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Grounds for divorce? Should Scotland be an independent country?

Dr Alex Smith, Department of Sociology and Dr Martin R. Skinner, Department of Psychology

Published July 2014
This article was produced for the University of Warwick's Features page, follow this link to access the original.

The day Scotland decides the fate of Great Britain is fast approaching. In the second article of this two part series, academics from the University of Warwick explore the internal and external factors influencing the voters. Words by Gareth B. Jenkins.

Boy running with Scotland flag“About 250 years ago, Voltaire described Scotland as the place where we all look, across Europe, for our ideas of civilisation. Dear knows what he would be thinking today if he’d followed the debate over the past few months.”

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, 24 June 2014

Speaking to around 40 peers in the House of Lords, Lord McConnell was heavily critical of the standard of debate so far in the lead up to the Scottish referendum on 18 September 2014.

Lord McConnell summarised what he saw as the solution: “We need to outline a positive vision for the future of Scotland inside the United Kingdom; not campaigning to protect the Union, to protect the established order, but campaigning for what is the new order; a reformed United Kingdom with a new Scotland actively participating within it.”

It’s a perspective on the debate shared by Dr Alex Smith, Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick;

“At the time the referendum was announced, I felt that the Better Together campaign needed to take care to articulate a positive vision for Scotland remaining in the Union. Traditionally, those that have argued against independence have fallen into the trap of talking about the negative consequences of independence for Scotland. This is best captured in a phrase the Scottish Labour Party used to use during the devolution debate in 1999; ‘Divorce is an expensive business’. They banged on and on and on about it. But it’s not much of an argument to turn around to one of the parties, if you’re going to use this metaphor of marriage, and say ‘You’re better off with me, you’re better off staying in this relationship otherwise the consequences will be too severe for you’, without articulating a vision of why it’s better for both of you to stay in the relationship. This is part of the argument that the Better Together campaign has failed to articulate.”

The failure of the Better Together campaign to express why the Union remains beneficial for both England and Scotland has left the outcome of the vote in September far from certain; something Alex sees as an own-goal for the No campaign.

“At this point in the campaign cycle, the unionist’s argument should have really closed the debate down,” he says. “But the debate appears to be alive and animated and the opinion polls are suggesting that the nationalist’s arguments are getting a bit more traction than I would have expected to see if the Better Together campaign had been run much more competently.”

Alex puts the traction gained by the nationalist campaign down to just one man; Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond. “I think Alex Salmond has demonstrated a really masterful grasp of how you do politics,” he says. “I’m convinced that he’s Britain’s best politician in the sense that he’s probably the best electoral strategist and the best political tactician on the UK stage.

“I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that the Conservative Party has a big PR problem in Scotland. In 1997, at the end of 18 years of a Thatcher-Major government, the Conservatives lost every single seat they held in Scotland. They’ve struggled ever since to reclaim any of that territory and currently only have one Scottish MP in Westminster.

“It seems to me that the Conservatives should be mindful of the considerable care they need to take if they are seen too closely to be leading the Better Together campaign, given the historic antagonism – and by that I mean the last 25-30 years – between UK Tory governments and Scotland. Alex Salmond is well versed in that rhetoric and is well versed in the kinds of strategies that work in these kinds of environments. Personally, I believe he would have a harder time if there was a Labour government in Westminster, to really get traction for some of these arguments.”

Dr Martin Skinner, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, agrees: “British politics is essentially English politics. I’m sure people in Scotland would like to see a debate but many Scottish people would be repelled by the idea of an English person speaking for the No campaign.

“It’s why they’re keeping David Cameron out of Scotland. He’s English and he’s a certain type of English: he’s posh, he’s rich, and he’s a Conservative. There aren’t many Conservatives in Scotland and when a posh, rich English one comes along – suddenly the Scottish person feels more Scottishh".

Alex Smith says that if a debate were to go ahead, Alex Salmond would be the logical choice for the Yes campaign’s podium.

"I don’t think anyone can deny that Salmond is a man of considerable political gifts. He’s really playing this to win. That’s why he poses the Better Together campaign with the kind of threat that really demanded from them a more inspired handling of this whole campaign.”

The campaign has been largely within Scotland, which appears to make sense given that only those within Scotland are voting. For Martin however, the question on the ballot paper raises further issues. He says:

Boy with painted Scottish flag face"The referendum raises wider questions around the psychological construct of identity. Social psychologists like to think that there are personal aspects to identity that are subjective: my anger, my fear, my happiness. But there are also social aspects to identity. A lot of what we know about ourselves and how we construe ourselves is related to our relationships with other objects. These can be people, small groups such as families, or political groupings as part of a national identity.

"When people are asked to vote yes or no, this social aspect of their identity will become salient. People aren’t generally walking around thinking ‘I’m Scottish as opposed to British’, any more than they’re thinking ‘I’m human not amphibian’, but if you encourage people to categorise themselves on the basis of social identity, as the independence debate does, they will tend to act in terms of that social identity.”

Thus, according to Skinner, the choice before those voting in September goes beyond the one on the ballot paper. The box a person ticks might simply reflect the choice they have made concerning their identity. Skinner says:

"It will tend to be about the extent to which Scotland contributes to their social identity. A lot of people will be voting yes because being Scottish will mean more if Scotland is independent rather than a junior partner with England. Likewise, there may well be people in Scotland for whom being part of the United Kingdom is more important than being Scottish."

For the past six months, polls on the referendum have been relatively consistent. Around 30 per cent of the population of Scotland would vote yes and 50 per cent no. The remainder ‘don’t know’. [Source: BBC Scottish referendum poll tracker].

