. Greater efforts must be made to integrate Scotland by emphasising that Scottish and British identities are mutually constitutive; there cannot be one without the other, and not enough has been made of this. As The Times points out, the latest Social Attitudes Survey suggests that ‘two thirds [of Scots] still want a middle way — more devolution rather than revolution’. Why not, then, make it abundantly clear that everything Scots hold dear is not only better secured within the United Kingdom but also enhanced; an integrated cultural identity enriched by devolution’s preservation of regional nuance.
This referendum was never a case of could Scotland be independent (any acre of land can be ‘autonomous’), but rather should it; secession as a genuinely responsible option. Mr Darling has made this a far too negative choice. Politely saying ‘no thanks’ to independence is the passive slogan of an accountant; it fails to evoke any form of cultural debate. If the Scottish public wants to go it alone, it has a robust enough identity to warrant success, but as the Polish people proved for 120 years, an autonomous state is not a prerequisite for cultural creativity.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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