Thursday 20 November 2014

The battle for Scottish independence is a fight between the heart and the head

Gerard O'Regan

Published 14/08/2014 | 02:30

'There's even renewed interest in the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson did down the English, aided by some Hollywood mythmaking'. Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images
'There's even renewed interest in the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson did down the English, aided by some Hollywood mythmaking'. Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Out off the west coast of Scotland - hugging the edges of the North Atlantic - lie the islands of North Uist and South Uist. In a way they are emblematic of the complex history of a country now thinking of cutting an umbilical cord which has bound it to the United Kingdom for 307 years.

When the Reformation in the 16th century hit Scotland, the country almost en masse embraced Protestantism.

But some of the Western Isles, like South Uist, seemed to slip through the net. Unlike the overwhelming majority of the population, the islanders are largely Roman Catholic, with Sunday a time of rest and enjoyment.

In contrast, North Uist is predominantly Protestant, and there visitors will find the Sabbath is, not surprisingly, much more low key and restrained.

This tale of two islands reflects in part a certain schizoid dimension to Scottish identity. For example, the difference between unionist and nationalist is much more multi-layered and complex than what we have been traditionally used to in Northern Ireland.

The upcoming referendum has brought many such differences to the surface, as the arguments have swung to and fro.

At this point in the campaign, some observers believe the referendum is essentially a fight between those motivated largely by sentiment, and that part of the electorate primarily concerned with money considerations. Those rejecting the proposed breakaway are still leading by a relatively thin majority; but it is clear many voters are dithering as to whether they should really allow their hearts to rule their heads come voting day. On a certain level, the Scots are our Celtic cousins and there are similarities in music, dance, their version of the Gaelic language, not to mention the game of shinty, a first cousin of hurling.

But the truth of the matter is that apart from Donegal and certain counties in Northern Ireland, most Irish people really only have a surface knowledge of the country.

They may follow Glasgow Celtic - and make the odd football pilgrimage to Parkhead - but that's about the size of it.

In Edinburgh, at the moment, there is a nifty trade in tartan kilts and Bonnie Prince Charlie insignia, catering to the demands of nationalists emoting on pre-referendum fervour.

There's even renewed interest in the movie Braveheart, where Mel Gibson did down the English aided by some Hollywood mythmaking.

But popular mythology would also have us believe the Scots are, in general, canny with their cash.

So for many, the decision on how they will vote will be determined by the pound in their pocket, more than anything else. And the future of that pound - or whatever currency may replace it - will provide the tipping point that will decide the final result. There has been much debate as to what should be the currency in a newly independent Scotland.

It could stay with the existing UK pound; it might join the euro; or some new unit of exchange could be created. But none of these options are without complications. In his most recent TV debate, the usually highly articulate Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, was less than convincing on this crucial currency issue.

His main argument is there will have to be some middle ground solution which would not leave the Scots, financially speaking, completely cut adrift if the referendum is passed.

"It's our pound too," has been a regular refrain from the SNP leader and his supporters, who insist that after three centuries, they also have a claim on sterling and all it represents.

There have been warnings by those on the 'no' side, that if the independence vote is carried, various financial institutions will decamp and move south of the border. It is interesting that some of the nationalists argue this would be a chance to set up an independent Scottish financial services sector, such as operates in this country.

And then there is the question of oil off the Scottish coast - is it Scottish oil or UK oil? Some of the doomsayers against the Scottish go-it-alone approach argue that regardless of ownership this will be a declining asset in years to come. They maintain that drilling further out into the Atlantic will become more expensive and less profitable, making the industry no longer a money-making powerhouse.

Voting is on September 18, and the debate is certain to become more intense and bitter as the campaign heats up over the next few weeks.

All the main political parties in Westminster are campaigning for a 'no' vote, so there are some really big guns lined up against Salmond and his SNP.

However, the 'yes' camp has been registering around 45pc, which is a real testimony to Salmond's doggedness and passionate belief in his cause.

It's still all to play for. A few percentage points one way or the other will determine this epoch-making political contest, which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Perhaps it should also be acknowledged, in passing, that allowing it to go ahead is a tribute to a certain innate sense of fairness in British democracy.

Of special significance in the coming days will be the battle for the female vote. The polls show that, unlike their male counterparts, women are much less convinced about the merits of independence. SNP strategists are fearful that come polling day, large numbers may opt for "the devil we know" and plump to stay in the UK.

At the end of it all, the bottom line is whether a sufficient number of Scots really have the courage and confidence to face the big wide world on their own? Can they do it without the protection of the mother ship, dubbed Great Britain, or whatever?

Their choice is also a reminder that, back in 1922, our own newly independent Irish Free State was faced with some daunting economic challenges in the battle to survive. And if the Scots do make the big break, what will certain northern unionists make of it all? What will they think when they stare across those 12 miles that separate the Irish coast from the Mull of Kintyre? They will surely wonder why the country, which spawned so much of their history and culture, will be no longer part of the political family - which was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Irish Independent

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