Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

INVERNESS, Scotland — Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The campaign was lively, colorful and, it seemed, decisive: Scots voted by a 10-point margin to stay a part of Britain. But just seven months later, another nationalist earthquake looks set to hit Scotland, shaking the foundations of British politics and even the union itself.

On a pedestrian street in the heart of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands, a small shop shows the extent to which the independence movement is still alive in many hearts and minds — and, soon, ballot boxes. The “Yes shop,” as it’s known, is still selling badges, key rings, and even dog neckerchiefs bearing the blue-and-white “Yes” to independence logo. Basque and Catalan flags (fellow long-sufferers) hang in solidarity with the St. Andrew’s Cross on the wall. The foldout tables that run along one side of the store are stacked with posters and election leaflets for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). On a recent weekday at lunchtime, the store was packed with volunteers and activists.

“People sometimes come in with their children,” said Norman Will, the force behind the shop. “In cold weather people bring in soup and stovies [a Scottish dish made with meat and potatoes]. We have collections for the local food bank and political discussions.”

The SNP may have lost last September’s referendum but it’s emerged energized as Britain gears up for a big, national election. Indeed, the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is just about the only popular politician in the country. Despite holding power in the devolved Scottish Parliament for eight years, the nationalists have profited from a disenchantment with established parties that persists across Europe. And now the SNP is poised to translate that frustration into political power.

The U.K. general election is scheduled for May 7. The SNP is poised to become kingmakers. In the last general election, five years ago, the nationalists won just one-fifth of the Scottish vote and only six of Scotland’s 59 seats. Now, opinion polls give the SNP almost half the Scottish vote and put the party on course to win up to 50 seats.

Such an unprecedented result would have ramifications far beyond the corridors of Westminster. The SNP surge would virtually wipe out Scottish Labour, which has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1955. The rise of Scottish nationalism greatly increases the likelihood of a hung Parliament, too, but even more significantly it has put the question of Scottish independence — and the future of the union — front and center once more.

Since the referendum, SNP membership has quadrupled to over 100,000, making the nationalists Britain’s third-largest party, despite the fact that Scotland has only around one-twelfth of the U.K.’s total population. Among the SNP’s new supporters is Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh. The 32-year-old supermarket worker has become a regular visitor to the Inverness “Yes” shop. The referendum “was amazing,” he told me. On May 7 he will vote for the SNP, in part because he wants another referendum on independence, but he also believes that the party is best placed to “stand up” for Scotland at Westminster.

Inverness, a small, picturesque city popular with tourists setting out to explore the Highlands isn’t historically a stronghold for Scottish nationalists. The Highlands voted against independence in September, and the SNP received less than one-fifth of the votes cast here in 2010. But polls put SNP candidate Drew Hendry well ahead of the incumbent, Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats. Alexander, who has been the second highest-ranking official at the Treasury for the past five years, is one of the most recognizable faces in Scottish politics. His profile, however, might not save his seat.

Such unlikely electoral challenges are being repeated across Scotland. The Labour Party, in opposition in London for the last five years, have long dominated Scottish politics. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But the nationalist tsunami now threatens every Labour constituency in Scotland, potentially robbing Labour leader Ed Miliband of seats he would need to form a majority government after May 7.

The town of Paisley, seven miles southwest of Glasgow, is illustrative of the scale of the challenge facing Labour. A once prosperous industrial town whose Victorian grandeur has faded since the textile mills started closing in the 1960s, Paisley has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. The party has won every general election contest here since the end of World War II, often without much of a fight.

Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, a well-respected former Scottish secretary under Tony Blair and the current shadow foreign secretary. Last time out, Alexander won just short of 60 percent of the vote. Now he is trailing Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student with no political experience.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” Black told me. “What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different.”

