The radical Left is on the defensive across much of Europe. It has no answers for a prolonged recession and takes little interest in its traditional domain: the rights of workers. Instead, as is also the case in the United States, it is absorbed with niche causes like renewable energy, Israel/Palestine, and culture-war issues like gay marriage. In Scotland, however, the ultra-Left finds itself in a kind of dream position, able to ignore economics and yet acquire political power anyway by advancing a populist bid to remove the country from the United Kingdom. This agitational role enables it to reach beyond its core followers by combining class war and ethnocentric magnetism. This is happening in a country that is one third of the British landmass, and home to 5.3 million people in a UK population of 63 million.
If 40 percent of Scottish voters now seriously consider severing ties with the rest of the United Kingdom, as recent polls suggest, it is in no small measure the achievement of Alex Salmond. The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is intent on converting the Scottish people to his personal vision. He insists that Scotland can be a global innovator by becoming self-sufficient in energy. He is obsessed with cutting the Anglo-Saxon world down to size, periodically telling London and Washington that his Scotland will refuse to obey their orders.. He emphasizes democracy and equality as features supposedly comprising the bedrock of Scottish national culture, but since entering office in 2007 has built up a form of patronage politics, sweeping aside many checks and balances that obstruct his path to a near-monopoly of power. Salmond claims that the differences in outlook between Scots and those in the rest of the United Kingdom are now so great that they cannot continue to share political institutions. But the nationalists have struggled to devise policies that give expression to allegedly superior Scottish values, beyond high spending levels and ever more state control.
Now 59 years old, Salmond attended St. Andrews University, where he is remembered for his student attire of a Mao-style cap and tunic. He studied economics and medieval history. He performed poorly, but his charm and drive secured him a post as an economic researcher with the Royal Bank of Scotland. For most of the past three decades he has been a full-time politician. As First Minister he is autocratic in style, preferring to issue edicts drawn up by his inner circle and then expect his parliamentarians to toe his line. He has even toyed with media restrictions, forming a commission that recommended tighter government controls. This impulse perhaps owes something to a 2012 Economist cover story that lampooned a putative post-independent Scotland as “Skintland.” Satirical names replaced actual Scottish place names. Salmond didn’t get the joke. Instead, he warned: “They shall rue the day they thought they’d have a joke at Scotland’s expense.”
Salmond appeals to a sense of grievance toward a more powerful neighbor with which Scotland is long entangled. Whenever a policy difference arises, he tends to pick up his megaphone and complain about the outrage of being bossed around by “alien” English politicians. He has recruited the radical Left to be his crusaders for independence in Scotland’s main populated centers, and many such activists applaud him for sounding like a confrontational state socialist. But there are glaring ideological inconsistencies. He pours out the rhetoric of self-determination but is content to remain within a centralizing European Union, and he clings to those British institutions that Scotland cannot easily replicate on its own. He insists that in a partitioned Britain, the pound will remain the common currency, even though such a recourse appears hazardous for Scotland and is hardly in the interest of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
He plans to close the British nuclear base in Scotland, and already charges high fees to students from the rest of the United Kingdom to attend college in Scotland, which is free to everyone else. He demands symbolic and emotionally satisfying concessions from the UK government, but would keep Scotland in the crosshairs of the London elite. That way, if things turn out badly economically, he can still exploit a grievance culture and denounce England. He maps out improbable, ever shifting blueprints for Scotland’s future. His arrogance infuriates his opponents and delights numerous Scots, who enjoy the theater without considering the implications for their future livelihoods.
Scotland nowadays has thus been rendered into a cross between a touchy Latin American republic and a left-leaning British urban borough. At the same time, leftist Scottish separatists recoil from comparisons with regions such as Flanders, Catalonia, or Quebec, where locals agitate for further autonomy or outright secession, because, according to the SNP, Scotland was an independent country for centuries before it signed a treaty of union with Britain in 1707. A Parliament dominated by factional noble families had continued for a century after the 1603 union of crowns with England. But by then the Scottish state was hardly worthy of the name and was limited in its reach.
Most West European democracies have selectively transferred political authority downward to regional tiers in recent decades..Many have noted that this form of limited subsidiarity has been enabled by the supposedly stabilizing presence of an overarching EU umbrella. Scotland is part of this trend, but its acquisition of devolution occurred only 15 years ago.
The catalyst for devolution was resistance to the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher. They collided with Scotland’s own 20th-century tradition of corporatism. Ever since the heavy industry that had been the basis of its economic distinctiveness entered an inexorable decline in the 1920s, its middle-classes, including many of its major employers and its labor unions, have grown accustomed to state intervention to manage industrial decline. Indeed, since 1999 a Scottish Parliament has been responsible for more than 60 percent of the public money spent in Scotland. This puts its spending powers on a par with those of the German Länder, the Canadian Provinces, and the Australian States.
