Since this particular half-Scot enjoys a spot of trolling, and this Scottish independence vote is a sensitive subject, I will first push the line that “Scottishness”, now invoked by the “Yes” camp who are pushing independence, is hardly any less of a mythical attribute than the “Britishness” they repudiate. Then I will scoff at the threadbare-to-non-existent financial institutions underlying Salmond’s current independence proposal. Then I will affirm that Scottish independence might be a fairly good idea after all, and lastly, with the utmost confidence, that even in the event of a “No” vote, the issue isn’t going to go away any time soon.
This post is about Scottish nationalism, and thus, Scottish identity, so let’s sketch in some Scottish ethnicity first, a closely related subject. To start on a personal note, I have something of an affinity for the descendants of Gaelic-speaking crofters from the Isle of Arran, for, dear reader, I married one, after a brief pursuit round a kitchen (by her, I should add, though I suppose I was not especially elusive prey). Here’s another Arran crofter who caught my eye, without so much recourse to heavy breathing, etc:
Dòmhnall MacMhaolain (1813–1857) …born on 13 September 1813, in the Isle of Arran to a crofting family. Moving to London, he founded Macmillan Publishers, with his brother Alexander…He married, on 4 September 1860, Frances, daughter of Mr. Orridge, a Cambridge’ chemist. Their son, Maurice Crawford Macmillan (1853–1936) married Helen (Nellie) Artie Tarleton Belles (1856–1937), whose son Harold became British Prime Minister.
That is a pretty swift ascent from pretty modest origins. Perhaps American readers need to be told that crofting is subsistence farming by tenant farmers. There’s nothing grand about it, but it can be a steady trade, though demanding. Practitioners develop a certain cussedness and resourcefulness. In fact plenty of Scots decamped, or were decamped, to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. If they survived the trip and the initial privations, they carried right on with crofting. Scan a phone book covering the right locations and you will find their descendants are still there, like wee limpets.
My wife’s family’s former communal farm on Arran is modest too. A scatter of whitewashed buildings, it is now a cute teashop and visitor attraction, having been, I suppose, mostly derelict, or used as animal accommodation, since the tenants were “cleared” from the farm in the 1880s, and packed off to the mainland to become coal miners, for their own good of course. In due course, Mrs Smith landed me, arguably a less grand prize than MacMillan’s Prime Ministership of the United Kingdom, or, in his retirement, the last hereditary Earldom ever conferred upon a non-Royal in the UK. The Mac Mhaolain or MacMillan family does seem to have done spectacularly well out of the opportunities available to emigrant Scots prepared to ditch their Gaelic roots; the allegedly rigid British class system isn’t, or recently wasn’t, all it was cracked up to be.
Fortunes differ, but between them, these two related Arran family trajectories (they are plausibly claimed to be cousins, in the very elastic Highland sense) do highlight just how the Union used to provide conventionally impressive things (riches, power, honours) to people caught up in it, as well as unambiguous misfortune (ethnic cleansing, deportation, exile, an unsought career in coal mining). Of course one can cherrypick the extreme outcomes of the Union to support opposite points, and the Yes (to independence) and No campaigns, now noisily underway North of the border, do exactly that.
Still, these Arran subsistence farmers are good representatives for many, many other Scots who travelled much further, off into the British Empire, to help build it, and prospered too, though less grandly than the MacMillans. Diehard stay-at-homes evidently got the memo about the relative advantages of English affiliations rather later. There were still three million Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 1920; a hundred years on, there are a few tens of thousands, mostly oldies in very remote places, if the overheard conversations on the streets of Stornoway are any guide. For the curious who fancy the idea of British-looking people apparently speaking Martian, there are samples of Gaelic here, from the BBC, which, by the way, just happens to be a very Scottish-built institution too. In another manifestation of resurgent nationalism, Gaelic classes are increasingly available, for ex-Highlanders wanting to get back in touch with their roots, or for anyone else who fancies a shot at stilted conversations in a beautiful language that hardly anyone speaks any more.
The vastly more numerous Lowlanders of the Central Belt (Glasgow and Edinburgh and everywhere in between), an area by and large Anglophone for just as long as actual England (transitioning in the 7th to 10th century or so), are, roughly, urbanized ex-Highlanders, plus a bunch of long-lapsed Welshmen, all very heavily leavened by Anglo Saxon and Viking invaders & settlers, Anglo-Norman chancers and, more recently, immigrant Irishmen, Jews, Italians, Pakistanis and so on. In short, they are, ethnically, the same sort of folk one finds anywhere else in the magnificently mongrellish UK.
