Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Scottish independence vote draws neigh

  • Print

Stop eating junk food. Start exercising regularly. Most people have hopelessly boring 2014 New Year’s resolutions. But not the nationalists of Scotland.

In just nine month, Scots will vote on whether to become an independent country. For Scottish nationalists, it’s the culmination of a centuries-long struggle for independence. (Think Braveheart with fewer beheadings and more sober white papers on the material benefits of secession.) For unionists, the referendum risks forfeiting the many perks of London’s tutelage. Beyond Scotland, the vote has wide implications for peaceful secessionist movements in multiethnic nation-states from Canada to Spain to the Balkans — putting all the more pressure on Scottish partisans to fulfill their 2014 New Year’s resolution: win over undecided voters.

"This issue of the referendum is whether Scotland is better off without the United Kingdom," David Mundell, the under secretary of Scotland, told Foreign Policy. "Obviously, we make the case that it’s better as part of the United Kingdom."

Mundell has become London’s poster child for keeping the United Kingdom united, and has spent part of December carrying that message to Washington in meetings at think tanks and influential congressional offices. A lifelong Scotsman, Mundell is the only Conservative MP who represents a Scottish constituency, making him an ideal courier for David Cameron’s anti-independence message.

"He’s a rare bird," said the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill, "And perhaps more effective than having some British official who doesn’t have the same cachet."

Sitting down with FP at the British Embassy in Washington, Mundell’s message was simple: Scotland doesn’t realize how much it has to lose as a tiny independent state of five million people. "I would rather be part of a Scotland that has an influence in the world than be part of a Scotland [with] absolutely no influence," he said.

As a part of the U.K., Scotland enjoys the benefits of London’s longstanding clout in an array of international institutions from the United Nations, where it holds a seat at the Security Council, to NATO, to the European Union to the G8 and the G20. In a chaotic global economy, it also helps to belong to a country with a substantial credit line. In 2008, the British government bailed out two of Scotland’s biggest banks, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. "If it hadn’t been for the wide resources of the United Kingdom, Scotland would’ve been like Iceland where effectively the country went bankrupt," said Mundell.

Mundell was gearing up for a talk at the Brookings Institution, where his intellectual rival, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, spoke earlier in the year. Both men make compelling points, but there’s a sense that they’re speaking past each other. While Mundell talks economies of scale and the pragmatic downsides to independence, Salmond drapes his appeal in the universalist rhetoric of self-determination.

In his April address at Brookings, Salmond summoned the memory of President John F. Kennedy. "I think there is a universal truth that people who take the best decisions about a nation’s future are the people who live and work in that nation," he told the audience after an introduction by the influential Middle East peace negotiator Martin Indyk. "No other country is going to make better decisions about Scotland than the Scots will."

Salmond envisions a nuclear-free Scotland with an expanded social safety net and a Scandinavian-style foreign policy that emphasizes benevolent global citizenship rather than hard power realpolitik. It’s clear his message has found an audience. On a secessionist platform, Salmond’s nationalists won their first election in 2007 and won a majority in 2011. According to recent polling, the nationalists have an uphill battle ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum, but have swayed enough Scots to keep London worried.

In a December poll taken after the Scottish government released its white paper on a succession plan, 27 per cent of those surveyed said they’d vote "yes" for independence while 41 per cent planned to vote "no." Since last September, the anti-independence movement’s lead has shrunk from 19 per cent to 14 per cent.

"The odds are against independence, but as we know from many previous instances of polling and elections, there’s always a chance for a surprise outcome due to external events," said Hill. "The Scottish government just released the white papers on independence so they’re now in full-court press mode."

In recent days, senior Tory leaders have expressed concern that Scottish nationalists are gaining ground in the debate and have called on Cameron to reinvigorate his anti-independence campaign. Speaking to the Spectator, Cameron said he wasn’t losing sight of the issue. "We cannot in any way let this argument go the wrong way," he said. "We’ve got to fight every day. It’s one of the biggest issues of next year, if not the biggest."

Beyond Scotland’s boundaries, the independence movement is a source of anxiety for multi-ethnic countries and a source of hope for the Catalans and the Quebecois in their own bids for nationhood.

In a shot across the bow, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned in November that Scotland would be kicked out of the European Union if it voted for independence from Britain. "It is clear to me that a region which asks for independence from a state within the European Union, will be left outside the EU," he told reporters. Given Spain’s staunch opposition to independence for Catalonia, an autonomous community in Eastern Spain, Rajoy does not want to set a new precedent for breaking up sovereign states. Spain’s opposition is a headache for Salmond, who has pledged that EU membership would be a priority for independent Scotland.

Meanwhile, Scottish independence has caused excitement in Quebec, where Premier Pauline Marois has offered to share notes with Salmond given her experience with pro-independence bids in Canada in recent decades. Salmond, however, has avoided comparisons to other independence movements. "Scotland isn’t Catalonia. We’re not Denmark. We’re not Ireland. We’re not Quebec," he said in April. "Scotland is Scotland."

This detachment came to a head in January when Salmond appeared to snub an effort by Marois to offer him independence guidance in a public meeting. At the time, the CBC speculated that "he may not have been eager to be seen in public with the leader of a party that had lost its own independence votes, twice, in 1980 and 1995." Burn!

But pro-independence leaders aren’t the only ones who’d like to avoid the Quebec experience. The political and economic uncertainty caused by the French-speaking province’s repeated independence efforts over the last three decades concern Mundell, who wants the Scottish referendum to settle the matter regardless of the outcome. "I hope we have a decisive result that puts it to bed for at least a generation," he said. "It actually does become very damaging in terms of creating uncertainty and instability... Constitutional debate doesn’t grow the economy, it doesn’t help children’s education or get people better medical care."


John Hudson is a staff writer for Foreign Policy.


—Foreign Policy


Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


In the Key of Bart: Can’t It Be Nice This Time?

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060710 The full moon rises above the prairie south of Winnipeg Monday evening.
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.

View More Gallery Photos


What are you most looking forward to this Easter weekend?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google