In its April 14th-20th edition, The Economist ruffled quite a few Celtic feathers when it placed a map of Scotland on its cover with a few cheekily chosen name changes. Scotland became Skintland, the Outer Hebredes Outer Cash, Edinburgh Edinborrow, Inverness Inverruin, and so on with my favourite, the Grampian Mountains, becoming the Grumpians. Needless to say, Scotland's First Minister went ballistic berating the editors of the once august journal for behaving like schoolboys. The two articles inside, however, were less inflammatory. Their backdrop was the soon-to-be-held vote on Scottish independence championed by the Scottish National Party whose members currently dominate the Scottish parliament and run its devolved administration. Before I continue and in the interests of transparency let me declare an interest: I have been a member of the SNP for some twenty years.
In the first article the writers for The Economist point out that the debate has become one of the heart in which anyone with what they call a plummy English accent will be an assumed colonialist. This I can vouch for. In spite of a Scots pedigree going back over 840 years and with ancestors who fought the English twice, once in 1715 and again in 1745, I do have a plummy English accent. After one of the first SNP conferences I attended I was searching for the room my then Westminster MP was using for a get-together. At the door, and in my best plummy English accent, I confessed to being lost only to be told by a strapping highlander, guarding the entrance, "aye laddie you've come to the wrong room here!" I didn't have the heart to say that with his soft highland lilt he would probably have been given a hard time in Glasgow's Gorbals. In spite of the emotional appeal of independence, the article went on to suggest that economic issues would probably lead the Scots people to vote one way or the other and that going it alone economically, like Sweden for example, would be tough sledding.
The second article acknowledged that Scotland's economic performance of late had been better than that of other British regions, apart from London and the south east of England. It also affirmed that oil revenues would probably offset any transfer payments Scotland currently gets from the UK government. However it cautioned that oil revenues were set to decline and that unlike Norway (another major beneficiary of North Sea oil) no reserves had been built up to help wean it off this dependency. In their conclusion, the editors suggested that Scotland might be better able to support its disproportionately large public sector (24% of employment as against the British average of 20%) within the United Kingdom than outside it. When I stopped chuckling at the wicked place names and had time to consider both essays more fully, it occurred to me that a debate cast in terms of Independence or the Union, in or out, one or the other, was ludicrous.
The United States of America was probably the first modern polity that was not a nation state, but a combination of peoples and cultures, like the Austro-Habsburg and Roman empires before it, and European Union since. The world needs large political groupings to match and regulate the forces of globalization. At the same time, our humanity calls for communities and government structures with which we can identify. The sometimes mad cry against multiculturalism needs to be heeded. We urgently require a new political grammar. Scotland's problem is far from unique.
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