Walker's World: Scotland's year of decision

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Aug. 12, 2013 at 6:59 AM
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EDINBURGH, Scotland, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The guns boomed across the moors and mountains of Scotland Monday as "the glorious 12th" opened the season for the shooting of grouse. And the streets of Edinburgh were packed with jugglers, poets and troubadours as tourists flocked to Europe's biggest arts festival.

Next year, however, it will be different, since the summer of 2014 will be overshadowed by the imminence of the referendum in September on Scottish independence, ending the Act of Union with England that has lasted since 1707.

Opinion polls suggest that almost half of Scotland's 4 million voters will chose to remain part of the United Kingdom, just more than one-third will vote for independence and the rest don't know or don't intend to vote.

However, those polls may well be misleading since 2014 is going to be a very special year, with a number of events likely to increase Scotland's social and political temperature.

It will see the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, the greatest victory Scottish forces ever won over the English. The Scots were outnumbered and less well armed but through astute use of boggy ground they turned the English numbers into a liability.

The battle established a fairly stable dynasty of the Bruces and Stuarts until the English and Scottish thrones were combined when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.

A three-day re-enactment of the battle in full medieval dress next year will add to its iconic power. Bannockburn wasn't only important in itself and as an enduring symbol of Scottish nationhood. It also gave rise to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, an assertion of national independence that won the support of the pope of the day. Its ringing assertion of freedom will be heard often next year in the run-up to the referendum.

"As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule," the Declaration of Arbroath says. "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom -- for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."

Next year will also be the year of Homecoming, an appeal to those of Scottish descent around the world to revisit the old country. Mainly a campaign to boost tourism, it also adds to the emotional patriotic mood which the Scottish government, run by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, is seeking to promote.

"In 2014 Scotland welcomes the world to join in the exciting Year of Homecoming," says the Homecoming website. "In addition to the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, there's our yearlong program of events and activities to showcase all that's great about Scotland; mouth-watering food and drink events, lots to get you active in our great outdoors plus spectacular arts, cultural and ancestral heritage to explore. Whenever you come and wherever you visit, you'll be very welcome so join us and be part of Homecoming Scotland 2014!"

Alex Salmon, leader of the SNP and first minister of the government, has been called the cleverest politician in Britain and he has taken his party from being little more than a cult to real political power. And he has been ruthless in clearing obstacles that he sees blocking the way to independence, to the outrage of some of his militant supporters.

He has dropped the SNP's long-standing opposition to NATO, saying an independent Scotland will remain inside the alliance. He has also sidestepped his party's traditional anti-nuclear stance, saying that an independent Scotland would allow England to continue to station its nuclear submarines (and thus nuclear warheads) at Faslane at the mouth of the river Clyde through a leasing arrangement.

He has also asserted, despite a long republican tradition in the SNP, that an independent Scotland would retain the British monarchy and, for the moment at least, would also retain its links to the British currency of the pound.

At this point, even supporters wonder what exactly is the point of independence if so little changes. Scotland already has its own education system, with Scottish students paying no university fees, unlike their English neighbors. It has its own banknotes and its own judicial system. Unlike England and the United States where a defendant is either guilty or not guilty, under Scottish law there is a third category, "not proven."

The economic arguments are finely balanced. The English rightly say their taxes subsidize higher public spending in Scotland (worth about $2,000 a year per Scot) but the Scots rightly retort that they pay more taxes per head, mainly because of the taxes on North Sea oil. And the Scottish claim that the English have taken most of their oil is answered by the English retort that Scotland has been heated for 40 years by English natural gas.

The result of the vote cannot be predicted but the outcome of a "Yes" vote would certainly mean a diminished Britain. And since Scotland has long been a heartland of the Labor Party and of the left, Scottish independence could portend something close to permanent conservative rule in England.

It would also be a great boost for regional independence movements elsewhere: in Spain's Basque country and Catalonia, or for the Flemings of Belgium or the Corsicans of France.

It is an irony of this age of globalization is seeing such a resurgence of traditional sentiments of nationhood. Next year, Scotland will be important. Whatever happens, any divorce would be civilized and the only gunshots to be heard are likely to be those hunting grouse and deer.

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