‘How British is Scotland? Flying the Flag for the Union? Scotland 2014: Yes or No, What Happens Next?’

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On 11th June 2014, the Centre welcomed Prof. Murray Pittock to discuss ‘How British is Scotland? Flying the Flag for the Union? Scotland 2014: Yes or No, What Happens Next?’. This concluded the year’s weekly seminar series and the ‘How British is Scotland?’ series, and follows Prof. Thomas Clancy’s lecture in May. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

This sweeping talk provided a glimpse of Scotland’s possible future in the wake of the independence referendum in September, and accounted for all of the possible variables in the ultimate result.  The stark implications of the referendum have caught the rest of the UK by surprise, and it was carried through by what was regarded as an ‘impossible’ result: the SNP landslide victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections. The rise of Scottish nationalism can be largely attributed to the homogenisation of ‘Britishness’, with the emergence of a shared, centralised British identity in the first-half of the twentieth century. This model was destabilised in the 1960s and British/Scottish national identities became oppositional rather than concentric. In 1979, 56% of Scots identified as Scottish rather than British, and by the 1990s this had risen to 85%.

In contrast, class identity has declined. In 1979, 54% of Scots saw their class as their primary identity, but this was almost halved by 1999. This goes against the grain of popular opinion, which maintains Thatcherism saw an intensification of class identity, not national identity. Nevertheless, in 1999, 61% of Scots believed wealth in Britain should be redistributed, while only 36% of English agreed. Some maintain that this desire for the redistribution of wealth is the primary motivator for independence, rather than vague notions of ‘freedom’.

As a caveat to this (and all) polling data, Prof. Pittock suggested polling results should always be regarded with a degree of suspicion, as their base of data will depend upon the political allegiance of whomever commissions the poll. For example, polls showing a surge in support for Yes generally base their results on the 2011 Scottish election, rather than the 2010 Westminster election, skewing towards the SNP (and the inverse is true of’ Better Together polls). Such is the ‘dirty science’ of polls.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond.
David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

In the event of a Yes vote, the date of official Scottish independence is estimated at March 24 2016, and some have argued this is too short a time-frame for negotiations with Westminster to take place. However, Prof. Pittock claimed Westminster would be more vulnerable the longer the negotiations take, and the current Conservative government has a vested interest in accelerating the process. Excluding Scotland from the 2015 General Election would increase their chances of victory as Scotland typically props up the Labour vote. A deal on Sterling is likely and in the interests of London, and there may well be a temporary Trident leaseback. If negotiations are strained, Scotland could reject its share of the national debt, but this would damage relations with England and could potentially blacklist the country, making it difficult for Scotland to find a market for its debt in the future. Scotland’s membership with the EU is ‘more likely than people think’ due to the country’s oil reserves and the existing membership of its citizens.

From a perspective of national unity, Prof. Pittock found the example of the Newfoundland referendum in 1948/9 encouraging. Despite a narrow victory, integration with Canada was widely accepted by the population, and was not a source of continued division in later years.

The consequences of a No vote depend largely upon the size of the Yes minority, but also on the 2015 General Election and the 2016 Scottish elections. If there is a Conservative Government in 2015 and a high Yes vote, then further devolution may be proposed, but the track record of Westminster suggests this may just be ‘tokenistic tinkering’. The SNP would have to engage with such measures to avoid appearing ‘sulky’. Polls suggest the Scottish people already hold few illusions about the consequences of the referendum, as only 41% believe further devolution will follow a No vote. Labour’s manifesto for devolution underwhelmed Prof. Pittock, and he argued their vision was ‘partisan’ and ‘piecemeal’.

Should the Yes vote come in below 40%, both Labour and the Conservatives in London would probably ‘forget about Scotland and Scottish issues’, and there may well be serious calls for review of the Barnett formula. Promotion of a ‘unitary British identity’ would likely follow. Prof. Pittock suggested that ‘devo-max’ was far from the safe middle-ground envisioned by many left-wing voters, due to a lack of foreign policy. Essentially, Scotland would be left with the economy it has, with no ability to project internationally. As a result, it could bankrupt the country in the long-term.

Scotland has been energised by this referendum like never before, and although there are risks in all courses, it was the view of Prof. Pittock that a No vote was the biggest risk of all.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The Centre seminar series will return in September 2014.

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