Thursday, June 4, 2015

Scottish Independence: Answering the Tough Question

We met yesterday with two members of the Scottish National Parliament, Annabel Goldie and Linda Fabiani. Ms. Goldie is a Tory, and in fact is the former head of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Ms. Fabiani is a member of the Scottish National Party. Both were elected to serve in the Scottish Parliament since its inception, and both served on the Smith Commission on devolved powers to Scotland. After that, the similarities end. Ms. Goldie was a strong supporter the Better Together Campaign, whilst Ms. Fabiani continues to fight for Scottish independence.

Meeting with MSP Linda Fabiani (SNP)
Our visits with both were thoroughly enjoyable and we learned an awful lot from each perspective about Scotland. What struck me is how both encapsulated two very different approaches to the question of independence and how each framed the debate. In many ways, the frames both used to discuss independence demonstrate quite clearly why No won and why Yes did not.

University of Edinburgh Professor Nicola McEwan showed us data that very clearly explained how Better Together managed to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. People who voted No, for the most part, did not do so because of any great love of the United Kingdom or any deep sense of Britishness. They did so because many questions remained unanswered. These include the currency question, the reliance of Scotland on oil revenues, and how independence would affect personal finances. Quite simply, the move was considered too risky. The silver lining for SNP is that the question of risk could be assuaged if SNP could offer reasonable solutions. This suggests, of course, that independence might indeed be possible in the future because folks could be convinced on the merits. Had most respondents indicated that remaining with the UK for sentimental or emotional reasons tied to the notion of Britishness, then it would be much harder to move them with rational argument.

What struck me was how both representatives continued using the same arguments for why independence can or cannot work. Ms. Fabiani generally dismissed the economic arguments outlined by Ms. Goldie, who noted that the collapse of oil prices proved the Better Together campaign right. Independence would have been financially disastrous. Ms. Fabiani emphasized that such a position distracted from first principles. Other countries figure out ups and downs economically; so could Scotland. In essence, Ms. Fabiani claimed that arguments made against independence belittled the capabilities of Scots. As she said this, I was instantly reminded of a piece of pottery shown to us at the National Museum of Scotland. This particular work of art showed a dimwitted Scot sitting with both legs in a toilet, suggesting that Scots were so stupid, they couldn't even figure out how to relieve themselves. The Yes campaign strongly believed, and still believes, that Scotland's potential has been crushed and suppressed by its union with England.

At its crux, the arguments for Scottish independence focused on pride in people and a culture with an optimism for the future. Arguments against independence focused on pride, too, but with a careful examination of where Scotland had been in the past. Many of my students pointed to the Darien expedition, the cost overruns incurred on the Parliament building and the Edinburgh tram as examples, perhaps, of the consequences of overly optimistic exuberance. There are two ways to think of Scottish history. One is through the lens of Scottish successes and achievements whilst the other is through memories of Scottish overreach and disappointment. Methinks until SNP can provide concrete data and answers to the Scottish skeptics, independence will continue to elude their grasp.

Unless, of course, the current government manages to irritate enough Scots so that their pride and passion overrides any presentation of concrete facts. Some told me they don't envy David Cameron. And neither do I.

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