Global Policy Forum

Rule, Britannia, but Maybe Not Over Scotland


By Sarah Lyall

New York Times
July 28, 2008

Stuck in a chronic sports slump, Britons are eternally searching for a homegrown tennis star with a fighting chance of winning Wimbledon. Their latest was 21-year-old Andy Murray, who earlier this summer demonstrated traditional British come-from-behind pluck in advancing to the quarterfinals. (He lost to the eventual champion, Rafael Nadal.)

But there was a small problem. Mr. Murray is Scottish, and fiercely so. Once asked who he planned to support in the World Cup soccer tournament, he replied, "Anyone but England." And many English people found his recent behavior at Wimbledon - he emitted warlike whoops, bared his teeth and flexed his biceps in a provocative manner - more suited to a remake of "Braveheart" than to the gentle green courts of southwest London.

The English usually tend to regard the Scots as their slightly prickly but relatively harmless northern cousins. But lately, the English have displayed a newfound resentment that has mirrored a growing confidence and sense of nationalistic entitlement - a general flexing of the biceps - in Scotland. With relations at their uneasiest point in decades, there is even talk that unless the balance of power can somehow be renegotiated, the union is in danger of unraveling.

"This is about a shift in British attitudes," said Joyce McMillan, a columnist for the newspaper The Scotsman. "We've always been seen as slightly exotic or decorative. But if we start on as if we were some kind of self-determining nation, it provokes a kind of atmosphere of hurt and anger, like, 'Oh, what was wrong with the way we were ruling you? Why aren't you grateful?' "

Scotland has been in the inferior position since 1707, when it and its Parliament were subsumed by Britain. But three centuries is no time at all in the minds of many Scots, who have fumed in resentment and, more or less, clamored for independence ever since.

The current era in Scottish-English relations began in the late 1990s, when Tony Blair's Labor government addressed the persistent irritant of Scottish nationalism by giving the Scots more power to settle their own affairs. Scotland got its own Parliament, with responsibility over areas like health, social services and education.

Devolution, as this transfer in power is called, was supposed to "kill Scottish nationalism stone dead," in the saying of the time. But instead it has only magnified the Scots' differences with the English.

"What you've had since devolution is that England and Scotland are starting to drift apart culturally and politically, so they seem like entirely different countries," said Guy Lodge, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning study group in London.

Though Scotland is an old Labor stronghold, many Scots are disillusioned with the Labor government - even though the current prime minister, Gordon Brown, is Scottish. Since last year, the Scottish National Party, which favors Scottish independence, has been in power in the Scottish Parliament. Its able leader, Alex Salmond, has confounded Labor by proving that the nationalists can govern plausibly at home.

Mr. Salmond has used Scotland's budget, which comes mostly in the form of block grants from London, to enact a series of radical social-service measures. In contrast to the residents of the rest of Britain, Scots get free university tuition and free personal and nursing care for the elderly. They also pay less for National Health Service prescriptions and have access to a greater range of medicine and treatments for illnesses like cancer.

The Scots argue that they are merely using their available resources more effectively, but the English complain that the Scots are abusing British largess. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that Scotland received a disproportionately larger share of money per capita, compared with other parts of Britain, and suggested that the formula for allocating the money be recalculated.

Philip Davies, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, said that even as the Scottish Parliament had abolished tuition for Scottish students in Scottish universities, members of the British Parliament from Scotland voted in favor of tuition in English universities.

In the British Parliament, there are rumblings that the Scots' wings must be clipped. When the Scots balked at a proposal by Tim Yeo, a Conservative member of Parliament, that Britain put its clocks forward an hour to be in line with the rest of Europe, Mr. Yeo suggested that the Scots could stay as they were. "I saw no objection to Scotland having a separate time zone, if that's what the Scottish people wanted," he said in an interview.

And an age-old question about the awkwardness in having two Parliaments has raised its head again. The issue is this: Is it fair that Scottish members of the British Parliament are allowed to vote on matters that affect only England while English members of Parliament have no say over whole swaths of public policy in Scotland?

Another recent study, commissioned by the Conservative Party, argued that voting in the British Parliament should be reorganized so that Scottish members would have less power over bills affecting only England. That reflects another new phenomenon: the rise in English nationalism that comes with a sense that it is now the English who are not getting their fair share.

"The real sleeping giant is not Scottish nationalism, but the English version," said Irvine Welsh, a Scottish writer, in The Financial Times last year. "Many people south of the border have reclaimed Englishness, as opposed to Britishness, as their post-imperial cultural identity. They may come to the point where they say to the sulking kid brother, 'We bought you a place of your own, so why are you always crashing on our couch?' "

Mr. Lodge said that historically the union between Scotland and England had always made sense. In the 18th century it was needed for security and economic stability, in the 19th century it was about empire and in the 20th century it was about defeating Hitler and building a welfare state.

In looking at the role of the union in the 21st century, Mr. Lodge drew a comparison to Czechoslovakia. "When the Czechs and the Slovaks split, it wasn't because of a massive fight - it was because no one would put forward a good case for keeping them together," Mr. Lodge said. "In the 21st century in Great Britain, no one's put forward a clear, compelling case for why the union matters."

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