Labour’s popularity in Scotland has plummeted after joining forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against the independence referendum. Around 180,000 Labour supporters voted “yes” last September and many of them are now expected to switch their allegiances to the SNP in the general election. Labour is now on the defensive: The party has withdrawn resources from some seats in order to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. “I’m set to Defcon fucked,” a sitting Labour MP from Scotland recently said.
While Labour comfortably won every Westminster election, the party’s standing in the Scottish Parliament has fallen steadily over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011. At the same time, the SNP’s share in the Scottish Parliament continued to rise. Now Scottish voters seem set to repeat their devolved preferences in a Westminster election for the first time, which could produce a nationalist landslide under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system.

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. “Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.”

Under Sturgeon, who took over as the party’s leader last November, the SNP has tacked leftwards, directly appealing to disgruntled Labour voters who increasingly see little difference between the party of their grandfathers and the Conservatives. At a recent event in Edinburgh launching the SNP manifesto, Sturgeon promised to “end austerity,” by increasing government spending by 0.5 percent a year. The SNP’s manifesto backs a 50 percent top tax rate, an extra tax on homes worth over £2 million, new levies on bankers’ bonuses, an increase in the minimum wage, and formal recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The SNP has ruled out joining a formal coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party continues to support the Trident nuclear submarine program, which is housed near Glasgow. But Sturgeon has called for a looser “progressive alliance” with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of office. Meanwhile, Labour, wary of losing English voters, has insisted that there will be “no deal” with the SNP. Such obdurateness might play well in London but it is doing Labour no favors in the Scottish heartlands. Critics have accused both Labour and, particularly, Conservatives of alienating Scottish voters by demonizing the SNP.

The post-election arithmetic in Britain looks increasingly complicated. Every poll suggests there will be no clear winner, which makes a Labour deal with the SNP more likely. The Conservatives — sensing an opportunity to make gains from Labour in up-for-grabs English constituencies where Scottish nationalism is looked upon with disdain — have decried any deal with the SNP. Home Secretary Theresa May even said an arrangement with the nationalists would spark the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Even if the SNP was invited into a coalition with Labour, the Scottish party might have good reason not to join. The SNP’s primary focus remains on Scotland, in particular the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The party is unlikely to want ministerial seats in London, which would make the task of differentiating themselves from Labour more difficult next year. At the same time, the SNP are wary of facilitating the formation of another Conservative-led government by failing to support Labour. “The SNP can’t sign a blank check to Labour, but they can’t be seen to bring a Labour government down so they have to play a very careful hand,” said Hassan.

The SNP’s record-high poll ratings have fueled speculation that Sturgeon would like to hold a second vote on independence. In order for that to happen, the party would need another majority in Edinburgh next year. But that’s still a long way off. The SNP will not go to the polls again until they know they can win, said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling.

“The SNP won’t win enough votes [in the general election] if they look like the independence party and nothing more,” said Cairney. “And they have dealt with that problem well. Long-term referendum chances hinge on them remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the U.K.”

Nonetheless, pro-independence sentiment remains energized ahead of the election. In the “Yes” shop in Inverness, Emma Roddick, a 17-year-old student, said she has “lost count” of the number of hours she has spent making pro-independence badges and pins. She is too young to vote but has no doubts about Scotland’s political destiny.

“The union is always going to lose its purpose,” she told me. “The only argument is not are we going to be independent but when are we going to be independent..” For its supporters, a resounding SNP showing on May 7 will be another important milestone on the road to the break-up of Britain.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

The View from Scotland’s Islands

DISPATCH

STORNOWAY, ScotlandChange comes slowly on the island of Lewis, 50 miles off Scotland’s west coast. The island of 20,000 people has been a stronghold of evangelical Christianity for more than a century and a half. It was only five years ago that the first Sunday ferry docked at the quayside that dominates Stornoway, the windswept town that is home to around half of Lewis’s inhabitants. Shops still obey the Sabbath. And beyond Stornoway’s narrow streets mobile phone service is patchy and broadband more the exception than the rule.

But change could be on the way for this island community, suddenly and soon. On Thursday, Lewis, along with the rest of Scotland, will vote on independence from the United Kingdom.