Naturally enough, the Labour Party proved the dominant political force after 1945, in the heyday of the corporatist era. But it proved disoriented once in charge of the devolved institutions. It failed to harness a deepening sense of Scottish identity, and many of its supporters became alienated by the UK’s participation in the occupation of Iraq—a decision made under the Blair Labour government. The SNP, previously written off as a fringe protest movement, formed a minority government after the 2007 elections. Although outnumbered by its opponents, the SNP acquired mastery of the civil service and increasing dominance over intermediate institutions and even parts of the business world, mainly through the skilled and relentless use of patronage. It achieved a majority in 2011, with 69 seats over Labour’s 37.
The SNP itself is forceful on the campaign trail but lacks vitality within. It has therefore loyally endorsed Salmond’s frequent policy switches. Jim Sillars, a prominent but rare dissident within the party, declared in 2012:
If I did not know better, I would easily believe the leaders had been schooled in the old communist party, where at the top, the elite, made the decisions and the rest fell into step automatically, with not a word of dissent…. Totalitarian would be a fair description of Scotland’s majority party.1
In fiscal terms, the Scottish government enjoys the best of all possible worlds. It does not need to raise its own taxes; instead, Scotland receives a block grant from London. This has been left untouched even as the incumbent Conservative-Liberal government has cut back on other spending. Opponents have been wrong-footed as the SNP has railed against greedy English imperialists and their collaborators, and reduced politics to carefully stage-managed fights with Westminster. The theater worked: In 2011, it crushed its still troubled Labour rival and won an outright majority.
At the start of 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron, apprehensive about SNP dominance in Scotland, urged that voters there be given the choice to decide whether or not they wanted to remain part of Britain. Cameron seems to have concluded that the Scots would vote to remain in the United Kingdom and thus dash Salmond’s dreams of glory. For several years, campaigning for a referendum, which will take place on September 18, has eclipsed all other issues in Scottish politics.
The SNP-led front, “Yes for Scotland”, was far behind in the polls throughout 2012 and 2013, and Prime Minister Cameron’s wager seemed a sound one. The SNP found it difficult to make a persuasive economic argument, and for good reasons. The bulk of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom. It has few major companies, and the level of state spending in relation to GDP is one of the highest in the West; without the block grant from London, how would such spending be financed? The oil lying in the North Sea is the resource that will supposedly power Scotland’s self-reliance, but oil revenues have fallen more or less steadily since 1999. They depend on international oil prices but also on local production costs, which have been rising as exploitation moves to more remote oil fields.
Withal, the SNP has made up much ground as the referendum approaches. It left the burden of government to a trusted civil service and plunged instead into full-time campaigning. The pro-Union “Better Together” campaign, headed by the able Labour politician Alistair Darling, is dominated by the party machine and has so far proved unable to galvanize those large sections of Scottish society plainly uneasy about Salmond’s intentions. Salmond’s rivals struggle to come up with eye-catching proposals for greater self-government short of independence. The unions are divided, and much of the business community has been cowed by fears of boycotts and open intimidation, orchestrated by the SNP’s online militia of aggressive bloggers, known as the cybernats.
Initially, the SNP’s hardball tactics played out below the line of sight. It spoke of a continuing “social union”, suggesting that the typical Scot could retain familiar aspects of the British link, such as the monarchy, the pound currency, unrestricted cross-border travel, and the BBC. Even the word “independence” was for a while discouraged. This seemed to work, too; the SNP began to climb in the polls. Realizing that the SNP was building up real campaign momentum, pro-union forces responded by emphasizing that dramatic consequences would be unavoidable in any territorial break-up, and that it was unlikely that Scots could return to the previous status quo if things turned out badly for a post-British Scotland. The number two in the UK government, George Osborne, visited Edinburgh in February to point out that “if Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound.” He was immediately endorsed by the chief financial spokesmen for the other main UK parties.
The SNP accused him of bluffing. The UK elite, Salmond claimed, was bound to see sense, and so would the electorate in the rest of the United Kingdom, meaning that there would be no need to hold a referendum there on the currency issue. This is often the way that the SNP browbeats opposition in Scotland, but it cut little ice. Osborne noted that Scotland could make precious little contribution to supporting a big English bank in difficulties. So how would a continued joint sharing of the pound benefit the rest of the United Kingdom (now frequently abbreviated as rUK)? “Nothing but exposure”, said Osborne. Due to the collapse of other staple industries, the still dynamic financial sector is variously estimated at between eight and ten times the size of Scotland’s GDP. If things go wrong, Scotland becomes a liability to rUK if the pound remains held in common.
