Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

I am a Scot living “south of the border” as folk in Scotland say. In 16 days from today, the people living in Scotland will decide whether or not to end a 307 year union between the nations of Scotland and England. The polls today show that 48% will say “no” and 42% will say “yes” with 11% undecided. It’s a close call, either way.

Money, power and personal ambition?

The question which perplexes lots of people is; why would the Scots want independence? Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling focused in their TV debate on economics and government policy. People living in Scotland are being asked to decide whether they will be financially better-off united with England, Wales and Northern Ireland or by going it alone. This is an impossible question to answer. It’s like betting on how much rain will fall in September 2036. No one can really predict whether or not Scotland will be richer or poorer after a divorce.

Scots are also being asked to give more power to Scottish politicians so that they can choose between spending money on nuclear defense or on helping the poor, for example.  The question here seems to be, “how far should power be devolved?”  Will regions, towns and even families want power to choose how to spend their money?

And then there’s Alex Salmond. His personal ambition to be the president of a new republic, or king of a new nation, needs to be considered.  What really motivates him?

And so money and power, and quite possibly personal ambition, are highly motivational factors in this debate. But this is not what’s really driving the move for independence.

I will argue that the most powerful motivator is a question of identity.

Identity. Who are we? Scottish, English, British or something else? The power of identity to unite or divide.

Growing up in rural Scotland was wonderful for all sorts of reasons and I was given a strong sense of being Scottish. A strong Scottish identity is developed, in part, by being defined as “not English”.  And so, for a large part of the Scottish population, it’s said that “the Scots don’t like the English.” Amanda, my English wife, moved to Inverness in her twenties and was surprised by the number of Norwegians with Scottish accents were in the pub when Norway played England at football.

Another part of growing up in Scotland is being told great stories of battles between the Scots and the English. William Wallace (Braveheart), Robert the Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 is a favourite, when Scotland secured independence from England. There was the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 at the hands of Elizabeth I. And Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, who led the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 but was beaten by the “English” at Colluden in 1746. All these stories are told with, dare I say it, a nationalistic passion.

This passion was strengthened by poor journalistic practice by the BBC. London-based news reports often overlooked Scotland as I was growing up. Britain was referred to as England or the British as English, which annoyed us in Scotland and served to increase our sense of being Scottish, not English.

A good reading of history is important if we are going to understand this question of identity. 400 years ago, England and Scotland wanted to be united, though of course not everyone wanted the union, and the desire to be united was created by a sense of identity which was greater than being simply “Scottish” or “English”. History shows where this greater identity came from.

Before James VI of Scotland became James I of England (whilst remaining James VI of Scotland – he was king of two nations at once not a united kingdom) there was a complex movement in Europe called the Reformation, which started in Germany in 1517.  Within the space of 100 years this movement had spread to affect the ruling classes in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, England and the Scandinavian countries. In England, the movement affected the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. During this time, the Church of England was born and became separated from Rome. At the same time, the teaching of the Reformation had a massive impact on Scotland. And so, as the two nations grew in a new sense of identity, which was being Christian and Protestant, the choice to be united was made possible, in part, by this new shared sense of identity.

So, the people of England and Scotland, by and large, shared the identity of being “not Roman Catholic”. This does not mean that the new sense of Christian Protestant identity made matters easy, or that the labels are really that helpful.  As the union tried to make life work, problems were substantial, but the will and desire to unite enabled problems to be overcome.  Charles I attempted to make the Church of Scotland the same as the Church of England. Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote a big book called Lex Rex, which argued for democratic church rule, not the rule of bishops under the king. Then there was the Civil War, the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy and eventually the union of the two parliaments in 1706, which made Scotland and England two countries under one government. Great Britain was born.

At this time, 1706, there were all the same problems with money, power and personal ambition which exist today, only they were much smaller problems then, because everything was smaller and less complicated 300 years ago. The economy and populations were much much smaller.  And so, the making of the union was very difficult but divorcing the union will be far more difficult, complex and hugely expensive. Like all divorces, everyone will be hurt, it will cost a fortune, take years and only the lawyers will make a profit.

And so arguments about money, power and personal ambition have not really changed but one thing has changed. Under the influence of the Reformation, two nations could say “we are different but the same.” Jesus Christ gave us a shared identity as human beings, made and loved by God, fallen from grace and redeemed by Christ. This shared identity gave Scotland and England the will to be united. This unity was still displayed powerfully only 61 years ago, in 1953, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland gave the Queen a bible and saying “Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

The far greater human identity, shared through faith in Christ, overcame the lesser identity of being Scottish and English but this greater identity is fading fast in our nation’s life. Britain is now a largely secular nation. One of the symptoms of losing our God-given identity is that we are left to grapple for another uniting sense of identity. Something bigger than individualism. Something that creates community and belonging. The question facing the Scots is this: does your desire to feel more Scottish make you willing to pay high the price of divorce? Or we might ask another question: do you think you might be missing something about what it means to be truly human and so united with other human beings, even if they are English?

(This article first appeared in Holy Trinity Parish Magazine in September 2014 – From the Vicarage.)

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