A state of Scottish independence?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
6 Sep 2011

Just as the idea of a commuter ‘rush hour’ was eventually swamped by continuous urban traffic, so the notion of an August ‘silly season’ in which serious public life ceases and trivia grabs the headlines has been rendered fictional in 2011.

Riots across England and a second wave of global recession saw senior political leaders tumbling back early from lush, Tuscan-style holidays to offer consolation to the people and promises of “tough action” to the awaiting media.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the sogginess of the weather has been offset by flames of disagreement over the unity (or otherwise) of the UK. Granted, the SNP majority at Holyrood has announced that, in the interests of “a proper period of debate”, a referendum on independence will not take place until 2016 - since modified to 2014.

By that time the Scotland Bill will have ushered in different domestic ground-rules, but not in any way that addresses the deeper issues posed by the idea of self-governance. In any case, it will not stop a row kicking off while the sun hides.

With Alex Salmond’s cabinet preoccupied by a multi-million pound Edinburgh trams disaster and a massive round of public spending cuts forced on them by Westminster, the case for the union has gone by default.

Moreover, Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are all leaderless and ‘in transition’ following the Nationalists’ unexpected sweeping of the board in the May elections. So the SNP remain in the spotlight, with only the Greens making additional noise.

Onto this uncertain political territory has stepped Michael Moore (no, not the rabble-rousing US film-maker, but Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Scotland) along with another Scottish Westminster Lib Dem, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Speaking to the David Hume Institute and the CBI respectively, the two men chose possibly the only audiences north of the border who would not pelt them with tomatoes for their role in aiding the Westminster coalition’s scythe.

Moore set out a series of granite questions on an independent Scotland’s future relations with the EU, the cost of pensions, defence policy, and the total cost of breaking away from the UK. The SNP dismissed this broadside with a three-paragraph press release and a reference back to their 2009 declaration. They will have to try harder in future. Over the coming four years they plan to set out detailed commitments on “a range of issues” and to “engage the people of Scotland in a proper dialogue.”

At present, polls indicate that the Scottish electorate remain sceptical about the case for full independence. But just as an SNP majority at Holyrood once seemed unthinkable, so this ground is shifting. As a potent sign of that, Scottish Labour leadership contender Ken McIntosh MSP proclaimed himself on BBC1’s ‘Newsnight Scotland’ to be “not a unionist, but a devolutionist”, and in favour of “Home Rule for Scotland” rather than “secession”.

Such canny rhetoric recognises an entrenched mood of resistance to Westminster hegemony across Scotland, but also deep uncertainty about a wholesale go-it-alone philosophy.

Even more astonishingly, a leading Scottish Conservative leadership candidate, Murdo Fraser, has since gone on to suggest that the Tories in Scotland needs to transition themselves to a new “progressive centre-right party” in order to gain any kind of foothold north of the border, and to thwart the independence agenda with more Scottish autonomy short of full fiscal control.

The struggle for the future shape of Scotland and the UK has hardly begun, but the shape of the battlefield is emerging.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted and slightly expanded from his September 2011 column for Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment.

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