Only 10 percent of rUK business is with Scotland, whereas 40 percent is with the eurozone and 20 percent is with the United States. These numbers highlight the impracticality of a currency union, but no matter: Salmond and his party colleagues took to the airwaves to complain of Westminster “bullying.” If no currency union were in the offing, they threatened to default on Scotland’s proportion of the UK public debt, estimated at £120–150 billion. Osborne’s response was that this was like saying, “because my neighbor won’t agree to my unreasonable demands, I’m going to burn my own house down.”
Salmond may be forceful and shrewd, but he still has a lot to learn about extortion. The SNP’s economic illiteracy on the currency issue ought to have transferred the debate from the emotional plane to a more practical one, but no reality check occurred. A string of opinion polls this year have showed that the “Yes” side has been gaining on the unionists, and by late March it was just five points behind the pro-Union side.
Among lower-income groups, the “Yes” camp now enjoys a clear lead, especially among men under the age of 40. The biggest surge has occurred in struggling post-industrial areas where the SNP has relied on the radical Left. Salmond’s formula is not hard to fathom: He says what they want to hear. He has promised to re-nationalize the Royal Mail in Scotland, and recommended that Scots get their pensions a year earlier than in rUK because, on average, they die younger. The SNP also promises to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish waters and has introduced a raft of policies that micro-manage the lives of the population. Perhaps most noteworthy was the law passed in February to provide a “guardian” for every Scottish child, irrespective of need—a social-worker “guardian” who can usurp the rights of parents. Not even the Bolsheviks extended the commissar system to toddlers. Perhaps this is what has earned the SNP the support of Noam Chomsky.
The Left’s appeal transcends post-industrial communities, however. The transformation of Scotland into a post-industrial, consumer-orientated economy has led to the rise of a sprawling service sector. Middle-class cultural and media figures are perhaps more important for independence than an unruly, factional, proletarian Left. They used to count for little when Scotland had thriving industry and commerce and influential religious leaders. But they are now highly visible thanks to an increasingly influential entertainment and celebrity culture that seeks to define the national spirit.
Within this context, the most visible of Scotland’s post-British social movements is Common Weal. Its founder, Robin McAlpine, a former public relations head for Scottish universities, uses the language of patriotic liberation to advocate a high-tax, state-dominated economy. The SNP uses Common Weal as one of its extensions to civil society. The party has no appetite for dialoguing with major national bodies or creating open institutions that it might not always be able to influence. It speaks the language of anti-elitism but is keen to fashion its own instruments of centralized control. Hence, briefly in 2012, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, dared to question the conventional wisdom of offering certain services to all Scots regardless of their income and ability to pay. She was immediately attacked as a “neoliberal”, even though she was not proposing a cut, only a re-prioritization of existing government spending.
Many intellectuals currently active in Scottish politics compete with one another to reinforce traditional orthodoxies, which makes it far easier for the SNP to press ahead with its goal of turning Scotland into a rigidly managed society. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has resisted groupthink about the state by drawing attention to the fact that only 12 percent of households in Scotland pay more in tax than they receive in public services. She is prepared to risk further opprobrium in the left-leaning Scottish media by expressing concern that the public sector is seen as the key provider of everything from housing to employment, with state spending accounting for more than half of Scotland’s wealth.
Not surprisingly, a dependency culture is noticeable, which Scottish employers only occasionally speak about out loud. Thus it was a rare but telling moment in 2012 when the training arm of motoring giant Arnold Clark informed Scottish parliamentarians that it was struggling to fill its large apprenticeship scheme. Why? Because most applicants had a poor attitude toward others, no concept of citizenship, poor communication skills, a poor understanding of the standards expected of them and an “inability to make a decision based on anything other than ‘I want’.”2
Nevertheless, the SNP busily promotes a culture of entitlement, with little mention of a citizen’s obligations other than vaguely displaying a patriotic spirit. Its pre-referendum promises are not part of a coherent development plan for Scotland but are pitched to groups numb to its broader message. Thus its 670-page Independence White Paper emphasized expanding free nursery care for young children. The Scottish government already has the power to do this, but the SNP prefers to dangle it before working mothers anyway as a form of pre-electoral bribe.
Scandinavia is the lodestar for the SNP. The Nordic countries do indeed recycle substantial tax income into their public services, but the private sector delivers much of those services. Unlike in Scotland, Scandinavians do not treat the free market as a virtual outlaw. Post-ideological thinking, concerned with the most efficient way of tackling problems, flourishes there, which explains recent shifts away from big-state approaches to social issues. Such pragmatism is anathema in state-fixated Scotland, and more so in the SNP, which prefers grandiose promises to incremental measures.
