Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Libertarian Perspective on the Scottish Independence Referendum, Part I: Scotland, The United Kingdom, Devolution and Referendum,” By William Batchelder

Photo by William Batchelder


The Referendum and the United Kingdom

On September 18, 2014 Scots aged sixteen and older will vote on a momentous referendum: “Should Scotland be an Independent Country?” Should the Scots vote in the affirmative, a political union that has endured for over three hundred years would be sundered. A “yes” vote will trigger a long negotiation with what talking heads refer to as the rUK (remaining United Kingdom) on the terms of the divorce. The first Scottish Independence Day would be March 24, 2016. A “no” vote on the referendum would still result in some constitutional changes, but these would be restricted to a further devolution of some select powers from Westminster, the seat of the government of the United Kingdom, to Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament located in Edinburgh.[1]

This has been a union of long duration. During the medieval period, several of England’s more ambitious tyrants, Edward I (r. 1272-1307) chief among them, pressed their dubious claims to the overlordship of Scotland. However, the first step toward the union of Scotland with England came during the early modern era, when James VI of Scotland was invited to succeed the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I; he was crowned James I of England on 24 March, 1603. While James united the two crowns of Scotland and England in his royal person, he did not unite the two governments. Scotland retained her parliament and a separate government for a century – until the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 created a new nation: Great Britain.

Many Scots remember this as something of a shotgun wedding. During the late seventeenth century, Scottish merchants had prospered flouting the Navigation Acts governing trade with the English colonies of North America. However, in order to better compete with England and the other imperial powers, Scottish traders wanted a colony of their own in the Western Hemisphere. The Scottish elite (and indeed much of its emerging merchant class), funded heavily an investment scheme meant to establish a permanent Scottish commercial colony in Panama, at Darien. Despite massive investment and expeditions in 1698 and 1699, Darien came to grief. When Darien failed, much of Scotland’s investment capital disappeared with the colony. This financial disaster coincided with a series of bad harvests, cattle murrain, and a new English policy of more vigorously enforcing the Navigation Acts against Scottish smugglers.

The richer and more powerful government of England offered Scotland an economic rescue – in return for Scotland’s independence. English mercantile elites were worried about more than the loss of revenue resulting from Scottish smuggling. There was genuine concern in London that England’s population was insufficient to sustain her colonial enterprise in North America. The Scots were suitable to augment English numbers; they were Protestant, partially united to England by a shared monarch, and already present in North America in significant numbers. The treaty of union was, in historian Allan Macinnes’s words, “Made in England;” its first purpose was to meet English needs, not to bail out the Scottish economy.[2]

This proved to be the greatest investment England ever made. Sure, the Westminster government had to cope with minor Jacobite uprisings in 1708 and 1719, major rebellions in 1715 and 1745, John Paul Jones, John Witherspoon, and the Bay City Rollers. But in return, the flinty MP’s in Westminster brought Edinburgh into Great Britain just in time for David Hume, Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment. Since 1707, the English have enjoyed a partnership with a people of genius, from David Watt to Alexander Fleming, from Robert Burns to Robert Lewis Stevenson, and from the KLF to Primal Scream.

The United Kingdom (as Great Britain came to be known after adding Ireland in 1808) conquered the most expansive empire in history. More often than not, Scottish troops served as the tip of the imperial spear. It is impossible to tell the story of the Empire without the Thin Red Line of Sutherland Highlanders at Balaclava, or Lord Lovat and his piper, Bill Millin, striding ashore to Hielan Laddie while under withering Nazi fire at Sword Beach. Since the eighteenth century, the kilted “Ladies from Hell” have brought victory to Britannia and terror to her enemies.


Discontent, Devolution, and the Independence Referendum

While the last Scottish military uprising against the union was brought to grief with terrible slaughter at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the desire for independence has waxed and waned, but never died. Scotland is smaller and has traditionally been poorer than her neighbor to the south. However, Scottish antipathy toward the union cannot be put down to mere ressentiment. From the very beginning, the English have not always been good partners.

In 1711, with the ink barely dry on the Acts of Union, the Westminster parliament celebrated by imposing an export duty on linen (the most important Scottish manufacture). In 1712, Westminster imposed an increase in the salt tax. In 1713, there was a new tax on malt (renewed in 1725). Such legislation infuriated urban Scots to the point of periodic riot.[3] Upon the defeat of the Scottish Jacobites after the Battle of Culloden, the Parliament passed a series of acts forcibly disarming the Scottish highlanders, destroying their ancient clan system, and banning traditional Scottish dress for a generation.

