The birth of a new nation? Why it might happen for Scotland

Ahead of the Scottish referendum, Mark Dawson looks at the possibility of leaving the UK.

The morning of the 19th of September 2014. At 5.15 in the morning, after a sleepless night for millions, the final results of the Scottish independece referendum are declared. The results send a political earthquake through a now dead entity: the United Kingdom.

Confounding all expectations, the Yes vote stands at 50.8% on an 85% turnout. In truth, signs of an upturn in nationalist fortunes had been appearing since the summer. After besting his Unionist opponent in a series of televised debates, the SNP leader Alex Salmond had persuaded many Scots that a more prosperous future lay outside the UK. Nationalist sentiment had been awakened by the successful hosting of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July. Patriotic fervour rose still further after the Scottish football team’s surprise victory over world champions, Germany, in a European Championship qualifier in Dortmund on September 7th. Scotland, joked Mr Salmond, were now the ‘unofficial World Champions’. As the Saltire rose over Edinburgh Castle, the SNP leader thanked Angela Merkel for a congratulatory telegram indicating that Scotland could expect an ‘open and constructive’ dialogue over its continued membership of the EU. ‘Welcome’, Mr. Salmond declared, ‘to the birth of a new nation’.

This of course is a nationalist fantasy. There is every reason to believe that the ‘no’ campaign – still leading in the opinion polls by around 6 points – will prevail in Scotland’s upcoming referendum. If, however, Mr. Salmond were to pull off an upset, it is worth reflecting on the reasons this might be possible. Why has the nationalist campaign been so successful in turning a large deficit into a tight race (and even one that could still produce a surprise victory in a few weeks time)?

1. Lowering expectations

Ironically, for a campaign designed to institute a radical constitutional change, one of the great successes of the yes campaign has been its attempt to re-assure Scots that little would change were independence to succeed. While a brand new Scottish state would seem a hard sell in a relatively prosperous country such as Scotland, the SNP (the main nationalist party) have continuously sought to down-play the extent to which ordinary life would be disrupted by the advent of independence. The new Scotland would be ‘independent’ but would still share with England the monarchy, the pound, EU and Nato membership, and even the BBC. In this way, Scots are inclined to see independence less as a radical gamble than as a vote that will retain cherished British institutions whatever the outcome.

2. The No Campaign

The cultural legacy of institutions like the BBC and the monarchy seem to offer the no campaign a formidable advantage. Scots share close cultural and family links across the UK, meaning opponents of independence are able to sell a positive story about the Union’s continued existence. If ‘yes’ were to succeed, much of this could be put down to the no campaign’s squandering of this advantage in favour of a negative and scaremongering opposition to Scottish home rule. From the beginning of 2014, the main UK parties have collaborated in a joint insistence that an independent Scotland would be excluded from shared UK institutions, particularly a currency Union. The main Unionist leader, Alistair Darling, has repeatedly argued that a new Scottish state would be forced to adopt its own flimsy and de-valued currency, leaving the country excluded from international financial markets. The perception that English leaders were ganging up on Scots – threatening their exclusion from public goods that Scots themselves helped to build – has co-incided with an uptick in support for yes.

3. The Leadership of ‘Yes’

By contrast, the Yes campaign has always carried a home advantage. Compared to the fractious Unionists (with conservatives, liberals and social democrats all cohabiting in one tent), nationalist unity is preserved by their membership largely of one tried and tested political movement, the SNP. Their leader, Alex Salmond, is not only a cunning and slick political operator but the country’s most popular politician. His energetic performance in the 2nd televised debate on August 25th in particular has led to a significant surge in nationalist support. If ‘yes’ were to succeed, much of the credit would go down to the dogged determination of the nationalist leader himself.

4. A ‘New’ Nationalism

A crucial ingredient of his success has been Mr Salmond’s ability to tap into a different type of nationalist feeling. Interestingly, one element of the Commonwealth games frequently criticised was the opening ceremony whose depiction of Scotland as a nation of tartan, whiskey, golf and sea-monsters was largely derided at home for presenting a nostalgic and stereotypical view of the country, severely out of step with contemporary urban Scotland. By contrast, the SNP have tried to present a form of nationalism with a much more modern face.

Contrary, for example, to the xenophobic rhetoric of many nationalist movements, the Yes campaign have presented an inclusionary image, proposing a nationality and citizenship law for an independent Scotland that would be among the world’s most liberal. They have simultaneously insisted that, in the face of UK euro-scepticism, a vote for independence would be a step towards rather than away from Scotland’s European partners.

5. The Future of the UK

In this sense, while the no campaign have frequently highlighted the risks of independence, Scottish voters are all too aware that remaining within the UK carries risks of its own. The rise of the UK Independence Party, about to gain its first Member of Parliament after the recent defection of a Conservative MP, makes a UK exit from the EU ever more likely. At the same time, the recovery of the Conservatives in opinion polls – precipitated by a fast improving UK economy – makes a Conservative government after next year’s UK general election more and more likely. Faced with that possibility, many centre-left voters may see independence as an easy way out of being governed by a party still disliked by most Scots.

Responding to this feeling, Mr. Salmond’s recent strategy has been to focus on an issue which closely highlights the possible benefits of ‘yes’ – the future of the UK’s universal National Health Service (the NHS). Facing the threat of a future Conservative government either privatising the health service, or subjecting it to real term budget cuts, Mr. Salmond’s message has been clear: Only independence will secure an NHS free at the point of delivery. The Nationalist’s rosy picture (criticised as naïve by many) is of a Scotland able to pursue a social democratic future outside the rightward leaning UK.

In short, if ‘yes’ were to succeed, it would be for positive reasons – because it has portrayed an optimistic and progressive vision of Scotland that ordinary Scots buy into for political as well as cultural reasons. The Birth of Europe’s newest nation on September 19th may yet be an event worth celebrating.

This text was first published in German in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 6 September 2014.

More about the author

  • Mark Dawson, Professor of European Law and Governance