Reflections on the Scottish Referendum

Dr. Matthew Hendley, SUNY Oneonta Professor of History 

The Center for Social Science Research is hosting an important talk on the recent Scottish referendum on Thursday, September 25 from 7-8:30 p.m. in Craven Lounge, Morris Hall.  Dr. James Kennedy, director of the graduate program in Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh, will speak on “Reflections on the Referendum in Scotland.”

September 18, 2014 was a momentous day in Scotland’s History, as the country held a referendum on whether it should become an independent country. The result was 55 percent for “No,” meaning Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom. How did the referendum come to be and why did Scotland feel that such a vote was necessary?

Scotland has a long history as an independent kingdom, but it joined England in 1707 in the Act of Union to form Great Britain. The reason for this Act was mainly economic–Scotland had become virtually bankrupt through a disastrous effort to set up a Scottish colony in Panama called the Darrien Colony. The Act of Union gave Scotland free trade with their much wealthier southern neighbor, economic access to England’s growing empire and monetary payments from England to compensate investors for their losses and encourage Scottish economic development. It should never be forgotten that under the Act, Scotland retained some key elements of its culture. To this day, the Scots have a separate religious establishment (the Church of Scotland) and a separate legal system from England. Today, Scotland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). It is geographically large but has a relatively small population of about 5.4 million out of the UK’s 64 million. Its economy has been bolstered by North Sea oil production and brings in considerable income through whiskey, agriculture, the service sector and tourism. It also has a manufacturing sector along with chemical and petroleum industries. However, its glory days of huge numbers of workers in coal mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering are long gone.

What brought Scotland to the decision for a referendum?

Scottish nationalism has deep roots in conflict with England. During the Scottish Wars of Independence between 1296-1357, legendary medieval Scottish leaders such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce battled English kings. The road to union with England lay in the union of the crowns of the two kingdoms. In 1603, the last Tudor monarch of England, Elizabeth I, died with no heirs. James VI of Scotland was her closest Protestant relative and he duly became James I of England.

Despite having a shared monarch, England and Scotland remained separate kingdoms until the Act of Union of 1707. After this Act there was Scottish resistance, especially in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, but English military might have crushed these revolts. The Scots become quiescent after 1745, but dislike of English authority never completely faded. In the next 200 years, Scotland industrialized, rural farmers endured significant poverty and often eviction and Scots became key parts of the British military and co-rulers of the British Empire. However, pride in Scottish culture and dislike of English interference and control over Scotland is the emotional heart of the “Yes” argument in the recent referendum campaign.

The Success of the SNP

The referendum is the result of the meteoric rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the passing of devolution (the creation of a separate regional parliament with limited powers for Scotland). The SNP as a modern political party was formed in 1934, but their true breakthrough came in the 1970s when they pushed the Labour government to hold a referendum in Scotland on devolution. The resulting March 1979 referendum was a disappointment. Although a bare majority voted in favor of devolution, the result was discounted for technical reasons and matter was shelved. In disgust, the SNP helped force an election that led to the defeat of the Labour government in London and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives. Thatcher was notoriously unpopular in Scotland. Her tough economic policies tackled inflation at the price of increasing unemployment, which hit Scottish industries hard. Worst of all, Thatcher first imposed the unpopular “poll tax”–a mandatory community charge– to pay for local government expenditure on Scotland before she applied it on the rest of the UK.

As Conservatives became detested, the SNP began a comeback, and Tony Blair’s Labour government was elected by a landslide in Britain in 1997 and promised to hold another referendum on Scottish devolution. This referendum was successful with 74 percent of Scottish voters voting in favor. Under devolution, the SNP first formed a government in Scotland, led by Alex Salmond, with support from the Scottish Green Party in 2007. In 2011, the SNP won an outright majority and pledged to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

It is vital to realize that in many ways the Scottish referendum has been waged as a battle to protect Scotland’s longstanding progressive political traditions. Scotland has been a heartland for both the Liberal and later Labour parties from the late 19th century onwards.  Although Conservatives existed in Scotland before 1945, the progressive orientation of Scottish politics accelerated in stark opposition to Margaret Thatcher. Following Scotland’s progressive traditions, the “Yes” side has argued that only independence would shield Scotland from another Conservative-dominated national government based in London (with its accompanying emphasis on tax cuts and government cutbacks). The “Yes” side passionately claimed that independence would protect Scotland’s version of the National Health Service (NHS), Britain’s extremely popular system of national Medicare set up after 1945. The SNP’s confidence that it could provide superior social services in an independent Scotland is also bolstered by revenue from North Sea Oil. Since coming on-stream in 1978, the off-shore oil platforms near Scotland have brought in record amounts of tax revenue (Scotland brings in 900 pounds more per head of population in tax revenue than the rest of the UK). As another part of their progressive argument, the SNP has pledged to make Scotland a “nuclear free zone” by forcing the Royal Navy to re-locate its base of nuclear-armed Trident submarines.

Economic Concerns

As well as preserving Scotland’s progressive traditions, economics is driving much of the referendum debate. The “Yes” side argued that the average Scot would be up to 1,000 pounds better off per year, the best in 15 years of independence. The “Yes” side also said that an independent Scotland could keep Britain’s currency, the pound sterling (£), to facilitate business transactions with the rest of the UK, and it would be willing to shoulder about eight percent of the UK’s national debt (commensurate with Scotland’s percentage share of the UK population). It also assumed that Scotland could automatically join the European Union without a problem.

The “No” side, naturally was more pessimistic. The UK Treasury argued that each Scot is £1,400 better off remaining in the UK than embracing independence. The Treasury maintained that an independent Scotland would have to raise its taxes considerably and/or cut its public services to balance the books. The “No” side insisted that the UK would not automatically allow an independent Scotland to use the British pound and that many Scottish businesses that have considerable numbers of customers in the rest of the UK would relocate to England. The “No” side argued that the European Union would not automatically admit Scotland, and has pointed to the impact of relocating Britain’s main nuclear submarine base from Scotland and the ending of lucrative military shipbuilding contracts for the remaining Scottish shipyards. In a similar light, the “No” side proclaimed that Scotland benefits from drawing on the pooled economic strength of the UK, whether for supporting the NHS or pursuing international business contracts.


What lies in the future for Scotland?

In the dying days of the campaign, the three main leaders of the British political parties pledged to increase the amount of Scottish devolution, so-called “Devo Max.” In particular, they have promised “extensive new powers” for the Scottish parliament, as well as equitable sharing of the resources of the entire UK. Significantly, they have stated that the final say on funding of the NHS will lie with the Scottish Parliament. The details will be debated in the coming months. Even with these changes, the so-called “neverendum” might recur in the future.

History has been made with the referendum. It has been an impressive, peaceful exercise in democracy. The turnout for the referendum was 85 percent of the registered population, far higher than most American elections. This referendum will not be the final word on Scotland’s relationship to the United Kingdom, but no one can accurately predict the shape of the future. Students who want to know more about Scottish and British History should consider taking Professor Hendley’s EHist 226 course (From Imperialism to the Beatles, Modern Britain from 1714-Present) in Spring 2015!

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