Review of the Panel Discussion “What does the Future hold for Scotland?” on September 4, 2023 at the Café Ministerium.
By Wolfgang Geissler
Nothing is more infuriating than being patronised or ignored. The Scots, living in a loveless and unequal partnership called the United Kingdom, experience it regularly. To relativise that individual Scots have managed to become part of the British elite or establishment south of the border, experiencing no discrimination has no bearing on the rest of the Scottish population. Why, then, has support for Independence remained consistently higher than in 2014 and is strongest among younger voters, who reached voting age after the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, and weakest among the over 65s if that were not the case? Thus, as younger people join the register, support for Independence will likely grow. The recent turmoil in the SNP has not dented support for Independence significantly. Most SNP supporters agree with the Secretary of State, Alistair Jack, that the next referendum should occur only when the polls show that 60% are consistently in favour.
Scotland is a strange case. For centuries at war with its aggressive English neighbour but never defeated, Scotland was forced to surrender its sovereignty in the Union of Crowns and Parliament in 1707 for English silver, as Robert Burns put it, due to the ruinous Panama fiasco. The Scots were never asked, and there was rioting in the streets. Following the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion, the English were determined to destroy the ancient clan system and systematically cleared the Highlands (but not only there) by brute force, massacring men, women and children, even burning them alive in their crofts if they didn’t leave. The many forts in the Scottish Highlands are an apt reminder of that period. Some of the 35 million Scots in the diaspora are descendants of that event.
Scotland is culturally, socially and politically different from England and still diverging. This needs to be recognised and understood by Westminster or by many English. Following the Brexit vote, Channel 4 interviewed ordinary people in England, and so it happened that a certain “Vince from Hull”, a car mechanic, when asked what he thought about the Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, replied that he always believed that Scotland was part of England (sic!). Still, if they wanted to leave, then they should do so. The often-used label of Scots being “subsidy junkies” resurfaced occasionally, insinuating that it would be good for the English but bad for the Scots.
Ambassador Dr Alexander Christiani, Vice President of the Austro-British Society, moderated expertly last night’s lecture by Ambassador Colin Munro CMG and Prof. Dr Melanie Sully. After the extensive introduction of the two speakers for the evening, he “borrowed”, so to speak, Colin Munro’s conclusive quotes of the “Five Ifs” for the future of Scotland and presented them as Teasers right at the beginning. And here they are:
Now, for five ifs. If Labour wins a convincing victory at the next general election. If they repair the damage caused by Brexit, ideally by rejoining the customs union and the single market. If they repair the economy. If they enhance the devolution settlement and treat the Scottish and Welsh governments as respected partners. If they are forced to concede PR as in Scotland for Westminster elections. Then, support for Independence among the younger generation may diminish.
And my reply: A convincing victory of Labour at the next General Election alone will not make the slightest difference because Keir Starmer, as declared by him, will not move the UK into the Single Market and Customs Union, will therefore not be able to repair the economy, will not enhance the devolution settlement and treat the Scottish government as a respected partner and will not introduce PR for Westminster elections. Under those circumstances, Independence will remain on the books.
Colin Munro’s lecture that followed Dr Christiani’s introduction was breathtakingly intense and detailed, Ambassador Munro’s well-known trademark. His elaborations were factual and free from unnecessary emotions. According to the Daily Express – rabidly opposed to the EU and Scottish Independence – 80% of its readers want devolution to be scrapped. Scotland should be run from London as it was before 1999. A compromise with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol – the Windsor Framework – allows NI, as Prime Minister Sunak puts it, to have the best of both worlds or at least of both internal markets. In that case, why cannot Scotland, England and Wales have the best of both worlds? In Scotland, the UK government is hollowing out the 1999 devolution settlement, sidelining the Scottish Government and Parliament, to demonstrate the benefits of rule from Westminster, membership of the UK internal market, as opposed to the EU’s, and the futility of Independence.
Colin Munro sees support for Independence to be consistently high, and if Scottish aspirations can be realised in a federal UK that rejoins the EU, support for Independence will come to pass, but probably not in his lifetime.
Prof. Dr Melanie Sully, comparing herself to Ronald Reagan, who, following a speech by Margaret Thatcher, said it’s “a hard act to follow,” made a hearty effort to counter Ambassador Munro’s elaborations. She disagreed on Northern Ireland and the growing support for Independence due to young people getting older and setting different priorities to previously held beliefs. She attacked the SNP, calling it a “populist party”, a statement Colin Munro disagreed with. The SNP is not a populist but an independence party, the SNP’s raison d’etre, and they have a democratic mandate to pursue it. She described the SNP as a sleazy, immoral and unethical party, compelled to appear to be better than others with a superiority complex.
The many in the audience voicing their opinion disagreed with statements like an independent Scotland would have to face facts that there will be no shortcut to joining the EU (Prof. Dr Sully “Rejoining the EU is a Bridge too far”), that the quest for Independence is an issue for the Scottish People and Scottish Parliament. The English are worried, so they claim, about Independence, which is reflected in Dr Sully’s sceptical criticism. One Scot in the audience wants to be a proud Scot, ending subservience to the English Tories and consequently supporting Independence. He believes Keir Starmer is running scared. Another one quoted, “When Scotland wins something, it is the UK that won; when Scotland loses, it’s Scotland that lost”. He criticised the Press in Scotland, which is English-owned. The pre-devolution Scotland and the post-devolution Scotland are two different countries.
Ultimately, it was difficult to keep emotions out, particularly for the participating Scots. I wholeheartedly agree with the summary of our Vice-President Ambassador Dr Alexander Christiani that it is a real blessing to be a member of the Austro-British Society that can host such impressive lectures with two such eminent speakers.
And grateful to the Café Ministerium for its excellent flying dinner and delicious wines.