On July 23, the 2014 Commonwealth Games officially opened in the city of Glasgow, marking the start of one of the biggest sporting events in Scotland’s history, and an important advert for Scottish prosperity in the run up to the vote for independence on Sept. 18.
Televised to an estimated audience of a billion people, the Opening Ceremony started off with a bizarre pantomime musical number, as Scottish-born Doctor Who and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon actor John Barrowman emerged from a giant kilt singing about his love for Nessie, represented in the stadium by an enormous, dead-eyed puppet.
Even though critical reception to the intro was mixed, the high-camp, knowing tone of the performance insisted on a nation that refuses to take itself too seriously; even the advertisements for the Games by official sponsor Irn-Bru—Scotland’s answer to Coca-Cola—took on a humorously despondent tone, with a stirring narrator extolling our virtues as a nation which "walks on the molehills of achievement."
Despite such trepidations, the Commonwealth Games saw Scotland take home a record haul of 53 medals, putting them in overall 4th place out of 53 competing countries; it has generally been regarded by media as the most successful Commonwealth Games ever. It failed to influence the independence vote in any significant manner however.
The Opening also made a statement for Scottish marriage equality when a brief kiss between Barrowman and another male performer—intended to call attention to the fact that in 42 of the 53 competing nations homosexuality is still criminalized—set social media alight.
The Ceremony’s second half was better received in general for its earnest tone, particularly in its tribute to Nelson Mandela, who harbored a bond with Scotland; in 1981, Glasgow offered him the Freedom of the City at a time when many politicians, including then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were still branding him a terrorist.
Five years later, in an additional protest against Mandela’s incarceration, the city council renamed a prominent Glasgow city center square from St George’s Place to Nelson Mandela Place, primarily to aggravate the local South African consulate, from then on forced to bear the anti-apartheid leader’s name on all official correspondence.
There is a notion of smallness that taints the debate on independence. It is constantly reinforced that we are better off as part of a larger body, the oil-rich northern quadrant of a Westminster government still clinging to the vestiges of a long dead empire. Scots are told they would lose their global influence without the UK, despite the fact the current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron represents a party which hasn’t had any influence with Scottish voters since the 1970s.
In more international terms, the idea that bigger is better doesn’t always hold water. Some of the world’s most powerful countries, such as the U.S. and UK, both of which command vast resources and powerful militaries, are in the top 10 OECD countries in the world when it comes to wealth disparity. Meanwhile, other powerhouses such as Russia and China trail in human rights records when compared to the small but thriving Northern European countries, which an independent Scotland would strive to emulate.
Not far from the northernmost islands of Scotland, our neighbor Norway enjoys some of the highest standards of living and human development in the world, as do nearby Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, which has been rated first place by the SDSN’s World Happiness Report. Norway, notably, comes in 2nd, while Sweden scrapes a very respectable 5th.
There has been a recent expression of good faith among Scandinavian literati in support for Scotland’s aims to secure its autonomy. An open letter to Scotland involving several prominent signatories compared Scotland’s endeavors to the mutually beneficial split between Norway and Sweden in 1905, while criticizing Westminster’s “campaign of fear” against the movement. Jón Gnarr, the disarmingly progressive mayor of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, has also been vociferous in his support for independence.
I was a teenager when I began to lose faith in the British political establishment. On February 15, 2003, having taken to a 100,000 strong throng of marchers in the streets of Glasgow in opposition to the impending war in Iraq—a war which went ahead despite fierce debate between Scottish labor and pro-independence opposition, the SNP, that no U.N. mandate had been secured to authorize the invasion—I became privy to the fact that the collective voice of protest was being drowned out by a tide of false assurances and invented indignance.
The public distaste for entering into the war was not confined to Scotland, as around one million also marched in the streets of London according to BBC estimates, or as many as three million, according to the organizers. When the Blair government went ahead and entered into the war anyway, it produced a tremendous feeling of anger and impotence among the public.
Media coverage of the campaign for independence so far has stressed the potential economic benefits or struggles that the change would create for Scotland, but less attention has been brought to the philosophical and ethical reasons for such a vote.
