A Guide to Scottish Nationalism

Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. Photo: Scottish Government, flickr.In the Scottish Parliament general election in 2011 the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a second consecutive term in power. The party’s explicit goal is for Scotland to become an independent nation. With the SNP’s recent passing of the Referendum Bill, Scots will vote on the issue of independence in autumn 2014. Scottish nationalism is often misunderstood. It has very little to do with bagpipes, kilts, shortbread or saltires and much more to do with the shortcomings of the United Kingdom’s dubious, and some would say defective, political system.

In 2011 the SNP won an overall parliamentary majority, an outcome which the Scottish parliament’s proportional electoral system was supposed to prevent. It was a victory so resounding that every opposition leader resigned in its wake. This does not, however, mean that the majority of Scots embrace independence from the UK.

The appeal of the SNP to Scots is rather the party’s social democratic credentials. Indeed, nationalism in Scotland is very far removed from the conservative, xenophobic flag-waving which is often associated with the term “nationalism” in Europe today. The SNP’s achievements in government include the abolishment of student fees earlier introduced by the Labour and Liberal parties, the freezing of council tax and the maintenance of free personal care for the elderly. On the issue of immigration, the SNP wishes to attract higher numbers of immigrants to Scotland and argues that Scotland should be exempt from tougher UK immigration policies.

The SNP champions independence because it believes that only through separation from the UK will Scotland gain the powers necessary to make its own decisions. With full control over its own affairs, Scotland would be better able to prosper and be more effectively governed, the SNP argues. Although areas of justice, education and healthcare are already administered independently in Scotland, important policy areas such as fiscal policy, government borrowing and pensions remain in the hands of the British government.

The problems arising from this state of affairs and why independence is viewed as a solution can be placed in the context of the United Kingdom’s questionable constitutional situation. It is often claimed that Scotland’s perceived social democratic values find little representation in the UK government. For example, the Conservative Party, which often forms the government, has performed extremely poorly in Scotland in every UK general election since the 1980s. In the latest UK general election the victorious Conservatives won only 1 out of the 59 seats in Scotland, leading to the familiar analysis that the Scottish political landscape differs radically from that of England

The inauguration of Scotland’s devolved parliament in 1997 was supposed to address this issue. But as we have seen, key policy areas still lie outside of Scotland’s remit, and the problem remains. This coupled with such anomalies as the West Lothian question, where Scottish Westminster MPs can vote on issues which only affect England, contributes to a messy constitutional situation in Britain which is often criticised for its unfairness by Scot and Englishman alike.

Scottish bank notes: The economy of a post-independence Scotland is a subject of much debate. Photo: Nick Thompson, flickr.Scottish nationalists have also built their economic case for independence, but much is made of the notion that Scotland depends on English money for its economic survival. Scotland cannot pay its way it is said and needs English subsidy to afford its public services. Yet when one considers that the UK government has time and again failed to keep its own budget in balance the question seems nonsensical. The UK certainly does not pay its way and it needs its own “subsidies” to afford services. These “subsidies” find their form in the UK’s consistent budget deficit. Countries running deficits in their public finances and paying for services through government borrowing is certainly nothing new, so of course Scotland would survive on its own, just as any nation would. The issue is rather how an independent Scotland’s public finances would look and what resources it would have at its disposal.

North Sea oil is arguably one of Scotland’s most important resources. At present, Scotland’s North Sea oil resources are still not regarded as part of Scotland. Instead they form part of an accounting entity invented by the UK government in the 1970s known as the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. This fabricated geographical concept prevents any oil revenues from appearing on Scotland’s balance sheet. Oil money was never ringfenced in the UK and it is funnelled into the UK treasury like any other form of revenue. Somewhat depressing for nationalists is that Scotland’s neighbour Norway went on to become the world’s richest nation after its own, entirely different, handling of its North Sea oil resources.

Hypotheticals about who would get what share of the North Sea’s oil resources if Scotland declared independence are myriad. Opponents of independence say that the higher portion of public expenditure per head of population which Scotland receives compared to England equates with the oil revenues which have been foregone. Estimates do, however, generally point to Scotland’s public finances as being in better shape than the UK government’s if North Sea oil was to become Scottish.

The independence debate highlights many questions relating to Scotland’s political and economic position within the UK. However, despite the SNP building the case for independence and the party’s resounding electoral success, the majority of Scots have never been in favour of independence.

Somewhat bizarrely, Scottish independence is currently more popular in England than it is in Scotland, an indication perhaps that something is rotten in the state of Britain. But radical and meaningful change is hardly a feature of British democracy and its multitude of anomalies, inequalities and unfairness will probably find a way to endure.


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  1. Thank you for your comments, I appreciate them a lot.

    "Economically I might be personally worse off (higher taxes would probably be in order)"

    Not necessarily, as if taxes stayed the same in an independent Scotland all that would happen is there would be a deficit in the Scottish government's finances. Most countries always have deficits in good times and bad and in the link I showed it can be seen that the UK government has maintained a deficit for decades without raising taxes. In fact, even with the massive deficit the UK now has, the government still lowered income tax for the richest in the budget the other day, if I'm not mistaken.

    Balanced budgets and government surpluses are very rare today. So you would not necessarily have to pay higher taxes in an independent Scotland. Scotland could just run a deficit instead if it wanted, or even lower taxes and get more in debt (noone would seriously do this but it is definitely possible to do). Personally though, I think taxes should be higher anyway and that budgets generally should be balanced because I think paying for the real cost of services in better than running up huge debts and foisting the bill onto ordinary people/future generations (as the UK governmentS have done for years).

    The reason I wanted to highlight this is because questions of economic survival/higher taxes when it comes to Scottish independence are nonsense. Instead the debate should be about the very thing you point out: Quality of life!

  2. Interesting piece.
    "nationalism in Scotland is very far removed from the conservative, xenophobic flag-waving which is often associated with the term “nationalism” in Europe today"

    I think this is very true. The Scottish approach to nationalism is surprisingly rational: something that was highlighted by recent survey (see BBC article: which suggest that Scots' views on independence can be changed by a £500 . Indeed sometimes the public seem far more rational than the politicians (less surprises there) who do tend to focus more on the 'we are all the UK' rhetoric.

    Whilst I think this rationality shows a more nuanced understanding of independence than that most readily associated with nationalism, I also think that it is in danger of becoming a purely economic argument and in ridiculously basic terms. Personally I don't care whether Scotland has a higher or lower GDP with independence, what I care about is whether an independent Scotland has better wellbeing; better education; a healthier population and less inequality. Economically I might be personally worse off (higher taxes would probably be in order) and perhaps as a nation we would have slower rates of growth but in terms of benefits in quality of life, this would be a compromise I would be willing to make.

    I would like the debate to progress to these substantive arguments and progress from 'who owns North Sea oil?' question that has bemused UK politics for decades. I don't see it happening soon but we can hope that perhaps by 2014 it might.

  3. Thanks for this interesting article, for me personally (but I think for a lot of people) it gives a great new insight into this peculiar construction. Well done!

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