Friday, May 29, 2015

Scotland: An Uncertain Future?

We woke early this morning in Edinburgh to very different weather, a very different city, and a very different political world from London. London was warm and muggy; Edinburgh can't decide what the weather should be. It began cold and gray, the sun came out and warmed us up, then we got poured on, hailed on, the sun came back and then retreated. It never got above 55 degrees as we walked the city throughout the day.

Edinburgh is much more compact. We never set foot in a car or bus, while we took the tube every day in London. The city is quiet--we never fought crowds save for the moment we huddled in archway at Edinburgh Castle during the hail storm and during rush hour. I kept my window open last night and very little of the city filtered in through the night, while there was a constant bustle outside my room in London. Edinburgh is much smaller and comfortable than the bright lights, big city of London.

And then, the politics. Our guide noted that voter turnout for the independence referendum was 85 percent and, in the recent 2015 Westminster elections, it stayed about the same. In other parts of the UK, turnout was lower--at the normal 60-65 percent rate. Scotland seems more abuzz with political energy and restlessness than England, and the future here is still quite uncertain. The SNP represents 56 out of 59 seats--and controls every seat in Edinburgh, a region of Scotland that was a strong "No" in the recent independence referendum. The Saltire (or Scottish flag) is everywhere, and the Union Jack--when it flies--seems defiant and out of place.

At the top of Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish Flag
Our guide believes that the return of the Tories to power might hasten the end of the union, noting that if SNP remains in power in next year's Scottish Parliament elections, it will be another mandate for a second referendum (which will be part of the party's manifesto). Remember, a powerful argument made during the independence campaign centered on the fact Scotland votes for leftist policies but gets Conservative governments in Westminster. The Tories have a tricky balance to pull off--avoid alienating their English supporters while trying to maintain their tenuous grip on the union. Not an easy feat to pull off.
The Scottish Parliament, with emphasis on the left on member offices

I suspect the union's fate is less in the hands of Cameron and the Tories than it is in how the SNP behaves. As our guide noted, it is likely in the interest of the SNP Party to make sure the current devolved arrangements don't work--because if they do, it will undercut their argument for independence. But, if SNP is seen as too willing to throw sand in the gears of government, it can backfire, too, making SNP appear too opportunistic. Furthermore, it is unclear to me that Alexander Salmond will stay on point down in Westminster with whatever First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decides is best for the party as a whole.

There are so many moving parts it is hard to predict what will happen. I still think the Union will survive, but most certainly not it its present form. More power will flow Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland at a minimum, but I still think a federal solution is the only way to hold the constituent parts of the United Kingdom together. Even then, there are considerable differences in terms of defense and foreign policy between Scotland and the rest of the nation. Key, it seems, is how the European referendum shakes out. If there's a majority vote in Scotland to remain in and a majority vote in England to leave, it's hard to see how the union can survive intact long term.

Tomorrow, we go to the heart of Scottish Nationalism--Stirling, and the William Wallace Memorial.
A monument erected by Scottish Nationalists, a torch that would burn until Scotland had its own Parliament. It is now dark.

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