A surreal time to be in Edinburgh, watching history unfold and, possibly, a great power unraveling

By Anna Porter
National Post, September 15, 2014

EDINBURGH: Now that the Scottish vote on independence is only a few days away, many anti-secessionists who once took the result for granted have stood up to be counted. According to a recent poll, there is now a chance that the 307-year union that once bestrode the world like a colossus could come apart on a highly emotional appeal from Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond. The left-leaning Scottish National Party, which he leads, advocates secession from the United Kingdom with fine-sounding slogans and extreme flag waving, plus street dancing and face painting that makes you wonder just how much Mel Gibson’s Braveheart has to answer for.

Not so long ago, the British government had assumed that reason would prevail, that Scots could see the benefits of belonging to a country with clout in the worlds of finance and international politics. It had discounted the power of nationalist slogans, and Salmond’s perfervid oratory. It had put its faith in the more measured tones of the “Better Together” campaign’s Alistair Darling. It had discounted Salmond’s charisma and assumed the people of Scotland would be thinking about economics, the longevity of their pensions and the threat of a long, protracted period of uncertainty as the Constitution was revised, the currency determined and the terms of the separation settled. But that faith may have been misplaced.

All three national party leaders — Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Leader Ed Miliband, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg — have flown to Scotland to make promises that could keep the United Kingdom united. One hundred Labour MPs took the train north to express their affection for the Scots and declare their solidarity to the United Kingdom.

Former prime minister Sir John Major pronounced that he was “desperately concerned.” Former prime minister Gordon Brown threatened to return to frontline politics if Mr. Salmond “continues to peddle the deception” that Scotland could be at risk of privatized health care if it remains in the UK. He gave a stirring performance at a Labour rally at Kilmarock Football Club last week, without notes and with a passion to match that of his opponent. He outlined plans for more powers for Scotland if it were to stay in the UK and raised the spectre of no UK defense for an independent Scotland, a loss of pensions, and loss of international power.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, wrote an emotional column decrying that the “Scots are on the verge of an act of self-mutilation that will trash our global identity.”

The governor of the Bank of England, Canada’s own Mark Carney, weighed in with a statement on the pitfalls of an independent Scotland sharing the pound. “A currency union is incompatible with sovereignty,” he said.

Three former secretaries of state for Scotland issued a joint statement attacking the “myth that sees Scotland as a deprived country, exploited by an uncaring neighbour.” They warned of constitutional, financial and legal difficulties in “unscrambling” this successful union, and added that the break-up would be “heart-rending.”

“The Scottish Parliament now has more powers than the provinces of Canada or the States of Australia,” they added. “We can still have all that, as well as the comfort of a sense of family, with the added security of a home within the United Kingdom.”

Some banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyd’s, Tesco, Standard Life and other corporations have announced they are exploring the benefits of a move south of the border. There is Westminster-inspired speculation that everyday items would become more expensive in Scotland and the real threat of no new investment. Even billionaire financial guru George Soros has weighed in with dire predictions if Scotland separates. As the No camp has pointed out, Scotland’s new wealth relies heavily on North Sea oil — reserves that are predicted to run out in a few years.

There is a photo of a grim-faced Queen Elizabeth on the front page of The Times. While she has declared her impartiality, the newspaper speculated that a Yes vote would break her heart. On Monday, she declared that Scots should “think very carefully about the future.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered that the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag, be flown over Downing Street and all government buildings, and urged storekeepers to put it into their windows to show their affection for the Scots. Close to tears during a speech in Edinburgh, he pleaded with Scottish voters not to tear the UK apart just to “spite the effing Tories.”

As a Canadian visitor, what does all this remind me of?

The Quebec Referendum of 1995 that threatened to destroy Canada as I had known and loved it. Two decades ago, many of us flooded into Quebec to profess our affection for the Québécois. More than a 100,000 people from all over Canada took part in an anti-separatist rally at Place du Canada. We pleaded and cajoled, and felt a profound sense of anxiety as Quebec went to the polls. In the end, it was a nail-bitingly close vote: a victory for the No camp by the narrowest of margins, a score of just 50.58% to 49.42%.

One lesson learned from that experience is that you don’t need to have a separate country to gain what you want: to feel maîtres chez nous . You need a negotiating position. It’s something the Scots already have in spades. And with the three major political parties making commitments to increase the rights of Scots, if they remain in the union, a federal system is likely to emerge.

As Lord Forsyth, former Scottish secretary and member of both the Thatcher and Major cabinets, said in a conversation: “Even if independence is buried, if such a large part of the population voted for it, things must change.” He talked of the dangers of narrow nationalism, a sense of grievance, that excludes rather than includes. Still looking at the Canadian example, Scotland already has its own parliament and control over education, but it now could gain control of its taxation and immigration policy.

A decapitated UK — or what they call rUK for “rest of UK” or “rump of UK” — would no longer count as a major partner in the European Union. It could also lose its seat on the UN Security Council. It would have to move its navy. It would no longer be a great power, and everyone would blame it for having allowed separatism to succeed. There are other countries, Spain, for example, with restless minorities that would be encouraged by Great Britain’s troubles.

On the night of September 11 here in Edinburgh, there was a lively debate in a giant auditorium filled with 16- and 17-year-olds (who will be eligible to vote on the 18th). The two sides of the independence issue shouted at each other, postured and repeated themselves, but they did not patronize their young audience. They attempted to persuade the teenagers that their future would be safer with the No side, and that Britain had no intention of having them pay for their education (they don’t now). They should not be afraid.

I have spoken with indifferent cab drivers, puzzled store owners and otherwise engaged punters in a couple of pubs. In this city of immigrants and tourists, it is difficult to see how a separate Scotland will affect everyday lives. But affect them, it will.

The latest polls continue to show an extremely close race. As with Quebec in 1995, the future of Scotland won’t be known till late in the evening of referendum day itself. I’ll be here, watching history unfold.