To understand contemporary Scottish discontent, however, it is best to focus less on Culloden and more on Westminster. From the moment of union, the arrangement for Scottish representation in the British parliament was, in the words of historian Richard Sher, “patently unfair.”[4]  Scotland had a population one-fifth the size of England’s, but her representation in the Commons constituted less than half of that.

In the late nineteenth century, the Scots began to seek a redress for their deficient representation at Westminster. They did not seek independence, but rather “Home Rule,” or as it is now called, “devolution.”

Advocates of devolution wanted a Scottish Parliament with powers to oversee some aspects of Scottish governance. This was a compromise between leaving the United Kingdom and leaving all decisions to the Parliament in Westminster. The idea of Scottish “Home Rule,” proved very appealing. A popular movement for devolution during the late forties and early fifties resulted in the “Scottish Covenant,” a political document signed by over two million Scots. Despite this remarkable number, the petition went nowhere because no political party made advocating home rule an important part of their political platform.[5]

This began to change after a by-election in 1967 in which Winifred Ewing became the first candidate from the Scottish National Party to win a seat in parliament. Ewing and the SNP ran on a platform of Scottish Independence: her slogan was “Stop the World! Scotland wants to get on!” Ewing’s victory made the far less radical proposition of devolution an appealing issue for the major parties. The Conservatives adopted a devolutionary plank in 1968. Labour followed in 1974.   Scotland nearly got her devolved Parliament in 1979, but the victorious “yes” vote fell short of the required 40% of the total electorate needed to bring a parliament to Scotland.

In a disastrous miscalculation for the Conservatives, the Thatcher government proved implacably hostile to devolution. From 1979 to 1997 the project of establishing a Scottish parliament seemed moribund. However, Scottish activists continued to lay the groundwork. In 1980 members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties established the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In 1989 they issued the Claim of Right, a document endorsing a Scottish Parliament that was signed by most of Scotland’s MP’s as well as church and labor leaders. A Constitutional Convention began to meet the same year. In 1995, the convention published a plan for a Scottish Parliament with certain powers devolved from Westminster. It is interesting to note that the Scottish National Party stormed out of the convention over its refusal to entertain the idea of Scottish independence.

When Tony Blair and Labour came to power in their 1997 landslide, the devolution project at last met with a sympathetic Westminster government. The Blair government almost immediately issued a white paper in favor of a Scottish Parliament; on September 11, 1997 the Scottish people voted to devolve certain powers to a Parliament in Edinburgh. In May of 1999, the first Scottish election was held. Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) were elected and a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition formed the first Scottish government in almost three hundred years.

There are 129 Members of Scottish Parliament. The MSPs meet in Edinburgh across the street from Holyrood Palace, in a hideous post-modern funhouse designed for them by Catalan “starchitect” Enric Miralles.[6] Of the 129 Members of Scottish Parliament, 73 are constituency MSPs. Scots are represented by a further 8 regional MSPs per each of Scotland’s 7 parliamentary regions. A Scottish government, led by a First Minister from the majority party in the Scottish Parliament, is formed after each election to serve as an executive branch and “to implement policy on devolved matters.”[7]

These “devolved matters” largely encompass the management of the modern welfare state, i.e. education (including higher education), welfare, and health. They also included criminal justice and environmental regulation. At present, the Scottish Parliament has very limited taxing powers; it can “raise or lower the basic rate of income tax by up to three pence to the pound.”[8] Increased taxing power was approved for the Scottish Parliament by Westminster in The Scotland Act of 2012, but these powers will not take effect for two more years.

Matters pertaining to the United Kingdom as a whole, such as defense and foreign policy, are decided at the Westminster Parliament. Westminster also has greater powers over matters of taxation. Because the United Kingdom belongs to the European Union, the Scots send Members of European Parliament to Brussels, and are subject to EU legislation and regulation. The United Kingdom (wisely) declined to join the Euro, so Scotland shares the Pound Sterling with the rest of the UK.

In 2011, the Scottish National Party gained a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP and now First Minister of Scotland, had promised that if the SNP gained a majority of seats at Holyrood, they would hold a referendum on independence. Because constitutional matters are reserved to the Westminster parliament, Salmond had to negotiate with the Tory government at Westminster. This week’s referendum is the result.


A Debate among the Scottish Left

What are the real issues at stake in this independence referendum? First, it must be said that any American viewing what is going on in Scotland this September through the lens of Braveheart and Culloden is totally missing the point. We will do better to examine the contemporary Scottish political scene. In part 2 of this article, we will pick up with a consideration of some of the arguments made in the first televised independence debate.