The main focus of the referendum debate might be hundreds of miles south in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Lewis has not been left behind. Bright blue Yes signs are strapped to practically every second lamppost along the pier. Independence supporters are not the only ones displaying their colors: “Proud Brit Proud Scot” reads a sign in an upstairs window of one of the town’s numerous pebble-dashed terrace houses. Nearby the red, white, and blue of the British flag flutters in the firm breeze.

When it comes to independence Lewis, like the rest of Scotland, is split. Nationwide, the no side has a slender lead, according to most recent opinion polls. A straw poll taken after a referendum debate in Stornoway earlier this month finished in a dead heat: 99 in favor of leaving the 307-year-long union with England, 99 against.

The national debate has been dominated by big-ticket issues, such as what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union, but for many here on Lewis the key question is what the islands themselves would gain, either from staying with the United Kingdom or being part of a new state.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent. Last year, the Western Isles, along with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, launched the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to bring the islands more autonomy during the referendum.While both sides appealed directly to the islands, Yes has certainly been the more energetic of the two campaigns, attracting political neophytes with promises of a new politics and a fairer Scotland. Stornoway, like many towns, has its own pop-up “Yes” shop, housed in an old storefront beside a bar on the main shopping street. Inside, Alasdair Allan, the area’s local member of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, is confident of victory.

“There has been a real change in mood in the last month,” says Allan, who moved hundreds of miles from Scottish Borders, which abuts England, to Lewis in 2006 specifically to contest the seat. The following year he was elected to represent Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), a constituency of less than 30,000 people that stretches almost 130 miles from the tip of Lewis in the north, to the remote island of Barra in the south.

A giant foam Yes sign sits on the floor underneath Allan’s desk. “Vote Yes 18-09-14” is painted in blue on the shop window. In the space of half an hour, three local activists arrive for supplies, eating into a stack of campaign literature and stickers, fuel for their door-to-door canvasing.

When Allan joined the Scottish National Party in 1989, Scottish independence was a fringe pursuit. By this time next week it could have could have created Europe’s newest state. “I’ve spent my entire life campaigning for this week. I have an enormous emotional interest in what happens,” says Allan.

Next door, an elderly lady sits outside her house drinking tea, a copy of the fiercely pro-union London-based newspaper the Daily Mail on her lap. Above her door is a homemade poster in red with a single word: No.

There is no sign of discord between neighbors on the two sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate, but the referendum has created tensions on the island, says Iver Martin, a local minister in the Free Church, a smaller Scottish denomination that split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 over the role of the state in religious affairs. “For some people it has really become an obsession to them,” he says. “There will be a continual agitation for some time to come. I don’t think that makes for a healthy society.”

The minister is a committed no voter but his congregation is free to make up their own mind, he says. Martin has no problem entertaining opposing views, as the copies of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusionand Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes on his bookshelf attest. “The tradition I represent is not afraid of debate, not afraid of openness and honesty,” says the minister.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom. Of the 15 inhabited in the chain, those north of Benbecula are predominantly Protestant, those to the south Catholic. There is a strong Gaelic tradition on the islands; road signs are bi-lingual. And the islands bear traces of not just Scottish and British culture but also Norse influence dating back more than a millennium.For centuries, Lewis was the redoubt of small farmers and fishermen. Life here, as close to Reykjavik as to London, is still hard. Winters are long, and the flat, boggy plains around Stornoway offer little respite from the elements. Incomes are still below the Scottish average and more than one in four live in poverty, according to official statistics. Many struggle to afford fuel to heat their homes. Lewis’s economy remains heavily reliant on the public sector — the Western Isles council and the local health board remain two of the largest employers despite shedding jobs in recent years due to decreased funding from the central government.

Still, there have been improvements in some areas. Harris Tweed, which by act of parliament can only be made on the island, is going through a renaissance: Once the preserve of elderly gents, everyone from Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow has been spotted wearing the iconic hand-woven woolen fabric. Tourism has increased, too.

On the far side of Lewis, where flat bog gives way to sea cliffs and isolated sandy beaches, the biggest tweed mill on the island, Harris Tweed Hebrides stands a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. The mill’s chairman, former Labour minister Brian Wilson, says he is worried that independence could undermine the tweed industry across the island. Last week a number of business leaders including representatives from BP and Standard Life warned about the consequences of Scotland leaving the union.