An Economist article from July entitled "Don't leave us this way" perpetuates the right-wing notion that Scotland harbors an "entitlement culture" driven by "statist philosophies," a tired argument promoting a myth of Scottish subsidy that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny given that Scotland pays its way in the union with aplomb.
The official pro-independence group, Yes Scotland, has been keen to stress newfound wealth for an independent Scotland as a big part of their campaign. This is due in part to trillions of pounds of North Sea oil revenues, even though leading statisticians have suggested Scotland could live comfortably regardless of the oil, estimated to represent about ⅙ of the Scottish economy according to Scottish expenditure statistics, on account of its strong financial sector, tourism, exports, and successful investment into renewable energy.
The governmental pro-union campaign, named Better Together, tends to stress solidarity and comfort due to strong ties to a prosperous London and South East region, claiming that Scots would be better off per head of population within the UK, and that it would be ill-fated to sever ties with London and the prosperous South East. Other prominent concerns regarding the vote have included debates on economy, E.U. entry, and which currency Scotland would use after the split.
Better Together, who have constantly stressed Scotland could not keep the pound (despite precedents of other countries such as Ireland, Australia and New Zealand doing so during transitional periods following independence), were considered to lose both credibility and votes following a televised debate last month where their campaign leader, Alistair Darling, slipped up and actually admitted Scotland could use the pound after all. Outlets such as the Financial Times have also released articles in support of Scotland’s independence bid, claiming it would put them in the top 35 exporters in the world, with a bigger GDP per head than France when local oil and gas revenues are considered, or Italy when they aren’t.
However, economic considerations are not the sole reason for a vote. An independent Scotland would have the power to abstain from involvement in morally dubious future conflicts as the illegal occupation of Iraq, or Cameron’s support for recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza, a relationship bolstered by a lucrative arms trade between Westminster and the Knesset. Indeed, criticism of the handling of Gaza came to the forefront in August, when Glasgow City Council become one of the few cities in the Western world to fly the Palestinian flag from their City Chambers as a display of solidarity during the recent crippling bout of fighting between Israel and Gaza, with Edinburgh City Council following suit three weeks later.
In an additional contrast to the official UK stance, Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Minister for External Affairs, also expressed solidarity during the height of the fighting, stating that the Scottish Government would also be willing to accept Palestinian refugees who had been displaced from their homes, and urged the UK government to follow suit. Meanwhile, Sayeeda Warsi, a highly-regarded Foreign Office minister in Cameron’s cabinet, became the first British MP to hand in her resignation letter over the issue, citing it as “morally indefensible.”
In another call for peace, an independent Scotland would have the ability to propose nuclear disarmament, as Westminster currently plans to renew the long-standing (and controversial) nuclear defense program Trident, to the tune of over £100 billion. Something of a Cold War relic, it involves British nuclear submarines which carry American nuclear warheads, and make their home in the Scottish lochs of the hydroelectric region of Argyll and Bute. Critics have suggested that if Scotland got its way and the arms were removed, it could spell the end for Britain’s nuclear deterrent altogether, a decision that would no doubt see disapproval among both Westminster and the White House.
Next week the people of Scotland will be voting on one of the most important referendums in the history of the country, calling into question the validity of a union that has stood for over 300 years. Previously the pro-union team Better Together had a solid lead in the polls, but recently the gap has closed immensely. The Better Together lead has dropped from 22 points to 6 points from the end of July to the beginning of September, and as of now are actually behind the Yes vote by 2 points, according to the most recent Yougov poll. This is an upset that has shocked the previously confident Westminster leaders into action, as they now hasten to come up with offers of extra powers for Scotland, which are already largely invalid since postal votes have already gone out.
Despite all the promise for autonomy, and to re-establish ourselves within a fresh European framework, I still remain nervous for the outcome. I would hate to see voters on either side forced to endure the chants of what once was “What if?” become “What could have been?”, due to what will no doubt now be a decidedly close run result. Ian Rankin, a popular Edinburgh author, once described the Scots as a people whose “heart and head are always at war.” If the polls are to be believed, it is hard to tell which is the victor.
Ewen Hosie is a contributing writer. He tweets here.