GLASGOW — In the United Kingdom’s recent history, few government publications have been as keenly awaited as the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence — that is, a document outlining the case for Scotland stepping out on its own on the world stage. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who favors independence, has said it will "resonate down the ages." His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, has promised Scottish voters that it will "answer all your questions."
On Nov. 26, the White Paper, all 670 pages of it, was finally unveiled in Glasgow. Standing in front of a background proclaiming "Scotland’s Future" and surrounded by media, Salmond and Sturgeon outlined their pitch to the Scottish people.
There would be many benefits of independence, according to the White Paper: Scotland would become a European Union member and disavow nuclear weapons, but the country would also keep its currency (the Sterling) and still recognize the queen as head of state. The Scottish government would also improve public services, which would include building a new national broadcasting service and inaugurating a "revolution" in childcare.
Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP), which he has led for more than two decades, hope that the White Paper will convince people to vote "yes" in next September’s referendum on ending Scotland’s 306-year-old union with England. To date, Scots have been skeptical of independence; a poll issued just before the White Paper was released showed the "no" side of the referendum with a nine-point advantage.
There is disagreement over whether the White Paper will end up turning the tide of support. But in reality, the "yes" versus "no" debate might not be as clear-cut as many pundits and policy-makers say. Indeed, even if the independence campaign doesn’t succeed, some argue that Scotland is likely to continue to diverge politically from the rest of the United Kingdom — and, in the process, demand more autonomy.
Historically, Scottish independence has been a marginal feature of British politics. The SNP, which has always stood for an independent Scotland, was founded in 1934 but only made its first significant electoral breakthrough in 1967. And even then, the party struggled to make significant gains in the decades that followed. The 1997 creation of a devolved parliament for Scotland — a legislative body with limited powers — proved a turning point in SNP fortunes. With the charismatic Salmond at its helm, the party first won a minority administration in the devolved parliament in 2007 elections. Then, in 2011, the nationalists achieved the once seemingly impossible: an absolute majority and, with it, the chance to realize the long-held dream of a vote on independence.
Now, the SNP is the driving force behind "Yes Scotland," the campaign for independence that also draws support from the Scottish Greens and a number of smaller socialist parties. "Better Together," which advocates staying in the United Kingdom, is supported by the three largest parties in London: Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. It is led by Alastair Darling, erstwhile chancellor of the Exchequer under Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister.
Critics from Better Together have attacked nationalist claims that independence would require minimal institutional changes. "What currency would we use? Who will set our mortgage rates? How much would taxes have to go up? How will we pay pensions and benefits in future?" Darling has asked. Better Together, which has been dubbed "Project Fear" by some because of its negative messaging, has also warned that pandas would be taken away from the Edinburgh zoo under independence, and that England would be forced to bomb Scotland if the northern country were invaded by a foreign power that, in turn, threatened its southern neighbor.
In seeking to answer these charges with detailed proposals like those in the White Paper, Scottish nationalists are understandably defending their position. But some say they could also be fashioning a data-heavy rod to break their own backs. "They have fallen into a unionist trap," David Torrance, journalist and author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, says of the SNP. "If you issue a detailed policy document, by its very nature, it will be picked over by friends and foes alike. It will produce questions, which will in turn need answers. The White Paper could end up being more trouble than it is worth."
James Maxwell, a Scottish writer and contributor to the left-leaning New Statesman, says that while nationalists and unionists battle over the White Paper, the document is unlikely to set the heather on fire for Scottish voters. "The White Paper holds no interest for ordinary Scots, who are already swamped under an avalanche of statistics and supposedly neutral ‘expert opinion,’" he argues.
Support for independence is closely aligned with income and social status: In general, poorer Scots are more likely to say they will vote "yes" in the upcoming referendum than their more affluent compatriots. The White Paper is unlikely to change this, says Maxwell. "Professional Scots are simply unwilling to gamble on radical constitutional change, even if the alternative is prolonged austerity and falling living standards inside the U.K."
But if Scots do reject independence next year, in the long run, the unionists could still find themselves on the wrong side of history, says Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University and author of The Independence of Scotland. Politically, Scotland will continue to chart a distinct path within the United Kingdom, a process that began 50 years ago and sped up after devolution in 1997. Keating envisages a situation similar to that in Quebec, where regionally based parties with little or no ties to U.K.-wide organizations dominate the local political scene and the issue of independence remains unresolved.
Calls for independence in Scotland are a product of broader tensions pertaining to both the ties that bind the United Kingdom and the very notion of the nation-state, says Keating. "The context for all these discussions is the transformation of the state, a process of rescaling the state upwards and downwards," he adds. Even without full independence, demands for greater autonomy in Scotland are likely to grow.
What’s more, the inclusive notion of "Britishness" that has long held the union together is fraying and will only continue to do so. In Scotland especially, this fraying began with the 1980s government of Margaret Thatcher, which lacked legitimacy over England’s northern border, and only accelerated with Gordon Brown’s more recent, failed attempts to rally citizens around British patriotism. "Unionists have started setting Scottishness against Britishness," says Keating. "(But) they can no longer weave a story about the union as encompassing all these different identities."
So while polls show that the unionists are likely on course to win next year’s referendum, the future of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom is anything but certain. Meanwhile, Yes Scotland is holding out hope that the White Paper will disrupt everything, sooner rather than later: The SNP government has already set a date for formal independence after a "yes" vote — March 24, 2016.
Geoghegan is editor of Political Insight magazine and a journalist based in Glasgow.
— Foreign Policy