Of freedom and Scotch
Christopher Newton | Monday, September 22, 2014
When the world’s Scotch supplies were put in doubt, you knew it was serious. The recent Scottish referendum spurred passionate debates over the nature of democracy and what it means to be Scottish. Arguments raged over what currency an independent Scotland would use, if it would be permitted to join the EU and NATO, how much revenue could be expected from North Sea oil and whether or not Scotland would pay its share of the United Kingdom’s national debt. The Economist, much like many British politicians, sounded personally offended that the Scots would end a 307-year-old union. The debate at times took on the tone of a spousal separation.
Yet in the week before the vote took place, Scotch distilleries across Scotland voiced concerns regarding the impact of independence on their craft. Coming alongside the threats of the two largest corporations in Scotland to relocate to England and a dip in the value of the British pound, the consequences of a “yes” vote began to seem all too real. British Prime Minister David Cameron, himself a Scot, promised the devolution of additional powers to Scotland, making even a “no” vote a victory for Scotland. These factors combined to chip away at the pro-independence campaign’s recent gains.
When the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained a majority in the Scottish parliament in 2011, few believed referendum would be the outcome. Independence would bring incredible uncertainty and possible economic disaster. It was thought that disaffection with the government in London, typically more conservative than the majority of Scots, never would translate to an actual secession movement. Yet last Thursday, with a record-shattering 98 percent of eligible voters registered and almost 85-percent voter turnout, the people of Scotland were asked a simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Responses were limited to either yes or no. Although last-minute polling showed the race was too close to call, the “no” vote carried the day as expected, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Initially, I was in favor of independence. My family is half English, tracing our Newton lineage back to our distant ancestor, Sir Isaac Newton. From both sides, however, we are also Stuarts. My great-grandfather passed through Ellis Island in 1906, originating from Perth, Scotland. An independent Scotland holds a certain sentimental value. An independent Scotland also resonates with Americans: a small country seeking independence from London-based political rule, an underdog campaign and Braveheart. The real world is not that of the wildly inaccurate, though entertaining, blockbuster with its cries of freedom over all else. Scottish independence more closely mirrored the views of the Scotch industry, undeniably Scottish and yet wracked by uncertainty over the future of an independent Scotland. I had no choice but to side with the “no” vote.
In practical terms, Scotland had little choice. Independence likely would have been disastrous for Scotland, leaving its economy in shambles. It would have had to meet major debt obligations and demands for increased social spending with declining North Sea oil revenues, a rejected EU membership application and monetary union with the UK without fiscal union. The SNP was short on policy when it came to explaining how an independent Scotland would be financed.
For at least the immediate future, the question of independence has been settled. Yet the implications of a potentially independent Scotland will reverberate throughout the United Kingdom and the world in the coming decades. Within Scotland, the populace has been revitalized, democratically and politically. Voter registration and turnout reached unprecedented levels. Lively campaigning lasted for months, and discourse was largely respectful and open. Scottish society will never be the same in ways that a politically apathetic America has difficulty comprehending. The British government also has promised “devo max,” the devolution of the maximum range of governance to the Scottish parliament. If granted, Scotland will handle its own affairs in nearly every sector except foreign affairs and security. It remains to be seen what this means for Wales, Northern Ireland and England itself.
More broadly, a semi-autonomous region in an advanced democracy was allowed to freely and fairly put the matter of secession to a vote. Over five million Scots were given the right to choose their political future without resorting to violence. Let anyone who has ever cared to read even a single chapter of a history book reflect upon this for a moment. The absence of violence is historically exceptional. From Catalan to Papua to Wallonia to Xinjiang, independence-minded peoples have taken notice. It may become increasingly difficult to hold on to restless regions, especially those with an economically viable future. In the decades to come, it may come to pass that others besides Hollywood’s woad-covered Scots will cry freedom.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.