Scotland is currently gearing up for an independence
referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, 2014. If it passes, independence advocates
hope the country could become the world's newest nation as soon as 2016.
First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish
Nationalist Party, is in Washington this week both to celebrate Scotland Week
and to share his vision of what an independent Scotland would look like with
American audiences -- including on Capitol Hill.
Of course, the timing of his visit also coincided with the
death of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies -- notably the flat-rate "poll tax"
passed in 1988 -- were particularly unpopular in Scotland. Salmond was a
member of the U.K. Parliament at the time, and in a speech at the
Brookings Institution today he discussed the unintended
galvanizing effect Thatcher had on the movement that led to the convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as well as next year's referendum:
As an unintended consequence of
some of her policies, she accelerated a move toward a Scottish Parliament. She managed to alienate a full spectrum of
A very interesting thing happened one
weekend back in '88, when Prime Minister Thatcher went to the Scottish Cup final
between Dundee United and Celtic -- or Celtic and Dundee United depending on
your point of view -- but the point about it is that both sides' fans held up
red cards as Prime Minister Thatcher presented the cup. Football fans are not
always known for joining together, so it was a very effective demonstration.
The same weekend, the prime
minister went to deliver a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of
Scotland on The Mound -- it
became known as the Sermon on The Mound -- and she argued that Christianity
should be about individual redemption and not at all about social progress or
social campaigns. This came as something of a surprise to the elders of the
Church of Scotland who were engaged in debating exactly such social campaigns
and then presented the prime minister with the reports on poverty and housing
which they just passed.
The following Tuesday, as a young
impudent whippersnapper member of parliament in the House of Commons at Prime
Minister's Questions, I asked the prime minister to remind the House of the
captain of Celtic's name, to whom she had presented the cup, and the name of
the moderator of the General Assembly. She didn't think that was a very good
The point is, that was a huge sway
for Scottish society. I opposed Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, I
thought they were mistaken. But I've always held the belief that the reason
Margaret Thatcher had the political effect she did in Scotland was about the social
direction of her policies. [It was] exemplified in the poll tax but also in a
range of other statements such as, "There's no such thing as society. There are
only individuals," which ran counter to a collective consciousness of Scotland. What
is that collective consciousness if it's not a national consciousness?...
It was indeed an unintentional effect.
I think it genuinely puzzled her. I suspect what she was running across was a
different national consciousness. The poll tax wasn't just unpopular in
Scotland, but it didn't have the same political effect because in Scotland it
represented a wider social agenda that people found impossible to accept. Therefore,
I quite freely say that she did accelerate the move toward a Scottish
parliament because people no longer saw the parliament as a nice idea. They saw
it as something essential to protect the social fabric of the country.
In his speech, Salmond discussed the role he foresees an
independent Scotland playing in the international system. The SNP's position is
that Scotland would continue to be an EU member upon independence -- the EU is a
more ambivalent on this point -- but would likely continue to use the pound. Salmond also believes his country should join NATO, though he would like to see the
U.K.'s Trident Nuclear
System removed from its current location on the west coast of Scotland.
The nuclear issue has loomed large in the independence
debate, with Prime Minister David Cameron -- who opposes
independence -- visiting Scotland last week to tour a nuclear submarine,
touting Trident's importance as a deterrent to North Korea and Iran.
Salmond dismissed the idea that nukes in
Scotland have any impact on North Korea, and in a brief interview with me after
the speech, lamented Cameron's refusal to debate him face to face:
The case of the Union should be
presented in its full honest face. That is the prime minister of the United
Kingdom whose policy framework determines what happens over many key areas of
Scottlish life. He is the face of the bedroom tax. He is the face of social
inequality. He is the face of the lack of success, of frustrating Scotland's
economic potential. He is the face of the Union and therefore should be
prepared to debate openly with me on television in the run-up to this
That's the debate the country wants
to see. It's one thing to sail up the River Clyde in a nuclear submarine. It's
another thing to walk into a television studio and debate with the leader of
the independence movement why he doesn't think Scotland should be an
independent country. I'll tell him the reasons why it should. Then people can
decide which face they like better....
He has chosen to sail in, nuclear-clad, to tell us why should remain under London control. So he has abandoned his
high ground of disinterest and decided to get in there swinging. Once you've
done that you can't avoid a debate. He's going to get dragged kicking and
screaming into a television studio where we can have this out.
I also asked Salmond why, when the open borders and common
market of the European Union would seem to diminish the importance of
nationalism, secessionist movements appear to be stronger than ever, in
Catalonia and Belgium as well as in Scotland:
The problems that small countries
used to face in the world used to be two things: your territory under threat
from aggression and secondly, access to international marketplaces. Both of
these tended to push people toward larger countries or larger trading blocs.
Both of these in the Western world have gone.... The disadvantages of smallness
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