Long Live the Queen! Long Live the United Kingdom?

Before 1995 few people outside of the United Kingdom had ever heard the name of William Wallace. Mel Gibson, an accomplished Australian film actor and director with a sketchy and haphazard knowledge of government and history, released a box office blockbuster movie—“Braveheart.”

Gibson looked back 800 years ago into British history to find a charismatic historical figure that he could use to make a great profit for himself by tapping into themes such as justice, mercy, chivalry, honor, and nationalism. Gibson applied these themes and historical facts selectively to create a compelling narrative that was highly emotional and entertaining. The life of William Wallace is an interesting story that merited being illuminated. Gibson, however, set the story in stark black and white colors, no shades of gray or possible ambiguities in this cinema tale. Nonetheless, the real-life story of William Wallace and Scotland is filled with feuds and struggles among different Scottish leaders that led to numerous different political arrangements with England. History is as rarely clear-cut as cinema would have people believe. As a college professor, I have been alarmed for many years to see that many of my students’ historical knowledge is based on movies or television, not upon reading history texts or school lessons.

I wondered in 1995 if this movie could ignite a spark of nationalism in Scotland, particularly among young people who did not experience the Second World War and the shared experiences of sacrifice, struggle, and victory. Indeed, today we see many of the fruits of “The Braveheart Effect” in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. Who would have ever guessed that a controversial actor could produce one film that would jeopardize the existence of the United Kingdom? In the late 1990s, my Scottish friends assured me that their fellow kinsmen had been entertained but not indoctrinated by Gibson’s film.

Therefore, I was surprised in the new century to see the sparks of Scottish nationalism flaring across the moors and spurring Tony Blair’s devolution scheme for the United Kingdom. Blair and his Labor Party were facing difficult elections, and to bolster his support in Scotland, he promised it its own Parliament, while also promising Wales and Northern Ireland their own Assemblies. While this crude political pandering worked and gave Blair a Labor majority In the British Parliament, he had changed the United Kingdom from a unitary state into a federal state. The vast majority of the United Kingdom’s populace never realized the potential consequences of that change.

Who could believe that one actor’s quest for profit could result in the possible destruction of the United Kingdom? Who could believe that what Napoleon and Hitler could not achieve with their armies might be achieved by Mel Gibson? Has the power of movies and television grown so great in Scotland that the Scots would jeopardize their own economic well-being and future prosperity in order to gain retribution for Wallace’s grisly execution (vividly portrayed by Gibson) more than 800 years ago?

On Thursday, 18 September 2014, Scotland will vote whether it wishes to be an independent country or maintain its relationship with the United Kingdom. At the beginning of this campaign, the Unionist side (the “No” side) was comfortably in the lead; however, as the referendum date draws nearer, the Separatist side (the “Yes” side) has apparently pulled even so that the election is now too close to predict. As Pat Buchanan noted, “Europe’s secessionists have waxed ever stronger since the last decade of the 20th century….The decomposition of the nations of Old Europe is the triumph of tribalism….the wild heart is winning. The call of blood, history, faith, culture, and memory is winning….”

The Unionist side has clearly waged an unimaginative, plodding, and uninspired campaign. Ensured by early polls, the leaders of the UK’s Unionist parties—David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg—have all been disengaged. Their prolonged absence on the hustings in Scotland combined with the absence of former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the most trusted Scot on the Unionist team, has allowed the “Yes” side an easier time in closing the gap. (Brown has been smarting from his loss to David Cameron ever since 2010.) As the referendum has entered its final week, however, all of these figures have traveled across Scotland, united in their call for a “No” vote on the 18th. Despite the Constitutional provision that the monarch may not be involved with politics, Queen Elizabeth II has gingerly reached out to the Scots privately after a Church service in Scotland by saying that she hopes that all Scots will think very carefully what this vote will mean for their future. Sundry political leaders, such as Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party, have urged the Sovereign to become actively involved in the campaign. Farage, for example, argues that this matter is much more than politics—it fundamentally affects the very existence of the country she leads.

Various Scots such as J.K. Rowling (the author of the “Harry Potter” series) have tried on their own to fight the extravagant appeals of the Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond. She compared the possible separation to an acrimonious divorce. In the event of “Yes” vote, the author expects vigorous disputes over the banks, the pound sterling, and the Royals. “I doubt that an independent Scotland will be able to bank on its ex-partner’s fond memories of the old relationship once we’ve left, “ Rowling observed in June. The Harvard professor from Scotland, Dr. Niall Ferguson, has also waded into the debate. In The New York Times, he observes, “What currency will Scotland use? … What share of North Sea oil revenues will go to Edinburgh? What about Scotland’s share of Britain’s national debt?” He argues about the grave economic consequences, “Investment has already stalled. Big companies based in Scotland…have warned of relocating to England. Jobs would definitely be lost. The recent steep decline in the pound shows that the financial world hates the whole idea.”

In recent days, two of the major newspapers in Scotland have also pointed out the perils of independence. Edinburgh’s The Scotsman argued for maintaining unity due to currency considerations, EU membership (an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership—a process that could take up to four years), and defense (an independent Scotland will also have to apply for membership in NATO). It observed that Scotland has succeeded in becoming a “prosperous, peaceful, successful country” as part of the UK. It concludes that “Scotland’s best interests lie not in creating division but in continuing in the Union and using its strengths to help continue its success.”

The Financial Times editorial noted that “the case for Union is overwhelming.” They observe, “Empires and nation states are not immune to break-up, but there is little precedent for a hitherto stable modern democracy splitting in peacetime, in the middle of an economic recovery….the path of separation is a fool’s errand, one fraught with danger and uncertainty.” The Financial Times realizes that the question is whether Scotland would be a more prosperous and equal country on its own or as part of the UK.

Meanwhile, the SNP Leader Salmond has convinced many Scots, especially the youngest age groups, that Scottish public services will disappear if Scotland stays in the UK. He has taken the traditional Scottish distaste for the Tories and convinced many Scots to feel the same way about all Unionist politicians. Salmond is convincing many Scots that all their problems are the fault of the Unionist politicians—Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband.

From a view across the Atlantic, I agree with The Economist when it observes that the UK belongs as much to the Scots as it does to the English. Great Britain is only “Great” if Scotland and England are one.

By Charles Greenawalt, Ph.D., Senior Fellow of The Susquehanna Valley Center