With a vote on whether Scotland should declare itself an independent nation only eight days away, now is a good time to reflect on how we arrived at this point. Both sides will be using all the emotive imagery at their disposal as the campaigns enter the final stretch. So it is helpful to separate fact from fiction.
Some things that the Scottish independence referendum aren’t about:
The First Scottish War of Independence, popularised by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart, is probably the first image that springs to mind when people think about Scottish nationalism. However, the current debate over sovereignty has little in common with the state of affairs in the 13th century.
Though it may be tempting to imagine the cause of Scottish nationalism simmering for generations under the yoke of British oppression before bursting forth in the modern day, the events of the intervening centuries warn against such a simplistic reading. While the proximate cause of hostilities in the First Scottish War of Independence included an ill-conceived invasion of the country by an English King looking to assert his authority, the vote today is set against the backdrop of over three centuries of (reasonably) amicable relations between the two countries.
Indeed the wars that are likely to bear most heavily on the results are those between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. As this gentleman illustrates, support for the Union is strongest among the over-50s in Scotland in large part because either they fought, or are the children or grandchildren of those who fought together, with the rest of the U.K. in the two World Wars. Their vote could prove critical if the vote is as close as the polls suggest.
The 1707 Act of Union
Although Scottish poet Robert Burns’s claim that “We are bought and sold for English gold. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation” remains popular among some nationalists, the Act of Union owed as much to calamity as coercion. What drew the two nations together was in large part the failure of the Darien Scheme, where Scotland had attempted to emulate the trading success of the English East India Company by establishing a colony called “Caledonia” in what is now Panama.
The scheme was heavily backed by Scottish nobility, and its failure, due to poor planning, disease and misfortune, wiped out the equivalent to 50% of Scottish GDP, causing a financial crisis. Their perilous position as well as the promise of Scottish access to English trade routes provided a base of support for a union of the two nations — although there remained a large faction resolutely opposed. The treaty was finally signed in January of 1707 by 110 votes to 69.
While contemporary Scottish nationalists may claim affinity with the 69 dissenters, the fact that the union held firm speaks to its success in gaining general acceptance. Historians will no doubt see it as somewhat ironic that the legacy of a financial crisis brought the two nations together, and the fallout from another threatens to drive them apart.
And what the vote really is about:
Scots really do want to give a kick to the “effing Tories”
After the Conservatives swept to power in 1979 the reforms they undertook to increase the competitiveness of the British economy put them on a direct collision course with the labour union movement. The two came into direct conflict during the 1984-5 miners’ strike where police were sent in to put down the pickets of workers fighting to preserve a coal industry that was under threat of closure across Britain.
Scottish miners were heavily involved in the dispute, joining their English and Welsh peers on the picket lines in huge numbers. If the strike was a galvanizing moment for the miners, its ultimate failure checked the progress of the labour union movement and sent it into decline.
What had brought people together from all sides of Britain descended into general antipathy for the Westminster government and a tangle of local grievances. As Tolstoy reminds us in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This rumbling discontent resurfaced in 1989 when the Conservative government made a fateful decision to introduce the Poll Tax, a flat rate tax that ignored individuals’ income, raised to pay for local government. Anyone who failed to pay the tax forfeited their right to vote. The poll tax was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. The country erupted in protest at the perceived injustice, with many Scots believing they were being treated as guinea-pigs for the new tax.
After that, Scottish support for the Conservative Party matched the labour union movement in falling into inexorable decline. After having returned 22 Scottish Conservative MPs in the 1979 general election, the party lost over half of them through the 1980s. It now boasts only a single MP from the country. (There is a popular joke that Scotland has more pandas in Edinburgh zoo than Conservative MPs.)
Yet despite their unpopularity in Scotland, the Tories continue to enjoy a solid base of support across the rest of Britain and are the larger partner in the current Coalition government. The pro-independence campaign has played on this to suggest to Scottish voters that independence would mean chucking out the Tories for good.
For some Scots at least, that logic will be compelling.
The rise and rise of the Scottish National Party
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has had a rocky road to the referendum. Having been founded in 1934 from an amalgamation of the Scottish Party and the National Party of Scotland, the SNP had to wait over a decade to gain their first seat in parliament — before losing it two months later in a general election.
It was not until the 1970s that the party really began to hit its stride. The party won 11 seats in 1974 and looked set to continue to grow. However, a combination of a Conservative Party landslide victory in 1979 and the failure to convince 40% of Scots to vote Yes to a Scottish Assembly in the same year wiped the party out as an electoral force.
Despite its setbacks, the modern day party re-emerged from obscurity, re-invigorated in 1990 under the leadership of one Alex Salmond. Conscious of the successful “Tartan Tories” line of attack on the party by the left-wing Labour Party in previous years, Salmond moved to modernize the SNP positioning them as economically and socially progressive and pro-European.
The call for an independent Scotland, however, has remained its organising principle.
After the Labour Party delivered on its campaign promise of a Scottish parliament in 1999, the SNP won 35 seats and sent six MPs to Westminster. That made it the largest opposition party, but was not enough to overturn Labour’s majority in Scotland. They also suffered a shock with the resignation of Salmond as party leader the following year.
His equally surprising return as leader in 2004 marked a turnaround for the party, however, and it won its first majority in the 2007 Scottish election by a single seat. Although Labour were heavily favoured to overturn that in the 2011 election, the SNP managed to increase its share of the vote and secure another stunning victory.
A consistent theme in the SNP story is the repeated underestimation of their political acumen and their ability to last despite repeated setbacks and periods of severe internal divisions. They have thrived by fashioning themselves as the underdogs committed to getting the best deal for Scotland — and have succeeded in wresting powers away from Westminster using the threat of independence as a bargaining chip.
There is no doubt that the Scottish independence vote marks the highest stakes challenge yet. The outcome of the vote will decide Scotland’s future for the next 100 years, and will see the realisation or the destruction of the dream upon which the SNP was founded. As they learned after the 1979, a loss could throw the party into obscurity for years, decades or, perhaps, even longer.
For the SNP electoral machine to find itself in the unusual position of being the incumbent power in Edinburgh will require a new tack. Independence is no longer just an ace in Salmond’s pocket, it’s now the ship of state onto which they will have to set sail. Whether the Scottish people are ready to follow them onto it, sink or swim, remains highly uncertain.
But as has become the SNP way, the odds of a shock result on the 18th are narrowing.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.