Caution: this essay contains politics. Specifically, Scottish politics. And lots of it.
As a general rule I try not to discuss politics on my blog. It's an endlessly complex subject, it is self-evident that any two people of goodwill can look at any given political problem and come up with two different and diametrically opposed ideas of how to resolve it, and (puts on marketing hat) I'm here to interest you in my writing, not recruit you for my Army of Minions™, although now that I think about it that'd be kinda cool, once I make my run for Total World Domination and appoint myself Supreme Planetary Overlord.
But there's a point where politics impinges directly on the circumstances of my writing, and that's when it goes nonlinear, and by nonlinear I mean "depending on the outcome of three upcoming elections, I may be living in one of three different countries in two years' time." (Two of which would be called "The United Kingdom" but would be very different from one another, and one of which would be called "The Kingdom of Scotland".) It makes it really hard to even think about writing that next near-future Scottish police thriller when I can't predict what country it will be set in, much less what its public culture will look like or where it will be ruled from.
Most of you aren't Scottish and politics, like adventure, is always a lot more fun when it's happening to somebody else a long way away. So let me give you a brief guide to the Scottish Political Singularity, hedged first with a few caveats: (a) this is quite a serious problem for those of us who live here, (b) the climate of politics in Scotland is in general utterly unlike anywhere else in the so-called Anglosphere, and (c) my political sympathies put me firmly out on the fringe, so you should consider me an unreliable guide with a whole bushel of axes to grind (which, in fairness, I will try not to conceal from you or misrepresent as mainstream opinion).
Okay, some recent history. Back in, oh, 1603, Queen Elizabeth of England died without offspring. And the Tudor dynasty were so damn' good at internecine throat-cutting that her nearest heir was James VI, King of Scots. And so, shortly thereafter, he became James VI and I, King of the Scots and King of England—uniting the crowns of the two previously-warring nations and ushering in a century during which, to everybody's astonishment, Scotland and England stopped going to war with each other. (Instead they took up civil wars as a hobby, with a side-order of regicide, a pioneering experiment in military dictatorship, a theocratic revolution and it's bloody aftermath up north, and yet another revolution for dessert.)
In short, history happened. And then the Darien scheme nearly bankrupted Scotland's ruling class, and in a desperate attempt to recapitalize (with help from their peers in London) they did an abrupt U-turn on the previous century's policy of sharing a crown but not a parliament, and signed up for the Act of Union in 1707. Scotland wasn't so much conquered by England as the subject of a mutually agreed merger, albeit under conditions of financial distress: and, as the poorer, less populous partner in the enterprise, the pole of political power drifted south until Scotland ended up as a de facto province, ruled by a Parliament sitting in London.
This was not an intrinsically bad deal for Scotland (although individual circumstances varied enormously: it was an excellent deal for the rich landowners and the metropolitan elites of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but a terrible one for the highland poor). However, a number of anomalies remained. Scotland's legal system is distinctively different—it's not a common law system, but runs on a descendant of the classic Roman law. Legislation passed in parliament in London after 1707 maintained the distinction, implementing the same laws in both systems. Landowning ran differently (the last vestigates of the feudal system were only abolished in Scotland the 1990s). Jury trials don't work the same way. The Church of England isn't an established state Church in Scotland. And folks up here speak a tongue that's somewhere in the grey area between being a collection of strong regional dialects and a wholly different language from the definitional Queen's English enunciated by BBC presenters in London. (Scots isn't a single dialect: there are different grammatical constructions, and regional dialects that range in cultural overtones from very humble to "more posh than the Queen". But I digress ...)
This arrangement worked more or less all right for a couple of centuries. With the industrial revolution, the major cities of the English midlands, the North of England, and the Scottish lowlands prospered: their fortunes were based on shipping, trade, and manufacturing industry. London also prospered as a centre of commerce, and was a major financial hub: Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, was a secondary financial centre (if only because Scotland's population was around a tenth of England's at any given time).
So what went wrong?
One factor was the loss of relative advantage in manufacturing industry that coincided with the ascendency of the United States, and then the reconstruction of Europe in the wake of the world wars. By the 1970s British heavy industry tended to be outdated and uncompetitive. Something clearly had to be done: but when in 1979 Margaret Thatcher swept to power in London, she decided to proceed on the basis of an electoral calculation. Her Conservative party is more properly known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, with Unionism being a stronger cause in Scotland: her calculation was that she could cement Conservative ascendancy in south-east England for a generation if she financialized the economy, while simultaneously cutting off the old (largely state-owned) smokestack industries at the knees. The north predominantly voted Labour anyway; there was little chance of gaining more seats in Westminster by being nice to the Scots, but a lot to be gained in Liberal or three-way marginal constituencies down south.
