Too close to call: Scotland independence vote hinges on working class

Economic divisions are key in this week’s vote on whether to break away from UK and become fully sovereign

Ruth Cheadle is cheered by supporters of Scottish independence before her wedding in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 9, 2014.
Russell Cheyne / Reuters

The dramatic surge in support for the yes vote has made next week’s referendum on Scottish independence too close to call, prompting a panic across London’s political spectrum that has prompted offers of new political concessions to persuade want-away Scots to stay. But the secessionist impulse is being fueled by long-term economic changes that have left Scotland’s working class increasingly disenchanted with the economic policies of Britain’s major political parties.

Last Monday former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, hurriedly announced that, if Scotland remains part of the union, it will get significant new financial powers as well as greater control over its welfare and benefits system. These reforms would be delivered, Brown said, on the basis of an accelerated legislative timetable. “A no vote on 18 September will not be an endpoint but the starting gun for action,” he said. “We are demanding a tight timetable with tough deadlines and streamlined procedures … The alternative to an irreversible separation is a more powerful Scottish parliament.”

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown makes the case for Scotland to stay in the U.K. at a Better Together rally in Kilmarnock, Scotland, Sept. 11, 2014.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

As a leader of the party in opposition, Brown does not command the parliamentary votes to be able to deliver such changes without backing from the ruling Conservatives — but the Westminster consensus on the need to keep Scotland in the 307-year-old union was evident when Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to endorse Brown’s plan.

Cameron changed his schedule to visit Edinburgh, where he asked Scottish voters not to sacrifice the union in order to give his party, whose popularity among Scots has been steadily declining for years, a bloody nose, saying, “If you’re fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick, and then maybe we’ll think again,” he said. “[But] this is totally different. This is a decision about not the next five years but the next century.”

Labor, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have put aside their differences in hope of persuading voters that Scotland benefits from the U.K.’s substantial diplomatic and economic clout, which would be lost to an independent Scotland with a population of just 5.4 million and an economy overly reliant on fluctuating oil revenues.

And the anti-independence camp have sounded dire warnings of the economic consequences of secession. Former Labor Chancellor Alistair Darling has warned that the Scottish National Party’s plan for an independent Scotland to continue using the British pound would give London effective veto power over the monetary policy of the new country. A number of major financial institutions, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, have warned that independence would prompt them to relocate their headquarters.

Secessionist sentiments shout from a shop in Selkirk, Scotland, Sept. 10, 2014.
Ian Forsyth / Getty Images

Such warnings don’t appear to have reversed the nationalist momentum in Scotland’s postindustrial heartland — once strongholds of the Labour Party. Polls show that low-income Scots are much more likely to vote yes than are those in wealthier parts of the country, while 1 in 3 Labour voters are planning to break with the party’s leadership and back independence.

The transformation of Scottish working-class attitudes toward secession has been gradual. The erosion of Scotland’s manufacturing base from the 1980s onward, the weakening of a once powerful British trade union movement and the explosion of poorly paid, insecure work have all undermined Westminster’s authority in Scotland.

But the political shift has been consolidated over the past year by the efforts of small locally organized pro-independence groups operating in Scotland’s poorest neighborhoods. Outfits such as the Radical Independence Campaign (slogan: “Britain is for the rich. Scotland can be ours”) have brought a youthful, left-wing credibility to Scottish nationalism and boosted the yes vote in working-class districts across the country.

Although Radical Independence and the Scottish National Party represent distinct forces, their campaigns have converged, loosely, around the idea that political separation from England offers the quickest and most convenient escape route from London’s austerity policies. The hotly disputed claim that an independent Scotland would preserve what remains of the post–World War II welfare state has become one of the defining themes of the referendum debate. By forcing Labor into an alliance with the Conservatives, the yes campaign has been able to occupy (in rhetoric, if not necessarily in policy) Scotland’s progressive political center.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond with independence supporters in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 9, 2014.
Russell Cheyne / Reuters

Scottish politics has not always been so contentious. The SNP was founded in the 1930s but became a significant political force only in the late 1960s and early ’70s, around the time similar nationalist movements emerged in Catalonia and Quebec. For much of the SNP’s history, it was ideologically ill-defined and built its case for independence on a broad appeal to Scottish national identity. But in recent decades it has developed a much clearer policy focus, with leader Alex Salmond — a politician widely regarded as one of the most effective of his generation — positioning the party within the mainstream of European social democracy.

The SNP made little electoral progress in the 1980s and ’90s, its efforts hampered by the dominance of Labour in Scotland. However, the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 — a semiautonomous legislative body based in Edinburgh — began to erode Labour’s Scottish hegemony, even as the party won successive U.K.-wide elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

In 2007 the Scottish electorate, frustrated with Labour’s rightward drift under Tony Blair (and in particular with Blair’s enthusiasm for the war in Iraq), elected the SNP as a minority government in Edinburgh. Four years later, the nationalists engineered an even more impressive victory by securing a majority of the Scottish parliament’s 129 seats.

It was this success that made next week’s vote possible. Scotland, Salmond says, stands “on the cusp of history.” The independence referendum has opened up previously hidden fault lines in Scottish society. Questions of class and economic inequality overlap with those of identity and belonging. Longstanding party allegiances have collapsed. Nationalism, once a fringe concern in Scottish public life, now dominates the country’s political landscape. Sept. 18 may or may not produce an independent Scottish state. But whatever happens, Scotland and Britain will have changed forever.

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