Scotland contemplates its future

CHARISMATIC: Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond.
CHARISMATIC: Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond.

In 2014, residents of Scotland will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom. Scottish-born Christchurch journalist John Donnachie was recently back in his homeland and found a gathering momentum towards Scotland's independence.

Today is St Andrew's Day, so it is appropriate to consider Scotland's future.

A referendum in 2014 under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, signed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron, has paved the way for the break- up of a union which dates back to 1707.

"I don't think the majority of Scots want to break the union, but it could happen," proclaims a Glasgow cabbie. "I'm really concerned that [Alex] Salmond will convince people. He has delivered on most of his promises so far and is a very persuasive man."

There are compelling arguments from both sides to why Scotland should remain or not stay in the United Kingdom. The re- establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 has been generally welcomed throughout the British Isles, and viewed as a progressive step towards a more autonomous Scottish state from within the United Kingdom.

But in times of economic meltdown and distrust, the desire for an independent Scotland is gaining credibility and becoming more persuasive as the British media daily portray the Conservative/Liberal government in London as a poorly performing and dysfunctional leadership.

Historically, Scots have always had distrust of Conservative governments. They are viewed as lacking empathy and as having little understanding or interest in the core working class and social justice values that Scottish people identify with.

Not forgotten either is the most famous and detested post-war Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, whose radical social reforms of the 1980s alienated a generation and closed down much of northern Britain's heavy industries, causing great civil unrest.

Such was the contempt for Thatcherite policies that, 30 years on, the Conservative Party still has not recovered in Scotland. It trails third behind the ruling Scottish Nationalists and the Labour Party.

In 2012, there is only one Conservative MP in Scotland, a staggering non-endorsement of the current British Government at Westminster.

And yet, the move towards a Scottish state and break-up of the 305-year-old union appears an unlikely and forbidden scenario, given the current economic turmoil Britain is experiencing.

As Europe's monetary system tethers on the brink of collapse, it seems going it alone is a downright absurdity that will bring irreversible financial hardship just as has happened to Scotland's fellow Celtic neighbour, Ireland.

Opinion polls during October showed support stagnating for independence between 30 and 35 per cent. The golden summer of British Olympic success and the shared feel-good factor has been speculated as the reason for declining interest.

However, the Scottish Nationalists insist Scotland's time has come. The charismatic Salmond has always believed that Scotland is under-achieving and can economically prosper without the umbilical cord of Westminster.

The argument for Scottish independence is not new. In 1979, a referendum held by the Labour Party delivered a No vote. But these times are different. The national party, the butt of jokes in the past, is now a very slick and populist machine - and they have the numbers to prove it.

Last year, the Scottish Nationalists enjoyed a sweeping victory in local elections. The margin of victory was the greatest ever recorded by one single party in Scottish political history. Polls beforehand had predicted a Scottish Labour Party victory, but on the day, the Scottish electorate voted resoundingly, returning the nationalists to power.

The result was unprecedented, for the majority verdict overwhelmed an electorate system devised to avoid one party dominating outright in the Scottish Parliament. It was poignant too, for it suggested the Labour Party's historical hold on the Scottish working classes was broken.

Evidently, the Labour Party are no longer viewed as a credible force to oppose the Conservative government in London. The irony also, that back in 1979 the collapse of the nationalist vote was attributed to the Scottish people voting for Labour in a defiant act to prevent another term of the Thatcher government at Westminster.

Now the Labour Party has stalled in a transitional phase, and with a clear stance against Scottish independence, finds itself in the unusual and foreboding position of supporting the government in what promises to be one of the most definitive periods in British political history.

The canny Salmond regularly highlights the predicament the Labour Party finds itself in. He proposes to significant numbers who are undecided (many identified as disenfranchised Labour voters) that voting Yes goes beyond independence. It ensures the removal of the unpopular Conservative Party from any future influence on Scottish affairs.

There lies the perception that should Scotland vote No, it will then be at the mercy of a vengeful Conservative government, who will have even less empathy for its sometime rebellious Scottish electorate.

Another drawcard to the Yes campaign is Salmond himself. A St Andrews alumnus, he studied history and economics, and is viewed in Westminster circles as an accomplished speaker and political thinker.

His vision for Scotland is built on economy rather than emotion. As a former Royal Bank of Scotland economist, who was employed specifically to oversee the bank's first North Sea oil index, he is better qualified than most to speculate on how oil can be the foundation towards building an economically sound Scottish state.

He bases his argument around 90 per cent of North Sea oil being concentrated in Scottish territorial waters. This significant share of the mineral would accordingly safeguard an independent Scotland's future.

While drilling and exploration of oil becomes more expensive, the rising cost of a barrel of oil and its likely increasing value in the future will supplement the costs associated with being an oil producer.

The nationalists also point to the considerable taxes and levies the Westminster government derives from oil companies and the British motorist. The billions of pounds claimed by Her Majesty's Treasury are viewed as unjustifiable and disproportionate.

For every pound spent at the pump the British motorist pays at least 65 pence towards the Westminster coffers. Also, oil conglomerates such as Shell and Esso are annually charged around [PndStlg]40 billion (NZ$80b) in taxes and levies for contracting oil from the North Sea.

The unionists' response to Salmond's utopian vision based on oil wealth has been to date muted. Those who do express an opinion question the sustainability of reserves, although as the nationalists often recall, previous British governments believed North Sea oil would have finished by 1995.

In a recent BBC documentary, a former British energy minister forecasts oil reserves to last for another "four decades". It also revealed that the North Sea is a bigger oil producer than the Middle East state of Kuwait.

Still, putting the importance of North Sea oil aside, there still remains more pertinent questions around how an independent Scotland would function. One area of contention surrounds Scotland's monetary policy and the role the Bank of England would play in such an eventuality.

The nationalists, who openly favour closer ties to Europe, appear less enthusiastic about adopting the ill-fated euro currency. Salmond recently disclosed that the an independent Scotland would probably continue with the pound.

This revelation presents a baffling contradiction and surely constitutes a conflict of interest, as it would mean the Bank of England would still have power over an independent Scotland, maybe with interest rates. It also raises questions as to whether the bank would have Scottish interests at heart. Still, the nationalists do hold a hand on the future of the British trident nuclear programme. Committed to a nuclear-free Scotland, the nationalists have made it clear they would no longer host the nuclear facility at Faslane in Scotland. This is potentially a huge headache for a Westminster government. Where to relocate, and the billions the relocation would cost.

A Washington Post editorial recently described Scottish independence as a threat to international stability. It would potentially weaken Britain financially and militarily, undermining America's premier ally.

The only certainty is the future configuration of the United Kingdom is destined to change. Even if Scotland's four million voters say no to independence, the desire for greater autonomy over Scottish affairs is not likely to diminish.

In the meantime, Salmond has two years to convince the Scottish people.

A white paper outlining his strategy for an independent Scotland is due in the coming year. The threat to the stability of the United Kingdom is being taken very seriously.

Cameron has vowed to fight Scottish independence "with every single fibre that I have," but then history shows the Scottish people are not easily swayed by the intentions of Conservative prime ministers.


Only people resident in Scotland can vote.

For the first time in United Kingdom history, young adults from the age of 16 will be able to vote.

Polls in England show more support for Scottish independence than in Scotland itself.

In the event of a Yes vote, Scotland intends to keep the Queen as head of state.

Scotland intends joining the EC, but may have to apply for membership.

The Press