The need to place Scotland in the vanguard of human progress constantly preoccupies the SNP. It proclaims greenly that by 2020 it will be “the world’s first energy-independent country.” Salmond has divided numerous rural communities by erecting unsightly wind turbines in a bid to accomplish this fast-receding goal. On visits abroad, he has frequently promised that a world-beating low-carbon economy will spring up in Scotland. But in the next breath closer to home he asserts that new oil reserves discovered will keep this high-carbon product flowing until at least 2050.
Numerous zealots have jumped on the SNP bandwagon, hoping that independence would enable their particular hobby horse to attain global significance. In December, I heard a Presbyterian intellectual, who was launching his book on ethics and nationalism, proclaim that a rapidly secularizing Scotland needed to be independent in order to play a significant role in global religious affairs. The “Yes-supporting creatives”, as they humbly call themselves, have formed the 2,000-member National Collective. Its luminaries hope that 2014 will bring “the Summer of Independence”, which will be to Scotland what the 1967 Summer of Love was to London and San Francisco. The idea is Scottish “artists and radicals conjuring songs, essays, poems, speeches and plays which . . . challenge a hideously conservative status quo.”3
These intellectual courtiers usually overlook Salmond’s overtures to the “class enemy.” He has assiduously wooed media mogul Rupert Murdoch, for example. The Australian has instructed his Scottish press titles to offer guarded support for Salmond, and he even tweeted in February 2012: “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in U.K. Gave Cameron back of his hand this week. Loved by Scots.” Murdoch and Chomsky on the same side? Now that is news.
More lucrative in terms of votes than self-preening intellectuals are Scotland’s ethnic minorities. The SNP sometimes appeals to them as fellow victims of an overbearing Britain. This rhetoric works well with a growing Muslim community, originally from South Asia, that is solidly in the “Yes” camp. An older community of Catholics, often still conscious of its Irish identity, used to be a backbone of Labour support. But it is split into an older generation and a younger one that expresses its “rebel” identity through fanatical support for an iconic soccer team, Celtic FC. The latter mainly like the SNP; the former, often with direct experience of religious discrimination, are far more wary of the socioeconomic pitfalls awaiting a post-British Scotland—like the prospective loss of 15,000 UK defense jobs in Scotland.
The SNP likes to showcase the small number of prominent figures in its ranks who are English. But they are typical of British nonconformists who, historically, have lent their support to movements, from Ireland to India, seeking to weaken British authority. The presence of a larger and more vigorous neighbor, England, gives the nationalist cause its primary momentum. Lacking its own cultural, religious or economic distinctiveness, or a widely spoken local language, the SNP has to exploit the English factor to gain traction. Sometimes this shades into outright Anglophobia. It is hard for Alex Salmond not to stoke up ethnocentrism as when he denounces Westminster politicians from the main UK parties as “thieves” for allegedly squandering the nation’s oil and gas reserves over many years.
Salmond also punches at Brussels when it suits his purposes. In February, José Manuel Barroso, the head of the EU bureaucracy, was branded “preposterous” by Salmond for having stated that an independent Scotland would have to re-negotiate EU re-entry terms for Scotland. For nearly two years Salmond had been insisting that his government’s law officers had confirmed to him that Scotland would inherit EU membership automatically as a successor state to the United Kingdom, and would not even have to adopt the euro as its currency. But in October 2013, it emerged that such legal advice had never existed. Salmond spent a lot of public money to keep this secret by turning down repeated disclosure requests. Such sharp practice divides Scots. For every Scot who sees a buccaneering figure, another glimpses a reckless demagogue.
Surprisingly to some, the young are among the biggest skeptics about Scotland exiting the United Kingdom. Salmond expanded the franchise to 16–18 year olds, perhaps convinced that a teenage fan club could be turned into an electoral bonanza for independence. But a 2013 poll of a thousand Scottish teenagers, published by the University of Edinburgh, found that 60 percent want to keep the Union, and just 21 percent back independence. Numerous school debates have revealed even more sweeping support for the Union. For young people, often with global horizons, who know that many of them are likely, as adults, to earn their livelihoods beyond Scotland, the idea of laying down an international frontier across northern Britain often appears ludicrous.
