What looked like a kind of harmless beauty contest, the vote on Scottish independence in September is shaping up to be something quite otherwise: The death struggle for the United Kingdom.
The polls are showing a surprising narrowing between those who would vote for Scotland to become an independent country and those who would vote for it to remain part of the United Kingdom, dominated as it is by England.
Since the Act of Union in 1707, England and Scotland have been one nation, but with important differences. For a start the Scots have maintained their own distinctive way of speaking, although it is unlikely that the Scots language can be revived or whether it should — you know when you are in Scotland. The country is predominantly Presbyterian with a substantial Catholic minority.
Scotland has its own legal system, based on Roman-Dutch law rather than English Common law, and it has kept alive the traditions of Scotland — sometimes enhanced by English commercial interest — such as the marketing of whisky, the celebrating of New Year, and the jokes about haggis.
The Scots always had their nationalists, including those who stole the Stone of Scone from Westminister Abbey on Christmas morning 1950, and took it back to Scotland. The 336-pound stone, according to one Celtic legend, was the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel, and for centuries was associated with the crowning of Scottish kings. Four months after the stone was stolen, it was returned to the abbey. And in 1996, the British government returned it to Scotland.
But Scottish nationalists have never posed a threat to the union with England; not that the Scots haven’t always denigrated those living south of the border as “Sassenachs.”
In my experience, as someone brought up to respect Scotand’s traditions (its music, literature, and its brews and distilled spirits) the distinct disinterest of the two peoples in each other is quite dumbfounding.
The English will flock to the continent on their vacations, but not to Scotland. Once in Peebles, a town near Edinburgh, a friend asked if I was staying for a local masonic parade and festival. I asked if there would be a lot of English visitors. He replied: “I don’t think so; they don’t come here. And we’re not very nice to them when they do.”
When my wife and I were planning our annual trip to Scotland, an otherwise well-traveled and erudite Englishwoman living in London asked us, “Why would you go there?” Think about how Canada is ignored in the United States.
Scotland is, in fact, a tourist treasure with great beauty, fabulous vistas and wonderful traditions.
Probably the greatest period of harmony was ushered in by Queen Victoria, who liked Scotland a lot; after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, she spent long periods in Balmoral Castle. Some even suggested she had a romantic relationship with her Highland manservant, John Brown. There are those who have suggested that if Queen Victoria had had the same affection for Ireland, it would not now be a separate country.
The present crisis has occurred because of the determination of two men: Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Blair believed in the “devolution” of power to the regions. He was warned against this by his predecessor, John Major, who was appalled at the idea. “Utter folly,” he called it.
Salmond believed in independence for Scotland; it had been his life’s passion. He was ready and when Scotland was granted a legislature of its own by Blair’s Labor government in 1998, he saw the chance and began to push for referendum.
Like most divorces this one won’t be easy, if it happens. Just a little over 5 million people live in Scotland (64 million live in England), but it occupies one third of the land mass of the United Kingdom.
Then there is the question of borders, currency, the status of the Queen. The Scots want to keep the pound and the Queen. But if Scotland votes to quit the union, England might say no: Our pound, our Queen.
The case for Scotland staying in the union is economic, as was the case for them being coerced to join in the first place. The case for separation is nationalistic.
The patron saint of Scotland is St. Andrew, and the patron saint of England is St. George. They have stood together in war and peace for 300 of history’s most remarkable years — an empire, the Industrial Revolution, and two world wars.
Now they stand apart — at the opposite sides of an impending referendum. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,” as Robert Burns, poet and Scottish nationalist, wrote. The polls are not encouraging for unionists.