The local rivalries are a bit more intense, though: the mutual, pointless disdain of the “Edinbuggers” (inhabitants of the fair city of Edinburgh) and the “Weegies” (inhabitants of the, in some minds, equally fair city of Glasgow) leave a newbie dumbstruck. The sulphurous atmosphere around football matches between Glasgow Celtic (Catholic fans) and Glasgow Rangers (Protestant fans) used to bespeak another kind of Scottish fissiparousness, recapitulated in the dizzying number of tiny joyless Calvinist sects still to be found glooming the place up. Giving an idea of the wholehearted commitment Scots put into this kind of rivalry, the long Celtic/Rangers grudge match series recently came to a halt when Rangers were bankrupted by a crazed attempt to outspend Celtic, and demoted to another league.
So there are just a few glimpses of the many, many historic convulsions of Scottish identity, some long past, some slipping out of living memory, some, still alive and well, thank you very much.
One relevant historic Scottish financial convulsion requires a quick summary. The Union between England and Scotland, 1707, was precipitated by a giant financial crisis when all the rich folk of Scotland simultaneously bankrupted themselves. They had judged that Darien (Panama) was a fantastic location for a trading station (correct, see the Panama Canal, two centuries later) and that they could put up enough capital, know-how and manpower to exploit it (totally incorrect). The settlers died like flies from tropical diseases, or in shipwrecks, and the implosion of the colony bust its funders. Joining up with the English was the only possible quick crisis resolution, but it left a lingering suspicion that the Scots had sacrificed their independence in a moment of weakness (sort-of correct).
The new convulsion, 300 years on, is political, but, one hopes, not to be financial. The single most important thing to understand about the Scottish independence movement is that it is not some sudden flareup, it’s part of a bigger, longer post-war story: the demise of the British Empire.
Somehow it fell to Harold MacMillan to announce, more than 50 years ago, but still belatedly, that the old British “One Nation” imperial opportunity, exploited so expertly by his own family, had passed. Back then, Scots were quick to draw further conclusions:
The question of full independence, or the less controversial home rule, did not re-enter the political mainstream until 1960, after the famous Wind of Change speech by UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. This speech marked the start of a rapid decolonisation in Africa and the end of the British Empire. The UK had already suffered the international humiliation of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which showed that it was no longer the superpower it had been before World War II. For many in Scotland, this served to undermine one of the principal raisons d’être for the United Kingdom and also symbolised the end of popular imperialism and the Imperial unity that had united the then-prominent Scottish Unionist Party. The Unionist Party subsequently suffered a steady decline in support.
Indeed it did. The independence-minded Scottish Nationalist Party got its first MP in 1967 and fifty years on, led by Alec Salmond, dominates Scottish politics. Meanwhile the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher years hit the Scots very hard, for their own good of course, and rammed home the point about policies made in London. In particular, after the brutally deflationary 1981 budget was published, 364 economists wrote an open letter warning of the resulting threat to “social and political stability”. If they’d warned specifically about the death of the Union, that letter would look quite prescient now.
A recent run of Scottish and almost-Scottish UK Prime Ministers (Blair, Brown, Cameron) made no difference at all to the underlying realities. Since the 1960’s the SNP have had more and more of a point. Americans, with the words “taxation” and “representation” in mind, really should be able to understand why the Scots moan about national policies, set in Westminster, that hardly any Scot voted for. I suspect, though, that many Scots would actually prefer to pay more tax, for a bigger state. Whatever, with that democratic deficit, Scotland looks, to many eyes, less like part of a Union, and more like the last remaining significant English colony.
So here we are, watching the Scots about to vote for independence. The ethnic back story turns out to be a bit of a wild goose chase, since, despite all that fractious Scottish diversity, a magnificent national unity has almost been achieved. Out of the innumerable warring factions normally vibrating away in Scottish society, just two tribes count, right now: the “Yes” camp, stridently in favour of independence, looks set for a 40% share of those qualified to vote, as do their increasingly bitter opponents, the “No” camp, fronted by ex-Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling. Meanwhile 17% of voters don’t know. Only 3% of those potentially eligible to vote haven’t registered.
