Ultima modifica 29 Aprile 2016
Let’s face it. History books are often boring. Pages of dates, battles, treaties, names and on and on.
Then, every so often, History becomes real and we realise that, without some knowledge of the past, our understanding of the present can be limited and meaningless.
A case in point is the forthcoming referendum for independence in Scotland.
On Thursday 18th September 4.1 million Scottish people aged 16+ will vote “yes” or “no” to the direct question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Why are they voting? Why now? Who wants this referendum? Let’s see what the history books say.
Until the early 17th century England and Scotland were two entirely independent kingdoms. This changed dramatically in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Because Elizabeth had died childless, the English crown passed to the next available heir, her cousin James VI, who was already King of Scotland. England and Scotland now shared the same monarch under what was known as a union of the crowns.
Not satisfied with this arrangement, James wanted a completely unified state. But the idea of uniting the laws, parliaments and economies of the two kingdoms met with little enthusiasm at Westminster. James accepted defeat on the issue and had to be content with symbolic gestures such as being known in the future as King of Great Britain and not by the divided names of England and Scotland.
In 1606 he gave orders for a British flag to be created which bore the combined crosses of St. George, patron of England and St Andrew, patron of Scotland. The result was the Union Jack, Jack being a shortening of Jacobus, the Latin version of his name. From then on the two kingdoms would have one monarch.
The union idea was again aired in 1689 by King William III who pointed out that both nations shared the same landmass, language and attachment to the Protestant religion. But the proposal was again rejected even though many acknowledged that a union might be in both nations’ interests. The Scots hoped for a union of trade with vital access to the English colonial market.
The English wanted to ensure nobody in Scotland would be in the mood to form anti-English alliances on the Continent. Of course, back then, no one thought of asking the common people’s view!
To make a long story short, the two countries were united on May 1st 1709 but, for many people, Scots in particular, it has always been a marriage of convenience and now, after over three hundred years, they want a divorce.
Once again, and to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s catch-phrase, it’s a case of “it’s the economy, stupid”. The North Sea started to produce oil in 1975 giving Scotland an unprecedented financial footing and making independence seem credible.
In 1979, a Scottish vote on devolution failed. Some wanted all-out independence; others were content with more powers. By the late 1980s, with many Scots angered about a new poll tax by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, opposition members united in Scotland and a modern party emerged with an independence agenda.
With just two weeks to voting, bookmakers are undecided on the call and the key is the turn out on the day. Higher turn out favours yes. If less than 75% vote, the no camp will win. Most polls favour no to independence and debates on the issue are not as clear on answers about the future as they would need to be to swing undecided voters towards making a leap into the unknown.
The choice is drawn along clear lines – gender, class, age. Women are generally more unsure about independence as are older people. Support for a yes vote is strong among the working class and among traditional Labour voters.
The deciding issues are currency, will Scotland continue to use the pound Sterling? North Sea oil, whose wealth is it? health services, will present welfare conditions remain? membership of the EU, will an independent Scotland have automatic membership?
The current very fluid international situation will impact on whether people vote or if they do, how they will vote. There is general discontent with British politics but the idea of Scottish independence has its roots in a time of even greater political instability under Tony Blair’s New Labour government.
Today people are wondering if it’s better to be under the umbrella of Britain. While the idea that Her Majesty in Buckingham Palace, The House of Lords, The House of Commons, the Union Jack itself, glorious Oxford and Cambridge, might all suddenly be in a foreign country seems ideologically noble, as the actor Sean Connery is busy emphasising, it may perhaps be too unsettling for sufficient numbers of Scots to carry the motion and say “yes, we are ready to smash the oldest democracy in the modern world.”
A referendum worth noting and a day that, whatever the outcome, will go down in the History books for future generations to read and maybe yawn over.