Wilson, a longtime critic of the nationalist government in Scotland, is sure Scots will reject independence on Thursday. “I have to believe that the society I live in is not going to march to the precipice without noticing what is over the edge. It’s taken a long time but now the economic realities are bearing in quite rapidly,” he says.

For many on Lewis, the decision could come down to whether they believe staying in the union or going it alone will best serve the island’s interests. So far neither the UK government nor the Scottish National Party (SNP) that is leading the Yes campaign have struck a formal arrangement with the trio of the Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland on more powers for the islands but there have been talks. Revenue from the Crown Estates, a public trust that owns and levies a tax on the seabed, is crucial.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line,” he says. Last week, in an attempt to block the independence surge, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed that more powers would be devolved to the parliament in Edinburgh if Scotland decides not to go it alone.

Whether warnings from business leaders or the promise of more Scottish autonomy are enough to convince voters to back the union will become clear early on Friday morning. On Lewis, the expectation is that life will revert back to normal whatever the outcome.

“It’s in our nature to just get on with it,” says a journalist who has worked on the island most of his life. “Whatever happens you take it on the chin and you get on with it.”

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Showdown in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, theSun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

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What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” — but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked upon the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that most Scots favor enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but the three main parties — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats — that comprise Better Together have failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a No vote. Instead, the parties’ marriage of convenience has become increasingly strained as the referendum campaign has dragged on: Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour has been forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Conservatives. David Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats representing Scotland in the UK’s parliament and blamed for the savage de-industrialization of the Margaret Thatcher years that still scars the country today. The Liberal Democrats, once a significant presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, were routed in the 2011 elections to the devolved Scottish parliament — punishment for their decision to go into a coalition with Conservatives in London.

Meanwhile, “Yes Scotland,” the official independence campaign, has not exactly set the pulses racing. Its messaging has been vague and reports of internal splits have been rife. But pro-independence forces have something their unionist opponents largely lack: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland (and possibly even Britain) has not seen in generations. In places like Easterhouse, a sprawling housing estate (or project) on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message is being driven not by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012 that has proved effective at mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Canvas returns now suggest that most Scots in working-class communities intend to vote Yes.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking. (Glasgow, for example, hassome of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe. In the Calton district, infamously, male life expectancy is just 59 years.) That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” does not just play in housing estates: Polls suggest that younger voters are coming over to Yes in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grassroots activists have been mobilized, many for the first time.How is the movement gathering activists and achieving these gains? The SNP has long aped the 2008 Obama campaign, asking whether Scotland wants hope or fear. In reality, the nationalists have used a liberal amount of both, seasoning the optimistic vision of an affluent, nuclear-free, Nordic-lite independent Scotland with a salutary dose of doom-laden rhetoric about never-ending Tory rule and the erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers. But the key difference between this approach and that of Better Together is that the nationalists waited until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seems to be working, judging by opinion polls.

Additionally, while unionists have the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists have attempted to make this a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system. In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the Yes campaign is expressing a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonates with many voters.

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In late August, I spent an afternoon in Gretna, in southern Scotland. For centuries, this border town was a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent. Nowadays, a huge outlet store is the main attraction.

In a field just behind the shopping center stands a small pile of rocks. Some are colored in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carry slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passersby are invited to stop a while and add a stone in honor.

This is the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, erstwhile deputy governor in Iraq and now a Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border. It is meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely a third of that with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour I spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by.

The message is clear: The No side might still be the favorite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it has singularly failed to make an emotional case for the United Kingdom. A Better Together activist told me recently, “It is like a business transaction. I look at the sums; they don’t add up, so you don’t do it.” This might be a good reason to reject independence, but such instrumentality hardly bodes well for the union’s future health — and such sentiments leave plenty of room for uncertainty about what will happen on Sept. 18.

Nationalists have won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state. The question now is whether they can persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they can, what seemed unimaginable just a few months ago could become a reality.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.