DRIVING from Devizes to the very northern tip of Scotland, I am struck by the vast, empty spaces that separate the small communities here. The population of nearly 5.3 million is unevenly dispersed, with 70 per cent concentrated along the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor. The other 30 per cent are scattered among the thousands of farms and fishing villages that dot the countryside.
We have been staying with friends along the way; two of them are farmers with huge land holdings and sizable herds of cattle and large flocks of sheep. But they can only make a profit on the basis of EU subsidies. Life is hard on the highlands where the soil basically supports grazing, and little else. However, entrepreneurial Scots have found other means to make a living: the small town of Ayr, with a population of 2,000, has seven golf courses around it. In fact, I have seen many golf courses on our trip, as is appropriate: Scotland is where the game was first played.
Shooting is another pastime that attracts tourists from the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as further afield. Deer are plentiful, and the pheasant season is about to begin. Keen hunters pay a lot of money to farmers to shoot on their fields, and the local bed and breakfast establishments cash in on this.
Large estates have highly organised shoots, and pay for maintaining their properties by charging huntsmen a hefty fees. Fishing is another attraction in the summer when trout and salmon rise in the rivers and lochs.
So all in all, you’d think this prosperous part of the British Isles would not have any serious political problems. You would be wrong. For the last few years, the demand for Scottish independence has been simmering away, and is now coming to a head. In just over a year, a referendum will be held to determine Scotland’s future. If over half the adult population votes ‘yes’, Scotland will break away from a union that has tied it to England for over three centuries.
In 1707, the Acts of Union passed by the parliaments of Scotland and England united the crowns of the two nations. Since then, they have been a single sovereign country. However, under former premier Tony Blair’s policy of devolution, the Scottish parliament elects members who also sit in the English parliament. In the event of a majority ‘yes’ vote, Scotland will become a separate state.
ROSY FUTURE: Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has long led the campaign and promises a rosy future as an independent country. He bases this vision on the money the new state would earn from North Sea oil. So far, this revenue goes to the UK exchequer, but Salmond argues that the country would be much better off if it wasn’t tied to London’s apron strings.
He maintains that Scotland would join the European Union and continue to benefit from the present farming subsidies.
One major point of friction has been the UK’s foreign policy. Many Scotsmen resent being dragged into wars they do not support. Also, Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines stationed in the port of Faslane are very unpopular. Salmond has threatened to demand their removal in case his party wins the referendum. Recently, a leaked official document suggested that Britain might annex the naval base in case of secession. This triggered an angry reaction in Scotland, with Salmond accusing London of treating the region the way Iraq had acted in Kuwait before the first Gulf War. The coalition government backtracked quickly from this position.
Despite all the hype Salmond and the SNP has been pushing out, all the polls indicate that the proposal will be defeated next year. The reality is that many Scotsmen don’t think there is anything to be gained by the rupture. Those I have spoken to are quite satisfied by the status quo, and fear the chaos that might ensue if the ‘yes’ campaign succeeds.
First, they point to the increase in administrative costs: raising and maintaining a defence force, together with a diplomatic presence around the world would be a significant burden.
Then there is no guarantee that Scotland’s entry into the EU is a foregone conclusion: a unanimous agreement is necessary among all members of the Union before a state can be admitted. Spain has made it clear that it will vote against accepting Scotland. Its reason is that Scottish independence will encourage its own Basque and Catalan secessionist movements.
Nato, too, has expressed grave reservations on a Scottish application if it goes ahead and shuts down the British base at Faslane. While Salmond is against nuclear arms, he will depend on Nato’s deterrent capabilities as Scotland is unlikely to have a very powerful defence force. All these factors have raised many doubts among those he needs to convince.
For over a year when the SNP began its campaign, polling figures have remained relatively stable at below 40 per cent among those saying they will vote ‘yes’. Those opposing the proposal are close to 50 per cent. So short of a disaster in the UK, it seems independence is a long way away. Salmond is hoping that next year’s Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh will tip the balance with a strong feel-good mood.
But even if he loses – as is likely – observers think he will be able to wring some concessions from Whitehall in the shape of greater devolved powers. He has been a towering figure in Scottish politics, and is unlikely to fade away in case he loses the referendum.
As I observe the spirited but peaceful debate over Scottish independence, I am reminded of the bloody civil war Bangladesh had to wage against the Pakistan army to win its freedom. Currently, many in Balochistan are fighting a similar battle. How much better it would be to sit down and discuss matters and look for solutions through ballot rather than bullet.