The apparently all-English Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has had to be seen to be doing something for the “No” campaign. But fundamentally he annoys and repels many Scots, not just “Yes” voters, so he’s kept it down to a couple of tepidly-received personal appearances. By the usual mild irony, Cameron is in fact yet another influential scion of emigrant Scots. Half-close your eyes, overpersonalize it, drag in some facile stereotypes, and it is an all-Scottish pub punchup, this: Darling and Cameron versus Salmond.
The nascent nation is agog. How will the vote go?
One can at least confidently forecast that, whatever the outcome, 55-60% of the nascent nation, a reasonable majority, is going to be something between mildly hacked off and very hacked off indeed. Somehow that does seem like a uniquely Scottish sort of a result. Judging purely by the raised voices of my in-laws, grudges will be borne, and Scottish grudges are very durable items indeed.
So much for the inevitable aftermath, what about the point of the vote? It’s reasonably obvious what “No” means, in this context: a vote for the status quo. But what, exactly are ”Yes” voting for? They are not, at the moment, voting for an entity possessing certain key appurtenances of an independent state: a currency, a Central Bank, a financial regulator. Yet the new Scotland is to have its own taxing and spending powers, and conduct its own economic policy and apply for its own EU membership. How on earth do you do any of that without your own interest rate policy, your own currency (Salmond has ruled out adoption of the Euro for the moment), your own borrowing, your own capital markets and your own Lender Of Last Resort?
So far, Salmond hasn’t really explained that bit very extensively (“We will continue to use the pound”). Yet, replay the 1981-era sterling interest rate policy via a Scottish government still shackled to the pound and you get exactly the same annihilation of Scottish businesses. I had imagined that the very point of independence was to be able to mitigate that kind of “Westminster” cluelessness. I’m also certain the English won’t accept Salmond’s Plan A very willingly or for very long, especially not if there is a big divergence in the two countries’ fiscal policies. The EU won’t think much of Plan A either.
This “independence”, then, is devoid of some pretty basic financial institutional apparatus, and in consequence there has been a massive outbreak of concern trolling by the “No” camp; the direr prophecies associated with a “Yes” vote include capital flight, bank runs, job migration southwards, even economic depression.
Other wannabe dire prophecies aren’t necessarily that dire at all, for Scots anyway. The UK Treasury leaked news of the threatened redomiciling, by the immense financial garbage barge that is the Royal Bank of Scotland, to London. There it would burden the rump UK, but not Scotland, for a decade or two to come. In some ways, that leak reveals something much more like a coup by Salmond, than an expert smear by the No camp. I have no idea why Salmond is complaining about the leak so much. Scotland needed better banks anyway, something else that will need sorting out rather briskly in the event of a “Yes” vote.
On the other hand, capital flight wouldn’t be at all pretty, and if a Yes vote really does give us a chance to see that panning out, next week even, we may all suddenly be wishing that both No and the Yes had got their acts together, a long time ago, on the currency/banking aspect. No-one wants to see the Union ending just the way it started, 300 years ago, in a huge financial self-immolation by half-right, half-wrong Scots.
What are my own irrelevant hopes about the outcome, speaking as a 25% Weegie, 25% Edinbugger, 25% Welsh, 25% English, 100% soon-to-be-mythical Briton, residing in England?
I’d barely take a “Yes”, now. I’d be crossing my fingers an awful lot about deposit flight, and interim or final currency arrangements, and EU membership. I’d also want some market-calming statements straight after the result announcement, and I’d be taking it on trust that the necessary extra institutions (Central Bank and so on) are to be lashed up, apparently from a standing start, over the next eighteen months. Then one must mention the forthcoming Massive Scotland-UK Oil Wrangle: who gets what?
Mind you, a “No” vote, giving time for Salmond, or his replacement, to work out a much more convincing position on currencies, banking, and maybe EU membership, would make me sigh with relief.
But then, I’d be expecting another vote, later on, on a better-developed proposition. Unlike Salmond, I don’t really believe that a second vote really needs to be delayed for another generation. Be in no doubt, if there is a “No” now, that second vote will most assuredly come. It’s simply not possible to see off the whole trend of post-war British history, and a chronic democratic malaise, and a fifty-year-old independence movement, with one very closely-voted referendum. If you think the Scottish Nationalist Party would slink quietly away after a “No”, you are very mistaken indeed. After a pause for some much-needed thought, and sooner rather than later, they’d be back.