A few weeks ago, the very idea of Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain still seemed like science fiction. Over the three years the country had to get used to the prospect that a majority of Scots would vote to end over three centuries of political union and strike out for their own as an independent country, polling lulled the Westminster political establishment into a false sense of security. But over the last week everything has changed, with a series of new polls indicating that the previous gap of over 20 percent has all but closed, and perhaps even tilted in favor of those supporting independence.
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Next Thursday’s referendum is now officially “too close to call,” and panic has overtaken London. On Wednesday, the leaders of the three main parties, including Prime Minister David Cameron, all canceled their plans in order to travel north and do their bit for the “Better Together” campaign.
They probably won’t have much of an effect: Cameron, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats are deeply mistrusted by the great majority of Scottish voters, but they have to at least be seen making an effort. None of them want to go down in history as the leaders who presided over the breakup of the United Kingdom.
Scottish independence, if it comes about, will be the greatest constitutional crisis of modern British history, with a profound impact on the country’s politics and economy. Britain, which is still finding it difficult to come to terms with its diminished status over half a century after losing its empire, will lose a third of its territory and a great deal of international stature if one of its constituent nations decides to leave. Many are predicting the England which remains will become a much more inward-looking society.
The breakaway of Scotland could also give impetus to other restive populations – Catalans and Basques in Spain, for example. Further afield, pro-Russian separatists in former Soviet republics, Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and, of course, Palestinians both in the territories and within Israel would all take heart.
It could also affect the geopolitical balance with the West as Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and of the independence campaign – while promising to keep the new country in NATO, has also said that they would get rid of British bases in Scotland, chiefly the one where the nuclear Trident submarines are based.
Add this to that the fact that Salmond has professed an admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the traditional far-left tendency of a large part of Scotland’s political landscape, and the prospect of the Western security alliance losing a strategic outpost with access to key shipping routes suddenly seems a distinct possibility.
Foreign governments usually keep up the pretense of not interfering in other nations’ internal politics (though Iranian and Russian news channels seem very excited at the prospect of the British being humiliated and welcoming a new country into an anti-Western community), and this has been the case by and large, with United States President Barack Obama making a slight deviation in June when he said at a joint appearance with Cameron that “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains strong, robust, united and an effective partner.”
Britain’s allies are not just concerned with the integrity of the United Kingdom – an independent Scotland could become a radical-chic haven for discontented anti-Western groups of every stripe and flavor.
Independent Scotland will not, of course, be a diplomatic heavyweight (Britain will remain a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for now), but it could very likely become a leading voice in the anti-Israel camp.
In recent years, a number of local councils in Scotland have passed boycott measures against Israel (not that they have had any effect as their imports from Israel are nil), and during the Gaza conflict some flew the Palestinian flag.
Israel currently does not have a consulate in Scotland, and Israeli diplomats attending public events have been mobbed and not allowed to speak. Israeli cultural events, including performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, have been canceled due to protests.
If Scotland continues down this road of radical anti-U.S. and anti-Israel activism, and if part of the establishment joins in – some members of the SNP already have, and the Church of Scotland last year published a paper attacking the “belief among some Jewish people that they have a right to the Land of Israel as a compensation for the suffering of the Holocaust” – Scotland could well become a European version of Chavez’s Venezuela.
This would also have an adverse effect on its Jewish community, despite what seems like sincere efforts by Salmond and other Scottish politicians to allay Jewish fears.
As in other parts of Europe this summer, anti-Israel protests have been accompanied by a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents as well. If this trend was to replicate itself in the independent Scotland, it would be just another reason for the already dwindling Scottish-Jewish community to disperse.
For the last 50 years, the number of Jews in Scotland, living mainly in Glasgow with smaller communities in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, has plummeted from around 20,000 to about a third of that. Like many other well-educated Scots, they emigrated to England and North America in search of better job opportunities. Like many other Jews from small communities, they also sought to set up families.
The emigration, however, never had anything to do with anti-Semitism – ask any Jew of Scottish origin, and you will hear how this was perhaps the friendliest country in Europe, a haven for refugees from pogroms and persecution.
While the community leadership is wisely not taking a position on the referendum, the great majority of Scottish Jews will be voting “No” next Thursday. Many of them are professionals of the globalized economy concerned that an isolated Scotland will no longer be a land of opportunity for them, and some are worried that Scottish nationalism and radicalism could be the harbinger of intolerance and xenophobia.
There is, of course, a reverse scenario in which – faced with the necessities and practicalities of running an independent economy – the pragmatic and business-minded qualities of the Scottish people overcome the grandstanding tendencies of a radical minority.
With a population of only five million relying on the dwindling resources of North Sea oil and depleted fisheries, Scotland will have to build an economic model of a small country.
One asset that cannot run away, as some of the corporations with headquarters in Edinburgh are threatening, are the fine universities there. Add to that a large number of professionals from the banking field and Scotland has all the incentives to follow Israel’s lead in developing a high-tech startup industry financed by a venture capital sector. Canny Scots will look to Israel, the only small country that has perfected this model.
Another Israeli model the Scots will be eager to emulate is that of utilizing and building on their Diaspora. The aging demographics of Scotland will force it to reach out to the descendants of Scots around the world for infusions of capital and innovation. Their reliance on Scottish expatriates and their offspring, nearly all of whom live in the West – mainly North America, Australia and south of the border in England – will make it that much more difficult to leave the security of NATO’s Atlantic Charter once the initial exuberance of independence wears off.
There is the threat of an independent Scotland becoming an isolated, quasi-authoritarian, xenophobic state and falling under Russian influence – a northern European Venezuela. That fear could well cause many Scots once they face the moment of truth to vote against breaking away. But even if they allow themselves to be carried away, once the excitement dies down the majority will want to remain part of a more open globalized community.
Such a Scotland will need its brightest and best citizens – those who can help them attract the more like-minded immigrants it will sorely need. If the Scots realize this on time, they will know that they also have to fight to retain their Jewish community – just like the English politicians now coming north trying to convince them they are Better Together.