The Scottish Independence Referendum was held on September 18, 2014, and the ‘Nays’ won. No doubt, Westminster and 55% of the Scottish electorate heaved a sigh of relief. So did the Queen, Britain’s allies and many banks. The 307 year old union between England and Scotland continues on. The ‘Yes’ campaign made gains in the last days but it was not enough to snatch victory. A barnstorming speech in favour of the Union by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot himself, may have tipped the balance among the undecideds.
What is not so well known is that the referendum in Scotland did not just affect this nation and the United Kingdom. It had global implications. Had the referendum passed, the changes would, at a minimum, been uncertain. At a maximum, they could have been massive and destabilsing.
The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, hence, the appellation: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While it could be argued that the Irish and Welsh were subjugated centuries ago, the same cannot be said of the Scots. First, it was the Scottish king, James VI, who in 1603 took over the throne from the Queen Elizabeth I, the woman who executed his mother, Mary Queen of Scots (1587). Thus, the thrones of Scotland and England were united. James VI became James I, and he gave the world the most noblest piece of prose in the English language: the King James Bible in 1611. It is said that James called the country Britain so that his English subjects would be less uncomfortable with a Scottish king.
Then in 1707 the Act of Union united England and Scotland’s parliaments. Think of it like a partnership, even a marriage. From that time onward, Great Britain’s best days lay ahead. A massive empire was built that spanned the globe. It was Britain to started the ball of globalisation rolling in the mid-19th Century with the free movement of goods, services, capital, people, and ideas. Like Alexander the Great of old, Anglo-globalisation spread the British legal system, culture, and the English language. Today at least one-third of the humanity speak the mother tongue of Britain.
Scotland played an important part in all of this. Her notables including philosopher David Hume, stream engine inventor James Watt, economist Adam Smith who invented the modern UK economy, eleven British prime ministers, and a great tennis player, Andy Murray. John Knox and the Reformation - how can we forget his famous prayer ‘Give me Scotland or I die?’ Her citizens were part and parcel of Britain’s rise to greatness. Scottish soldiers fought along side of English, Welsh, and Irish soldiers in two world wars; and they are buried side-by-side in cemeteries across Europe.
Over the years, ‘devolution’ granted Scotland her own parliament in 1999. In addition, she has a separate church (The Church of Scotland), and courts. Though part of Britain, Scottish identity was and is clear for the entire world to see. It has been a great marriage; so why is there the clamor for a divorce?
No other referendum had the potential of shaking up the world order like the Scottish one. Why? First, because of the extensive influence of British Empire, any change in the United Kingdom could, in theory, effect other parts of the Commonwealth. In Australia, republican scholars mused that since our federation is united under the ‘Crown of Great Britain and Ireland,’ the potential break-up of the United Kingdom could put our own constitutional arrangements in limbo (personally, I think the threat is exaggerated, but it is there in theory). Britain is not just another country: it has led the Commonwealth, serves as a permanent member of the UN security council, a leading member of NATO, and a global financial hub.
Some of the warnings from leading banks in the event of Scottish independence sounded very dire:
GOLDMAN SACKS: The near-term consequences of a ‘Yes’ for the Scottish economy, and for the UK more broadly, could be severly negative.
DEUTSCHE BANK: Be afraid, be very afraid. The implications of yes vote would be huge, and are magnified by the sense of institutional unpreparedness. A ‘Yes’ vote could easily derail the UK economy.
Despite promises of a brighter future by the pro-independence camp, there were some seriously unanswered questions: 1. What about welfare entitlements, pensions, public transport conessions, and the sacred National Health Service? 2. What would be the currency - the British pound, the euro or something else? 3. How much of the North Sea oil revenue would go to Edinburgh? 4. What about the submarine base at Faslane? 5. Would the Queen be Head of State in an independent Scotland? 6. How would an independent Scotland share in Britain’s debt? Would Scotland have to apply for European Union membership? What about NATO Membership?
One astute observer speaks about the ‘Two Scotlands.’ The first is the traditional, familiar, beloved, warm-hearted Scotland, cognizant of its history and heritage, and proud to be British. The second Scotland is anti-English, uninterested in history and heritage, and very vocal? This seems to be the tension, even conflict, involving the referendum. The first Scotland is the one which prevailed at the referendum.
Something even more worrisome. Nationalism and fighting over borders has been credited with starting two blood-filled world wars on European soil. The rule of thumb to prevent war in the post-World War II era: for the sake of peace, national borders are sacred and must stay unchanged. Sure, some nationalities might be on the ‘wrong side’ of the national boundaries, but this was considered an acceptable sacrifice to avoid a third world war.
At the end of the Cold War (1989 & onwards), European national boundaries did start to change, but in each case the changes were considered exceptional:
1. The demise of the Soviet Union produced 15 independent republics: however, the borders of these 15 sovereign nations did not change;
2. The velvet divorce of 1993 split Czechoslovakia, but since this nation had only been around since the end of World War I, it was not considered an earth-shaking change;
3. Yugoslavia fell apart, including Kosovo, but again, since the Serbs were considered ‘oppressors,’ this was viewed a ‘rare’ and ‘acceptable’ change.
Scotland would have been the exception and set a precedent that would be hard to stop. With so much
For the sincere and dedicated supporters of the ‘Yes Campaign,’ all may not be lost: Westminster has promised even more autonomy in the days to come. Even more significantly, Scotland can stay connected to the British vine, leaning back on its glorious past to position it for a better future.