Scotland’s dreaming 10/09/14

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 10 September 2014

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover. But, there’s only one way that Scotland can leave the United Kingdom.

If a majority of voters living in Scotland say “Yes” in the referendum on September 18, then March 26, 2016 is the target date to conclude negotiations on Scotland’s emergence as an independent country.

To the delight of opinion-mongers everywhere, the outcome is now too close to call, thanks to a late surge by the independence camp. Perhaps this should not be a surprise. After all, it seems churlish to say “No” to such an enticing question as “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Of course, it shouldn’t really matter. A yes vote in that part of this world will only bring about the sort of orderly transition seen when Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1992.

Yet, this vote wasn’t expected to be at all close. The shared cultures, common economies, and intermingled ruling classes of England and Scotland long predate the 1707 Act of Union between the two major nations of Britain. For every historian citing Robert the Bruce and Braveheart, there are more recalling many Scots were enthusiastic participants in Britain’s imperial history.

Take the jute trade’s links to Dundee, for instance. Trivia buffs may add that the Royal Navy Vice-Admiral who suggested attacking Washington DC to avenge US attacks on Canada, when the British burned the White House in August 1814, was the younger son of the Scottish Earl of Dundonald.

However, recent opinion polls indicate that it might not be shared ties and economics that are in play this month. The heart of Scottish nationalism has recognised a golden opportunity to rule the head and seize the day. For followers of democracy, the referendum heralds the prospect of a plethora of unforeseen consequences and intriguing debates about the UK’s standing and role in the world.

The big economic questions do not hold decisive sway. Scotland’s geography entitles its 5.3 million residents to the lion’s share of Britain’s North sea oil revenues, but throw in its population’s share of UK national debt, and these figures start to cancel each other out. Undoubtedly, disputes between an independent Scotland committed to going non-nuclear and reducing its armed forces, would cause some horse trading, but whichever way such negotiations could go, per capita GDP is unlikely to immediately change more than 1% either way on both sides of the potential new border.

For all the yes camp’s talk about building a socially just, economically strong “Nordic” Scotland, it is more likely that a divorced Scotland may be forced to increase taxes and depend on shrewd economic management of its undoubted resources, to manage the novelty of independence. Constitutional concerns have largely been neutralised by Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister promising to keep the Queen as head of state and to remain in the EU with its open market and borders.

As Scotland has always maintained its own educational and legal systems and issues its own banknotes, independence would not then necessarily result in sudden differences for people living within Scotland.

The biggest impact will be political and felt far more outside Scotland. With apologies to the people of Wales (population 3.7 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million), the 53 million people living in England will feel the most political reverberations. The chances of political challenges and splits will increase and regardless of the result, calls for devolution of powers will grow across the rest of the UK.

Further afield, the example set to the far more strongly rooted secessionist movements of economically powerful regions such as Catalonia could prove highly uncomfortable for the Spanish government.

When the referendum option was first offered by the UK’s conservative-led coalition, it was probably regarded as a win-win scenario by PM David Cameron. He would have anticipated credit for defending the Union, but in the less probable event of a yes vote, his party would be the overwhelming beneficiary of the loss of Scotland’s 59 predominantly Labour seats from the UK parliament.

In the light of what the polls now suggest, hiding such an apparently cunning tactic in plain sight, now seems less than Machiavellian. As a politician who once campaigned on the phrase “broken Britain,” albeit within a different context, Cameron must now be dreading the phrase coming back to haunt him.

Mind you, independence will not automatically mean continued political success for Alex Salmond either. His nationalist party may have transcended old sectarian divides, but could easily become beset by currency and EU wrangles if it gains independence.

Salmond’s past missteps include standing by Donald Trump in the billionaire’s controversial plans for an unpopular golf resort development, which descended into full-blown farce and failure. An independent Scottish electorate may well see fit then to put its future in the hands of politicians who campaigned against independence.

So sit back and enjoy. There will be plenty of debates about flags and passports to add to life’s rich tapestry. Mostly these will be silly to the point of futility. Take a look at the flag of Hawaii if you hear anyone saying Scottish independence will “force” the UK to drop the Union Flag.

Have a look at the Nepalese in the British Army if someone suggests it won’t be able to recruit Scottish soldiers. And have a good, long think about the open borders between Britain and Ireland that are far older than the EU, if anyone brings up border controls.

Much as I admire John Lydon’s lyric that there is no future in England’s dreaming, I can’t quite bring myself to say the same about Scotland dreaming. No doubt Scottish nationalists include among their ranks the sort of one-track minds who harp on about the Scottish roots of AC/DC, and who put false nostalgia and sentiment above reason and precedent.

But dreams persist. And the chance to vote for one in the knowledge that the peoples of the UK have a knack for pragmatism and muddling through, may well prove irresistible.

On the day, it is the democratically expressed opinions of people living within Scotland that will count. Whichever way they swing, there will, be fireworks.

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