The emergence of a militant form of nationalism that depicts the rest of the United Kingdom as less progressive than Scotland, and the partnership with England and Wales as a straitjacket rather than a fruitful alliance, has obviously not gone unnoticed in rUK. In the recent past, most English voters were relaxed about Scotland acquiring self-rule in most domestic matters. Indeed, there was little objection in England that public expenditure was higher in Scotland due in large measure to the higher costs of sustaining remote communities. Partly due to what is now perceived as Scottish hostility, growing numbers of English folk have shelved a British identity for a specifically English one, and are now rather disinclined to offer the Scots generous terms in the fiendishly complicated negotiations that will be needed to unpack a 307-year-old union—if it should come to that.
In terms of attitudes to social and economic issues, the existence of countless Anglo-Scottish families, and deep economic ties between the two regions, mean that Scotland has far more in common with England than it does with Ireland or the Scandinavian countries. The SNP singles these neighbors out as role models, but it is hard to detect much enthusiasm for a dissolution of Britain in either place, even in Ireland. That is partly because Britain has greatly contributed to Northwestern Europe’s becoming a region of long-term geopolitical stability. The SNP, by contrast, can appear unpredictable and quixotic. In a March interview with GQ, Salmond offered qualified praise for Vladimir Putin, describing him as an “effective” politician who “had restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” If independence is won, then an independent Scotland will have to choose an economic model. Either it will be true to its campaigning rhetoric and entrench a sprawling state in a perhaps politically restrictive society, or it will execute a swift retreat from radical economics. It is more likely to adopt the second course, since the first points to economic suicide.
Not everyone will be disappointed with independence, if it comes. Benevolent overlordship is likely to benefit the party’s middle-class supporters. They can avail themselves of exciting new career opportunities at embassies abroad and other positions created as part of the nationalist makeover of Scotland. Meanwhile, lower-income supporters will be exhorted to wait for the rewards promised them. If there is forceful dissent, then a ruler of Salmond’s autocratic demeanor would not hesitate to crush it. On that score, note that this past November the SNP government clumsily attempted to silence a well-known historian for becoming active in the pro-union campaign while holding a government contract. In March, a leading SNP politician warned that the Scot Andrew Marr, a top BBC political journalist, would face “consequences” for giving his leader a grilling on a UK discussion program of the kind he rarely faces in Scotland. The party has used patronage to win over much of the voluntary sector, a channel for much state funding. It has also centralized a previously locally based police force, and it has access to substantial taxpayer money to fund its campaign, thanks to a compliant civil service chief.
Luck and determination have normalized a fringe cause. But it is the current weakness of its electoral opponents, the absence of any leaders at the UK level who can eloquently champion Britishness, and an impetuous leader in tune with a society increasingly relaxed about taking risks, that explains the SNP’s current strength. The party still retains the hallmarks of a protest movement rather than a force nurturing talent and ideas in order to shape the future.
Above all, Salmond endlessly flatters the Scots. They are a special people who belong to an exceptional country with its own “soft power” that can put England’s in the shade. They have only been held back because they have been imprisoned in an unjust union with an incompatible neighbor. Arguably, this form of identity politics encourages a collective narcissism and dumbs down politics at a time when citizens need to be exceptionally alert that the choices they make are for the best. Worse, perhaps, if the liberation journey proves bumpy and ultimately costly for many who find they lack patrons in the new nationalist order, then populist diversions may be rolled out and make things even worse, just as happened in Greece under Andreas Papendreou, a populist who debauched state finances in the 1980s, and as happened in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela more recently.
The rise of a hedonistic society plagued with high crime levels and with only a superficial understanding of basic economic facts means that only a minority of Scots are willing to try to restrain Salmond. He will probably still lose the September referendum. But huge damage has been done to the Union, and further turbulence within Scotland appears unavoidable as the SNP seeks ever bolder ways to tighten its grip on office.
From a distance it might seem that a previously sensible country has simply taken leave of its senses. But the wiles and ways of a populist party, which remains popular despite a conspicuous absence of competence in dealing with the ills of a post-industrial country, perhaps have a significance reaching beyond Scotland. Across the West many have become detached from faith, family, and community, are poorly educated and deeply self-centered. Emotions rather than common sense often shape their voting behavior, and not only their voting behavior. In Scotland many fail to see a downside stemming from the rise of a party that, along with its far-left allies, fans territorial and class resentments. Scotland is on a political journey that is unlikely to have a happy outcome. Perhaps that will warn other societies so tempted to think twice before they make deeply uninspired political choices.
1Sillars, “Follow thy Leader”, Holyrood, September 10, 2012.
2Scott McNabb, “Today’s youth not fit to be employed, says car firm Arnold Clark”, Scotsman, May 22, 2012.
3Allen Bissett, “Who Carries the Carriers?” Bella Caledonia, June 6, 2013.