The recession of 1979-82 (actually the economy shrank by 10% in the first 18 months, while unemployment tripled) was just the start of what seemed at times to be almost an undeclared civil war against the north of Britain. After 1983 the Conservatives haemorrhaged support north of the border: today there are fewer Scottish Conservative MPs at Westminster than there are giant pandas in Scottish zoos (one Scottish Tory MP out of eighty in total; but two pandas). Scotland was administered as a foreign colony by a remote party that less than 15% of the voters had asked for. Resentment grew over a decade: it spiked in 1988 with the introduction of the infamous Community Charge, a highly regressive poll tax (to replace the previous dysfunctional housing tax in funding local government—partly as a move to centralize fiscal power over local councils and neuter Labour-controlled city and county council spending on goals the Conservatives disapproved of). Scotland was subjected to the poll tax first, and kicked back hard, in the biggest tax rebellion in the history of the combined British states: it collapsed in 1991, leading directly to Thatcher's resignation after triggering the Poll Tax Riots. At the end of the day, 40% of the taxpaying base were in rebellion: at this point, we can safely say that any democratic mandate to rule had been lost. Except that there wasn't one in the first place, and colonial rule continued for another five years ...
Unsurprisingly, Scottish anger at the country's treatment over the 1980s led to a rise in support for devolution—the re-establishment of a Scottish parliament to legislate for the Scots—and outright independence. By 1992 (at the end of the Poll Tax fiasco) up to 50% of Scottish voters were leaning towards full independence. There was clearly a constitutional disaster waiting to happen if another Conservative government attempted to repeat Thatcher's divide-and-rule approach. Luckily, a solution was at hand: Devolution, which was voted for by a majority of the voting population in a referendum in 1999, and which is why we now have a Scottish Parliament.
Note that the Scottish Parliament is not unconditionally sovereign. It exercises powers delegated to it by the Westminster Parliament; certain powers are reserved—policy on illegal drugs, immigration, foreign policy, defence, and taxation are exercised in Westminster.
Westminster is (and has been, since 2010) under the control of Thatcherite fan-boys with virtually zero electoral base north of the border. (The Conservatives poll around 12-16% of the voting public in Scotland. Compared with the Scottish Green Party—the party whose policies most align with my own preferences—who poll around 8-12%, or the Conservative vote in England, which is around the 30-35% level, this is not a sign of a party with a broad base of support. It's even worse when you consider that in Scotland the conservatives are highly regionalized: they're able to elect an MP because they have a couple of affluent highly conservative constituencies, but the rest of the nation is effectively an electoral no-go zone to them.)
The Scottish Parliament is elected by the Additional Member System—votes are counted towards an MSP's seat (elected by first-past-the-post), but are then summed and allocated to a party list which elects a further pool of MSPs via pure proportional representation. It has been suggested that this system was designed by the architects of Scottish devolution (under the late Donald Dewar MP) to prevent the Scottish National Party (or anyone else, for that matter) from ever gaining an outright majority, thereby subtly applying the brakes of coalition government to the Scottish Parliament. If so, the gerrymander failed spectacularly in 2008, when the SNP, led by the inimitable Alex Salmond (detested by some, he's nevertheless clearly one of the Big Beasts of the British political scene: in one of the Westminster parties he would clearly be a senior cabinet minister if not a prime minister, and in the smaller pool of the Scottish political scene he's a great white shark surrounded by goldfish), acquired an outright majority.
So we now have a parliament led by the SNP (a carefully-planned impossibility), a centre-left party: and an opposition consisting, in order of size, of: Scottish Labour (as reformed by Tony Blair into a right wing party with left-wing heritage), the Liberal Democrats, trailed by the Conservatives and the Greens. (Who look to be the major beneficiary of the LibDem haemorrhage of center-left voters since their entry into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster.) Note that UKIP, who are terrorizing the Tories in England, barely poll ahead of the Greens in a Euro-election—classic protest vote territory. In polls of Scottish voting intent in a general election, UKIP's share is in single digits, a far cry from the >30% levels seen in England.
What does this mean?
Well, it's been fairly obvious for about three decades now that there's a growing political rift between Scotland and England. England seems to be becoming more parochial, europhobic, and anti-immigrant, and the political sails of all the main English parties are being trimmed to the right—Labour today is considerably to the right of any of Margaret Thatcher's conservative predecessors, and while the Conservatives have a socially libertarian faction that has produced some moves that would be astonishing in an American political context (a Conservative prime minister promoting same-sex marriage, for example) on economic issues they're firmly in the pocket of The Money. Meanwhile, the Scottish political culture has gone in a distinctly different direction. The English NHS is being reformed along lines that promote internal competition and marketization of healthcare services, and appears to be being prepared for wholesale privatization as an insurance-backed private healthcare system (with the government-funded NHS becoming merely a default fee payer). Meanwhile, in Scotland PPP funded hospitals established under Labour are being bought out and integrated into the fully socialized healthcare system. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, to the Scottish Political Singularity:
We have an SNP government. They promised, and got, a referendum that, this September 18th, will ask people like me (anyone who lives here, basically) to vote on the question "should Scotland be an independent nation?" It's a straight yes/no question. The third option, Devo Max, was ruled off the ballot by David Cameron (probably because he knew it would win by a mile—over 60% of the Scottish voting public supported it as of the last poll I saw that asked about it). Devo Max was a last mile marker for a devolved parliament short of full independence: Scotland would acquire control over all internal affairs, including taxation, but would delegate defence and foreign affairs to Westminster. It's my preferred option. Such a shame we're not allowed to vote for it ...
