LONDON – “I’d grown up with the assumption that Scotland was a poor, wee, deprived place that had never had a fair kick of the ball and could certainly never stand on its own two feet,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose goal is an independent Scotland.
Salmond certainly doesn’t believe that now—and the SNP finally won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in the election on May 5.
Salmond first formed a government four years ago, but that was a weak coalition in which the SNP had to bargain and compromise with the other parties. This time, with 69 out of 129 seats, Salmond doesn’t have to haggle. He can carry out his election promises, which include a referendum on Scottish independence.
If the voters said yes, that would be the end of the United Kingdom, the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England. Other things being equal, a majority of Scots might well vote for independence, but other things never are equal.
In the real world, many Scots are afraid that their small country, with only one-tenth of England’s population, would be too vulnerable to the financial and strategic storms that shake the world. Opinion polls consistently show that no more than a quarter to a third of Scottish voters would vote yes in an independence referendum. Yet they voted the SNP into power. Why?
The main reason is that the Liberal Democratic vote collapsed in Scotland in this election. Quite a lot of those Scottish Lib Dems gave their votes to the SNP instead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they support independence.
Since Salmond has been canny enough to promise a referendum, they knew that they could vote yes to an SNP government, and then say no to independence. He delivered sound government in difficult circumstances over the past four years; why not give him another go?
The reality is that Salmond is unlikely to persuade the Scots to vote yes in his promised referendum, even if he postpones it until near the end of his term in the hope that he can cajole or manipulate more of them into backing independence. (The smart money is betting on 2015.) So there shouldn’t be any big changes in Scotland as a result of this election—and yet it may hurt the country a lot, in the end.
Scottish separatists hate the analogy with Ireland, which they once held up as an example of how a small European country with few natural resources and a big but undercapitalized banking sector could do very well in the world. Now they just try to change the subject when Ireland comes up, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to Scotland.
The real danger is what would happen to Scotland if the separatists lose the forthcoming referendum but keep on trying. That’s what happened in Quebec, where the separatists first came to the fore politically in the 1960s.
Quebec separarists held and lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, but for half a century the prospect that there would eventually be a referendum (or yet another referendum) on separation from Canada was there every year.
“Planning blight” is what happens when the word gets out that they may be running a freeway through the neighborhood, and property values and new investment collapse.
Quebec had it on a province-wide scale for half a century. It’s impossible to calculate the financial cost directly, but the population numbers are a good indication of what happened.
For the first half of the 20th century, Quebec and Ontario, the two biggest Canadian provinces, had about the same population and grew at about the same rate. In 1960, Quebec was only slightly smaller than Ontario, with 5.2 million people compared to Ontario’s 6.2 million people. By 2010, Quebec had only grown to 7.8 million, while Ontario had 13 million people.
The contrast is equally dramatic for the big cities. Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec, had always been Canada’s biggest city. In 1960, Montreal had 2.2 million people, and Toronto, the capital of Ontario, had only 1.7 million. Now Toronto has 6 million people, while Montreal has only 3.8 million.
It’s as if Chicago had started growing fast in the 1960s, and was now half again as big as New York City. It was the planning blight of the ever-looming next referendum on independence—the “neverendum,” as English-speaking Quebecers sometimes call it—that did this to Quebec. The same thing could happen to Scotland.
Independence for Scotland would not necessarily be a financial and demographic disaster, but the permanent expectation of another independence referendum certainly would be.
The Scots are unlikely ever to vote yes for independence, because the world has become a much harsher place economically for small Western countries with declining traditional industries and big debts. (An independent Scotland would presumably inherit about a tenth of Britain’s national debt.)
Yet Salmond has now put an independence referendum firmly on the Scottish political agenda, and it is unlikely to go away again in the foreseeable future even if he loses this one. Neverendum.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book is “Climate Wars.”.
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