Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dispatch from Moscow

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - Scots are set to go the electoral booths to vote on one crucial issue; 'Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent nation?' This coming election may well represent a watershed in Scottish as well as British history. It could spell the end of 'great Britain ' leading to England losing a lot of territory, soldiers enlisted in her army and a loss of international prestige. Instead of being hailed as'Great Britain', she would be 'Little England'!

             The Economist put it succinctly ''If Scotland votes for Independence, what remains of Britain will be       shaken. It will also be humiliated'. In an editorial dated 19 November, 2013, they anxiously warn that 'The Most straightforward way Britain could shrivel is through Scotland voting to leaving the United Kingdom next September. At a stroke, the kingdom would become one-third smaller. Its influence in the world would be greatly reduced. A country that cannot hold itself together is scarcely in a position to lecture others on how to manage their affairs'. The same journal oddly describes Britain as one country' which is as absurd as calling the former Soviet Union 'a country'. (the arrogance of this leader statement is astounding. It presumes Britain is one nation instead of several and also takes it for granted that Britain retains the right to lecture other countries how to manage their affairs.)

             You would have thought that the history of the British  Empire disqualified them. It certainly is embarrassing for British diplomats to attempt to curb conflict in Ukraine when their own United kingdom is set to implode this September.)

             Just a few months ago most opinion polls suggested the pro-unionists were set to win with only between   30-35% of Scots claiming they will vote for independence. However,more recent opinion polls demonstrate a more ambigiously complex and changeable situation where 50% are for Independence, but 50% are against. Anything might just happen! Newly franchised young voters (16 year olds can vote in Scots elections for the first time,) the undecided and the ill-thought out  policies of a  largely hated government in the south might make it a near run thing. As Marina Koroleva, a specialist in Scottish culture put it 'Scotland is at a major crossroads in her history. The referendum will represent a watershed. For the first time in centuries the Scots will have a right to choose whether to become an independent nation. Even if Scots vote against Independence at least Scots will have been given a chance to decide.'


             Why should some Scots want to break loose from England? After all, despite the act of Union, it still retains some symbols of independence. It was granted a new Scottish Parliament in 1999  which has some powers invested in it. It retains its own currency, church and education system! In contrast to England, Scots have the right to free education and free medical care. Scots students still don't pay fees at Universities so only 3 % of Scottish 18 year old applicants are searching for places at Universities beyond Scotland.

             England has failed to impose its draconian austerity programme on Scotland for fear of provoking yet more burning resentment against the Government.Scotland even retains a distinct legal system from England!

            The Scottish reality is more complex. Scotland has always had a tense, turbulent and troubled relationship with England. For centuries, England attempted to take over Scotland and Scots armies constantly raided England for spite or plunder. The act of Union in 1707 was overwhelming opposed by the majority of Scots and it led to many riots as well as adding ammunition to the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 which aimed to break up the union. However, after a few decades, Scotland, along with England, began to enjoy some prosperity and     the newly established British empire offered career opportunities for unemployed soldiers, doctors, farmers, civil
servants and officials. The Scots started to become the most enthusiastic Unionists and in the 1950's 55% of Scots still voted for the union. During the 1940's.50' and 1960's, Scots nationalists were treated as an almost anchronism.

             They were on the political fringe. They tended to be oddballs, cranks and dreamers. This all abruptly changed in the early 1970's. The loss of the British empire,a world economic crisis and a new confrontational politics which had no room for consensus politics deeply marginalised society. With the rise of unpopular policies by the extreme government of Margaret Thatcher (known as the hammer of the Scots), burning and bitter resentment grew and grew. Understanding how tense the situation was, a newly elected labour government granted Scotland a new parliament. However,it was too late! The damage had been done! Scotland had been devastated by years of imposed austerity and was a deindustrialised nation with many ghost towns. Many industries which could have been saved or at least radically transformed had been closed down. Unexpectedly, the fortunes of the Scottish national party won most of the elections to the Scottish parliament. In deed, the present prime-minister of the Scottish Parliament is a nationalist who managed to persuade both parliaments to allow a referendum to decide whether Scots should be independent.

             One major issue which divides Scotland from England is how they approach education. According to George Davies, who wrote a book called 'The Democratic intellect', the Scots believe education should be free and accessible to everyone and that the aim of education is not only to instill knowledge in people but make them better citizens who serve the common good. The best way a person can exercise sober judgement is to have a general knowledge in all areas of life. So for the first years at university a student would learn knowledge from all areas of life. For example, a lawyer has to not only Scottish law but international law and he should know something about linguistics, history and philosophy. In fact, all students had to undergo a course in moral philosophy irrespective of whether they studied philosophy or chemistry. In contrast to this generalist approach, the English favoured 'a culture of the experts' where a student would learn in his own specific area. For centuries, the British state has been attempting to impose their model of education on the Scots and have partially succeeded. This has left a lingering resentment against England.

             A Scottish philosopher called Alistair Macintyre claimed that 'the ghost of the Democratic intellect continues to haunt Scottish universities.'He might have added the ghost continues to rattle England.

             However,the more recent policies of austerity from the present coalition government have angered the Scots. Yesterday I spoke to some Scots who had been visiting Moscow. I asked one Scot who was working for an international project called 'Struileag' which attempted to unite the dispersed culture of the overseas Scots. I asked Ian, a lively and friendly middle-aged Scot, whether he thought Scots would break away. He told me 'I used to think, no they won't. Nobody would take the S.N.P. seriously. I once wrote them off as 'Tartan Tories'. A lot of people saw their leader Alex Salmond as slimy and swarmy. Now I think things have changed. Alex Salmond status has increased to such an extent he is looked on as almost a king in Scotland. Now some of the recent opinion polls suggests both sides are equal and the vote could go anywhere. '

             I further asked  'How could this be the case? 'The last opinion polls I read of kept maintaining only a third of Scots would vote for independence! ' Ian retorted. 'There is a new situation. For the first time 16 year olds have the right to vote. Those young people tend to be more supportive of independence. The Scottish nationalists have been successfully targeting those new voters by reassuring them of keeping a free education system. Their campaign is more dynamic and energetic.

             If you contrast this with the Unionist campaign of sending in old councillors who don't know how to communicate with young people then you can see the Nationalists are going to pick up votes. Then there are the idiotic policies which are being implemented by the government such as the 'bedroom' tax. This tax is hated by Scots. If you want to add a new room to your house or apartment you must pay a tax. This tax has hit a lot of poor and disabled people.' Ian and his colleague, Naomi Harvey, could scarcely conceal their anger. They lambasted the tax as did my mother. Ian told me 'the policies being dreamed up by the new government are highly amateurish and badly thought out. People who have no background, in say housing, are just dreaming up strange schemes and ministers are being shuffled from one post to another without any clear idea about what they are doing.'

             I had previously spoken to my young brother, Peter Wilson who told me, ' I don't know how I will vote. I have not  decided yet. I can see both sides. We don't do things as quickly as they do in Ukraine! When I speak to some people in the bar, I no longer bring up the subject of a referendum. One man told me, 'If you are going to vote 'yes' for independence then I am no longer going to drink with you'. It is the undecided voter who just might make a tremendous difference.

             The Catalonians were intent on holding a referendum on independence but were told by a stiffly intransigent Spanish government that they would not recognise any voting as legitimate.They forbade an election. The British government have not and are reassured that most Scots won't break away. They are alarmingly complacent. Nevertheless, the 'yes vote for independence ' doesn't show any signs of waning!

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