Skinner says:

"When someone tries to persuade you of something, there can be two basic processes at work influencing your attitudes. The first we could call instrumental: our attitudes towards something as positive if it brings benefits or negative if it brings unwanted outcomes. We might be in favour of freedom or higher wages and against censorship or low wages. So some, for example, might vote for independence because they feel they’ll be materially better off. But nobody really knows whether they’ll be better or worse off. The experts disagree so how can voters know? We think we know the facts but we don’t really examine where the facts come from.

"The second process behind the attitudes we hold is self-evaluative. Our attitudes can identify us with groups or identities that are favourable, and distinguish us from those that are not. For some people, voting yes or no will express a desire for social identity. They may want Scotland to be independent because an independent Scotland will contribute to that identity in a more positive way than it would if it were part of the UK.

YesScotland campaign poster"We’re always looking to enhance our social identity and if groups we identify with are positive and distinctive, we feel better about ourselves. Football supporting is a good example. Fans of a national football team may feel happier or more secure in their sense of national identity and better about themselves, if their team is successful."

Both the Yes and No campaigns have, so far, focused heavily on the economic repercussions – for good or ill – of leaving the Union but social identity may soon come into play. Alex Smith explains:

“This is another piece of evidence – if you need any more evidence – for the political genius of Alex Salmond. The Commonwealth Games are scheduled to take place just a few weeks before the referendum. This will be Glasgow’s moment, this will be Scotland’s moment, they’ll be on the world map; it’s an opportunity for the government of Scotland to look like its capable of organising these really big, international events but also acting like – and they won’t come out and put it like this – but acting like a national government.

“If handled well, it should be an opportunity for the nationalists. People will be feeling good about Scotland and taking a lot of pride in their country and this is just a few weeks ahead of the referendum. It’s exactly the kind of positive framing that the nationalists have sought to enable for their referendum campaign and it’s also the kind of positive framework that’s been lacking from the Better Together Campaign.”

There remains a difficult question around whether or not both parties, not just Scotland, would be better apart. For example, it has been claimed that England subsidises Scotland [Source: The Daily Telegraph]. With that in mind, would England be better off if Scotland left the Union? Neither Alex nor Martin believes an independent Scotland will be favourable to the English.

“It will diminish England, losing Scotland,” says Martin. “I feel that myself. It’s the Scots’ business but I think Scotland contributes to the idea of the United Kingdom. I hope they’ll want to stay but it is up to them.”

“I was thinking about this this morning,” says Alex “And I was trying to think of arguments why England is better off staying in a union with Scotland. Scotland has very significant military assets; it’s part of the British Army and the British Armed Forces. Scotland is also the country in which the Trident nuclear deterrent is headquartered. England would be better off in a union with Scotland because it would avoid any uncertainty around those assets.

“When defence has come up in debate, it’s tended to be discussed in terms of Scotland losing out on spending and Scotland losing defence-related jobs as military assets are moved south. But, if these assets belong to the British state, they are just as much Scotland’s as they are England’s. So it doesn’t follow that all these military assets would move south of the border if Scotland voted for independence.”

Some assets would likely leave Scotland if the people of Scotland were to vote yes in a referendum, although this is not guaranteed for Trident. Alex Salmond has said that such a move should only be taken if the SNP wins a post-referendum election – likely to be in 2016 [Source: The Guardian].

“But what if Scotland wanted to keep the nuclear deterrent?” asks Alex. “What would England say about that? It would be an interesting debate to have. One could say that it is very much in England’s interests to persuade Scotland to stay in the Union!”

In recent months, members of the Westminster government have become more involved in the debate. In February, the Cabinet met in Aberdeen and the Prime Minister David Cameron gave Scotland the message, “We want you to stay”, [Source: Daily Mail] highlighting the logic behind the Union based on England and Scotland’s shared values.

Better Together press conference“But it seems to me,” says Alex “That his take on British values is based on a kind of nostalgia; a nostalgia for a United Kingdom of Great Britain. In order to make a really compelling case for why Scotland should stay in the Union, and to build it around British values, one really needs to take seriously this idea that there are public values that transcend north and south of the border. And, that’s very hard to sustain after three or four years of the coalition government’s reforms to the public sector and welfare spending, university funding and other things in England.

“Scotland maintained its independent civic institutions after the union was formed in 1707. That’s meant that, historically, there has always been the potential for Scotland to articulate a different democratic vision. With the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, that potential was reinforced.”

In the first few years of the Scottish Parliament, Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government, the Scottish executive, and many of the policies they introduced were built around values they shared with the Labour government in Westminster.

“That potential to mark out a different path was not fully exploited,” says Alex. “But after an SNP government was elected in 2007, we started to see some changes in Scotland. We saw the abolition of fees for universities, the abolition of payment for prescription drugs on the NHS and things like that. They were little things but they were happening at a time when England was diverging from that path under Blair’s Labour government. More recently, under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, now there is a very strong demarcation between Scotland’s brand of social democracy and England’s principles.”

Read the first article in this two part series, in which our historians explore what brought Britain together.


Dr Alexander Smith

Dr Martin SkinnerDr Alexander Smith is the author of ‘Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: banal activism, electioneering and the politics of irrelevance’ (2011, Manchester University Press). He is also a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Dr Martin Skinner is the Principal Teaching Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick. His research interests lie in social psychology, particularly symbolic interaction of the role of the self and self-consciousness in social behaviour.


Images: YES by Neil Winton (via Flickr)
Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally by Phyllis Buchanan (via Flickr)
Better Together Lewis & Harris launch (via Flickr)
Scotland’s Choice Between Two Futures (via yesscotland.net)