The “Yes” campaign in favor of Scottish Independence is a coalition of left-wing parties dominated by the Scottish National Party, but including the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party. The SNP is a nationalist party, but theirs is not the nationalism of the Golden Dawn in Greece, or the British National Party in England. The SNP is a social democratic party which campaigns on a platform of enthusiastic involvement in the EU, free college education for Scots, opulent support for Scotland’s National Health Service, and greater welfare benefits for the poor. By far the most recognizable spokesman for Scottish Independence is the leader of the SNP, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

Better Together, which advocates the “No Thanks” position, should be understood as a rival left wing coalition. True, Better Together includes the anemic Scottish Conservative Party, but they are yoked to the Liberal Democrats and to Labour. The most recognizable spokesman of the “No Thanks” campaign has been former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling.

The debate over Scottish independence is very much an internecine struggle of the Scottish left. In part, this is a natural consequence of the near-absence of the center right in Scottish politics. Even before Thatcher, the Conservatives were a minority party in Scotland. After Thatcher, the free market came to be regarded with the gravest of suspicion as a “right wing” policy peculiar to the Tories. In part, this is because of the de-industrialization that took place in the North during the Thatcher years. In part, it is because Scottish voters identify the Conservative party very closely with the immensely powerful financial services industry in London.[9] There is a widespread perception that the financial services industry disproportionately benefits London and the Home Counties at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom. As a result, the Tories have become remarkably unpopular in the North. The Scots identify them as the party of Thatcher’s poll tax, of benefit cuts, of war and nuclear weapons, of austerity and “privatisation.”

We need only to briefly examine three decades of general election results to establish how unpopular the Tories are in Scotland. At the dawn of the Thatcher Era, the Tories were a substantial minority in Scotland. In the 1979 General Elections, they held 22 Scottish constituencies. All the remaining political parties with Scottish seats in Parliament that year were/are parties of the left, and they substantially outnumbered the Tories: Labor had 44 seats, the Scottish National Party 2, the Liberals 3.[10] By the 1987 election, the Tory seats were halved to 10, while Labor held 50, the Liberal and Social Democratic Alliance held 9 and the SNP held 3.[11] In the 1997 general elections, the Conservatives lost every Scottish Parliamentary seat.

Since 2001, the Conservatives have returned only 1 MP from Scotland. Indeed the “Yes” campaign has presented the opportunity to sever Scotland from Tory governance forever as one of the chief selling points for Scottish independence. On 10 September, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was reduced to flying North and pleading with the Scots not to vote for independence simply to give “the effing Tories” a “kicking.”[12] He was not so abject as to offer the ministerial backside as a more satisfying substitute.


William Batchelder is Assistant Professor of History at Waynesburg University. He has a PhD in Medieval English History.



[1] Very nice charts explaining all this are included as appendices in: Jamie Maxwell and David Torrance, Scotland’s Referendum: A Guide for Voters (Edinburgh: Luath Press Ltd, 2014).

[2] Allan I Macinnes, “The Treaty of Union: Made in England,” in Scotland and the Union 1707 – 2007 ed. Tom M. Devine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), pp. 54-76.

[3] Richard Sher, “Scotland Transformed: The Eighteenth Century,” in Scotland: A History ed. Jenny Wormald (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 157.

[4] Ibid., 156.

[5] I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the brief, but helpful introduction to the relationship between devolution and independence to be found in Maxwell and Torrance, Scotland’s Referendum: A Guide for Voters. Another useful summary which I found quite helpful on the relationship between the political parties and devolution can be found here:

[6] The rigors of modern architectural study seem to have the perverse effect of eliminating anyone from the upper ranks of the profession who does not bear a vindictive hatred for humankind. In 2008, the Scottish Parliament building finished fourth in a poll of structures Britons would most like to see destroyed.


[8] Ibid.





2 Responses to ““Libertarian Perspective on the Scottish Independence Referendum, Part I: Scotland, The United Kingdom, Devolution and Referendum,” By William Batchelder”

  1. gabe

    Very interesting, if unsurprising history of Westminster’s tactics.

    One would hope that the 2nd installment goes into some detail as to the relative “motivational” strength of economic vs. cultural issues driving this movement.
    To my uninformed mind, it would seem as if the Scots are only expecting that the level of “mannah” presently supplied by Westminster will increase once Holyrood becomes the chief dispenser. If so, that is quite a pity!


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