Anyway. A vote will be held on the 18th of September. If there is a majority for independence, then the constitutional shit will hit the fan because Westminster will be required to negotiate and enact the enabling legislation for Scottish independence ... with a UK-wide General Election coming up in June 2015. The enabling legislation can't be rushed through before the next election (it's too big and complex), so it's going to trail into the next Westminster parliament, probably completing in 2016 with independence in 2017. But the next Westminster parliament cannot be bound by the decisions of the current one—basics of the British constitutional system here—and so can't automatically be held to handle the consequences of the independence vote. It's anybody's guess what the government in Westminster will look like in July 2015. It might be a renewed Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition (unlikely), a Conservative majority or minority government (less unlikely), a Labour majority (not unlikely), a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition (possibly most likely, but still not something to bet on), a Conservative/UKIP coalition (unlikely but not impossible), or a Martian invasion. Nobody knows. Add to this, 70 Scottish MPs elected on a mandate to sit for 12-18 months while they negotiate independence, then pack their bags and go home. It'll be chaos.
UKIP are also a wild card. While you might think there should be some sympathy towards Scottish independence there (after all, UKIP's policy is essentially regionalist, and they want the UK out of the EU), you'd be wrong: UKIP's platform is essentially hostile to Scottish independence and their previous manifesto held an explicit commitment to reverse devolution, to erase the Scottish Parliament and reintroduce direct rule. It seems the logic of UK separation from the EU is not applicable to Scottish separation from the UK.
So here we are, in the middle of an acrimonious independence referendum campaign, and it's turned into the political debate of the century. Everyone is talking about it. In pubs, in shops, on Reddit. The "No" campaign are clearly in trouble: while they started with a 20-point lead over the "Yes" campaign, they've been steadily losing ground for the past six months. The "undecided" cohort in the polls remains stubbornly around the 10-15% mark, but there seems to be some traffic in voters moving from "no" to "undecided", and from "undecided" to "yes". The unpopularity of the Conservatives could be a decisive factor here: it would take just one big miscalculation by David Cameron to drive another 5% of the voting base into the arms of the "yes" campaign. It's the "no" campaign's vote to lose ... but they don't seem to actually be winning it, and even if there is an eventual majority opposed to independence, my prediction is that the margin will be so slim that the question will remain open for future re-matches.
So: in 2017, Scotland will either be an independent nation (initially a constitutional monarchy retaining the shared Crown, as was the case prior to 1707), or part of the UK. Why did I say there might be two different UKs?
Well, that's down to UKIP and the Conservative euroskeptics. They've been a turbulent bunch since 1992 or even earlier. They really don't like the Euro-federalist agenda. (As it happens, I do like it, reservations about the democratic deficit aside. We have had two-thirds of a century of peace since the last invading army crossed the Rhine: the longest period of peace in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. That's worth a lot, and I think we break with it at our peril.) UKIP has picked up a bunch of them—a large chunk of it is the conservative party's right wing in exile—and a large protest vote by those who can't cope with a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, modern Britain. UKIP would be a more natural fit for coalition with the Conservatives than the Liberal Democrats; if UKIP make an electoral showing in 2015, we may yet see a hard-right government opposed to Scottish independence or even devolution, and which holds to its election manifesto commitment to hold a UK-wide referendum on withdrawing from the EU.
Polling suggests that a majority of UK citizens would favour leaving the EU. (Hell, around 30% of them don't even realize we're part of it already. I despair, at times.) Weirdly, EU-antipathy is a lot stronger in England than in Scotland, where a majority want to stay in.
So the worst case outcome, circa 2017, is that Scotland remains manacled to an England that has voted in a government of the Home Counties, who despise the Scots, and who have successfully campaigned for a referendum in which the English protest vote determines that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU in a vain attempt to wind the clock back to an imaginary vision of a 1950s conservative utopia that never was. Or Scotland might remain part of a UK, but one where when push came to shove the racist right took a kicking in the 2015 election and the softer right wing government of New Labour is back in charge and the loons are exiled to the fringes again, and the country is at least open for business.
Which brings me to the punch-line: I'll be voting "yes" for an independence Scotland in September. Not with great enthusiasm (as I noted earlier, if Devo Max was on the ballot I'd be voting for that) but because everything I see around me suggests that there is some very bad craziness in the near future of England, and I don't want the little country I live in to be dragged down the rabbit hole by the same dark forces of reaction that are cropping up across Europe, from Hungary to Greece. The failure modes of democracy, it seems to me, are less damaging the smaller the democracy.
But in the meantime: it's impossible for me to write fiction set in the near future of Scotland until after we've navigated the political white water ahead: the referendum in September 2014, the general election in June 2015, and (optionally) the further UK referendum in 2016/17. Truly, we're living through the dog days of Schroedinger's Republic; and it's anybody's guess which state the wave function will finally collapse into.