“In the Year of our Lord 1314, patriots of Scotland – starving and outnumbered – charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets; they fought like Scotsmen, and won their freedom.”
So ended Braveheart which provoked strong reactions worldwide, not least because it starred an Australian as one of the most famous Scottish leaders but also because it was described as “bloody long”. Fast forward nearly 700 years and another Scottish leader, who perhaps carries more weight than Wallace, is trying to lead Scotland once again to independence from the English.
The two countries were joined in 1707 by the Act of Union; this gave England security from its traditionally quarrelsome neighbour – skirmishes were widespread and northern towns changed hands with astonishing regularity. It provided the Scottish nobles with financial security after a failed colonisation scheme in Panama. But even then it was unpopular, with protests breaking out in a number of cities across Scotland. Today’s reasons for independence are reversed; Alex Salmond argues that Scotland would now be financially better off alone, and in addition it would allow Scottish people a greater say in the EU. A stirring orator and a populist politician, Salmond is confident both of his victory and the benefits to Scotland that independence will bring. Facts and figures have been trotted out supporting both sides of the debate, mostly centring on the income from North Sea oil which will sustain his new country into the near future. With yields decreasing but price increasing, as well as disputes about the distribution between the two new countries, the estimates of how much value this will bring to Scotland vary considerably.
Everything about Salmond’s plan is carefully calculated to increase the number of votes for Scottish independence, but in such a way that Scottish Unionists could sleep-walk into it. The date is 700 years after the most famous Scottish victory over the English – in addition, a visitors’ centre at Bannockburn is being readied for early 2014, and early reports say that the reporting of the battle is almost sinisterly one sided, with the English army cast as menacing villains. The question that he has proposed is deliberately vague and has been accused of being designed to elicit a ‘Yes’ response. And finally, Salmond has asked for 16 and 17 year-olds to be included in the voting, despite current election regulations; this is no surprise, given that 16-24 year-olds are the strongest pro-independence age group.
Behind the rhetoric of a glittering and independent future, Salmond refuses to talk about the immediate future post-independence; a student friend was at a Q&A session for the SNP recently and her question about whether Scotland would have a referendum on joining the EU was brushed aside because the SNP “don’t deal with hypothetical questions”. There has been no official comment on the EU question, with some groups even raising doubts whether, in the current economic climate, Brussels would let another small, financially insecure country in. After all, in 2008 Alex Salmond said that Scotland would model itself on Iceland and Ireland, helped by two of the world’s largest banks (HBOS and RBS) that were based there. Iceland and Ireland’s fall from grace has been well publicised, and indeed the fact that HBOS and RBS are based in Edinburgh might mean that Holyrood has to take on the majority of the multi-billion pound public debt that those companies now represent. In addition, there are other questions about currency, inheritance of debt, defence (the UK’s nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland), head of state and more that so far have not been addressed.
So will it be a good move for Scotland? A number of companies have been voting with their feet and have already made plans to move from an independent Scotland, or at least are scaling back investment there in the run up to the referendum, damaging Salmond’s plan of self-sufficiency and a powerful economy. There has been a lot of talk of tax breaks acting as enticement for companies; however, with a number of well-established tax havens within the EU already, will companies see the point of investing in the North-West corner of the continent? Personally, as someone who lives there, I am worried by the prospect of a successful campaign, not least because of rumoured land-ownership reform that will forcefully break up the large estates that provide a great deal of tax income and jobs. I also question the wisdom of declaring independence when there are so many issues that have not been worked out – it seems that we are running into the dark hoping there will be light ahead. Salmond seems to be treating this as a vanity project, so that he may be remembered as the patriot that finally released Scotland from the shackles of Westminster; if he is not careful he may be remembered as the one that caused the country’s slow decline.