Old Hatred of Margaret Thatcher Drives New Push for Scottish Independence

The international backlash over Crimea’s referendum on independence from Ukraine continues to grow. In the meantime, Scotland is gearing up for a referendum of its own. On September 18, 2014, Scots will vote on whether they want to be independent from the United Kingdom. There is plenty of controversy, but no one is questioning this referendum’s legitimacy.

Crimea has only been part of Ukraine since 1954. Scotland has a much longer history within the United Kingdom. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became King of England and Ireland. A century later, in 1707, Scotland entered into political union with England, thus officially creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Ever since then, leading Scottish figures such as poet Robert Burns and author Walter Scott have condemned the union. Despite the passing of centuries, Scotland retained a strong national identity.

Robert Burns

Much of today’s impetus for independence actually comes from an English woman: Margaret Thatcher. During her years as Prime Minister, she infuriated Scots by removing subsidies for some of Scotland’s leading industries like coal mining, steel working, and shipbuilding. She also introduced a much-loathed tax called the Community Charge in Scotland a year before she introduced it in England. Scots believed they were the guinea pigs used to test how the tax worked.

Thatcher did not permit any transfer of power to Scotland from London during her time in office. In 1997, after Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair took office, Scotland voted in a referendum to convene its own parliament with significant power over Scottish affairs. Full independence was not on the ballot.

In 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns on an independence platform, won the most seats in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP’s leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond quickly began using his position to call for a referendum on independence. In 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would permit one to be held.

In elections for the UK’s national parliament, Scots largely support the Labour Party. If Scotland were to become independent, it would represent a massive change in English election dynamics. The Labour Party would lose a significant share of its voting base.

Supporters of independence, who call their campaign “Yes Scotland,” still blame Thatcher and the Conservative party for many problems. For instance, in February, Scotland’s Health Secretary Alex Neil blamed Thatcher’s policies for the country’s alcohol abuse problem. At a pro-independence rally, he cited research by Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, saying “Since 1980 there has, among working-age men primarily in the west of Scotland, been an increase in the mortality rate during their working years of 60 per cent. Four conditions [drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence and suicide] are responsible between them for 60 per cent of the 60 per cent increase in mortality among working men since Thatcher took power in 1979. According to Sir Harry’s analysis, it is down to one factor and that is the total lack of work and the failure to replace jobs in the traditional industries, like steel and like coal mining, with other well-paid jobs.”

Supporters of union with England call their campaign “Better Together.” They emphasize the benefits to Scotland of being part of the United Kingdom. The campaign has been accused of scaremongering by presenting independence as a risk to the Scottish economy.

Under the SNP’s current plans, an independent Scotland would keep the British Pound as its currency. However, Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, cast doubt over that idea in January. He pointed to the Euro as an example of the problems of currency union without full political union. “A durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty. It is likely that similar institutional arrangements would be necessary to support a monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK,” he said.

The SNP also anticipated that independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the European Union. However, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said in an interview that this was not the case. Scotland would need to apply for EU membership and go through the lengthy, complex process of being admitted.

In recent weeks, various leaders of businesses with interests in Scotland have been speaking out against independence. “We’d like to see Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom. One of the many things we value about the UK is the continuity and stability it offers,” said Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, the UK’s largest producer of oil.

Lloyd’s Banking Group, which employs 4,000 people in Scotland, has also warned that the referendum could seriously affect its business operations. “The outcome could have a material impact on compliance costs, the tax position, and cost of funding for the group,” states one of the group’s official reports.

Both campaigns have even attracted celebrity supports. Actor Sean Connery has spoken out for Yes Scotland saying, “The Yes campaign has centered on a positive vision for Scotland. It is rooted in inclusiveness, equality and that core democratic value that the people of Scotland are the best guardians of their own future.”

Singer David Bowie has come out in favor of union. Unable to attend a recent awards ceremony himself, he asked model Kate Moss to accept it on his behalf and to tell the audience, “Scotland, stay with us.”

Polls currently show that the Better Together campaign is ahead in the polls. However, all sides agree that the vote could still swing in favor of independence. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to draw sanctions or global condemnation. The people of Scotland will decide their own fate and then they will have to live with the consequences.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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