Scotland and Independence

The argument for Scottish independence has historic overtones.  On April 6, 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was proclaimed.  Written in Latin, it was really not a declaration, but a private letter, perhaps the most famous letter in Scottish history, by 39 Scottish barons addressed to Pope John XXII, who had excommunicated Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, who had murdered a rival to the throne in a church.  The context was that England under King Edward II had attempted to conquer Scotland in 1296, an invasion that continued in spite of the victory of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

The barons were asking the pope, who had clashed with Bruce, to recognize Scottish independence and for him to recognize Bruce as the lawful king of Scots.  Bruce, who had seized the throne in 1306, in June 1314 won the Battle of Bannockburn over the army of King Edward II in what can be regarded as the first war for Scottish independence.

The declaration stated, "For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English[.] ... 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."  The declaration led to the pope rescinding the excommunication of Bruce, but it did not lead to any decision that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scottish people.

The Declaration of Arbroath was not translated into English until the late 17th century.  It is unlikely that it influenced the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as some commentators have suggested, but it was awarded in 2016 the UNESCO Memory of the World status for its international importance.  Its rhetoric still flourishes.

In 1328, England recognized the kingdom of Scotland as an independent state and  Bruce as the rightful ruler of the Scots.  This continued to exist as such until 1707.  A personal union took place in 1603 when James VI of Scotland, by inheritance, became James I of England and Ireland.  By the Act of Union, 1707, the United Kingdom was created.  The individual parliaments of England and Scotland were abolished and united by the parliament of Great Britain, with seats for Scotland, based in Westminster, London.  Common citizenship, customs union, and monetary union were established, but by compromise, the Church of Scotland and Scottish law and courts and education were preserved as separate systems.  The Westminster parliament has sovereignty over the U.K. as a whole, and Scotland has partial self-determination, less than full self-determination, which provides for full decision-making with control over defense and foreign policy.

Scots were prominent in British cultural and economic life as merchants and traders in commerce and shipping, particularly in the East India Company, where by the 1770s they formed almost half of the writers of the company and were employed  in civil, military, and maritime services.  The wealth acquired created a social and economic infrastructure and reduced the impetus for Scottish separation and nationalism.

The issue of Scottish identity and national self-determination, a mixture of historical, emotional, political, and financial factors, has now reemerged as a pressing political issue, as recent political polls have shown.

In 1997, the Labor government agreed to proposals for a Scottish parliament and devolution and a referendum in the same year.  As a result, an elected Scottish parliament, Holyrood, of 129 members came into existence in 1999 with legislative authority over most domestic policy, all non-reserved matters relating to Scotland, and limited power on business rates and income taxes.  One of its members, of the party controlling a majority, is appointed first minister.  At present, that is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since November 2014, the first woman to hold these positions.  She replaced Alex Salmond, who had held these positions for over seven years and who was acquitted by the High Court in March 2020 of 13 sexual assault charges while he was first minister.

 In a first referendum on independence in 2014, the result was negative; 44.7% voted for independence and 55.3% against it in a turnout of 85%.  But public opinion polls and voting in elections now show the opposite result, roughly 54% to 45%.

The SNP, the supporter of independence within the E.U., has been increasing in popularity.  In 2011, it won power in Holyrood as the majority party.  In 2015, SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats up for election.  In 2016, SNP again became the largest single party, but with a few short of a majority, in Holyrood, winning 59 of the 73 constituencies up for election, resulting in SNP having 63 of the 129 seats, while the Conservatives declined to 31 and Labor to 24.  The SNP is favored to win a majority in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in May 2021.

Scotland has 59 seats in Westminster.  The SNP become the third largest party in Westminster in 2019, winning 48 seats, and was second in 11 others.  In the referendum on Brexit on June 23, 2016, Scotland, contrary to the U.K. as a whole, voted 62% to remain and 38% to leave the E.U.  All of the 32 council areas in the country voted to remain.  The argument is that the people of Scotland do not want to turn their back on Europe, but rather want to play a larger role in the E.U.

Indications in recent public opinion polls show that support for independence is increasing.  Most show that between 50 and 55% favor leaving the U.K., and about 45% prefer to remain.  There is no one overriding factor, but various issues are mentioned.  First, independence means that the people of Scotland would make more of its decisions, which they are best placed to make.   The U.K. is governed by the Conservative Party, but the Tories have not won a Scotland-wide election for over 70 years.  The SNP has been critical of the Conservatives' handling of current problems — COVID-19, lockdown, quarantine.  Nicola Sturgeon, unlike Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is personally popular and appears on television every day.  Johnson has rejected a suggestion that Sturgeon might attend cabinet meetings in London.

More practically, one argument is that Trident nuclear missiles would be removed, and the money saved could be devoted to education, health care, and housing.  Though the argument "it's Scotland's oil" is not as pungent as it once was, it still provokes the responses that only an independent Scotland can fully obtain the financial benefits of the North Sea resources.

In the ongoing issue, two factors are controversial.  One is the exact nature of the desired break with the U.K. and the precise meaning of self-determination.  Many in the SNP want to keep the monarchy and for Scotland to become a Commonwealth country like Canada and Australia.  Others suggest a federal system.  More extremist nationalists want an independent republic with full powers.  Would this require a new currency?

 The second debatable issue is whether Scotland can prosper on its own, financially and in managerial terms.  North Sea oil and gas extraction is falling, as are prices.  Can an independent country cope with the persisting COVID-19 epidemic?  Can it manage without the usual subsidies provided of between 10 billion and 12 billion pounds annually to fund public services?  Or would the country need to raise taxes in order to sustain levels of public spending?

Scotland benefits from the U.K.'s presence in NATO and the G8 and as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and is unlikely to have any considerable influence in the E.U. on its own.  On the contrary, it is more stable as part of a larger state.  Realistically, because of COVID-19, Scottish GDP has declined substantially, and if Scotland were independent, it would likely have a weaker growth rate than the U.K. as a whole.  Statistics already show that the economy is declining in recovery in dominant services industries, construction, agriculture, and business activity generally except in the manufacturing section.  The country is less able to sustain a significant national debt or to borrow.  Already, 65,000 Scottish firms are getting $2.6 billion in loans to survive the lockdown.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon wants a second vote on independence.  The vital question is whether this is the best way to preserve the Scottish heritage and creative excellence and to play a bigger role in Europe and the rest of the world, or whether it would be divisive.  One can ask, should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

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