Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Scotland: Quebec or Norway?

Preparing for the coming semester's teaching, and consulting with colleagues on texts to use with the students, we came across the following by R.H. Bruce Lockhart, spy, banker, politician and Scottish nationalist:

It is the most obvious of truisms that the life of a people depends on their own will-power to maintain an independent national culture. Indeed, history affords almost as many instances of small nations being absorbed by voluntary apathy as coerced by brute force, and even where superior physical might have prevailed a strong national will has sometimes survived centuries of oppression to force its way to freedom. Ireland and Norway are illuminating examples. Neither country, particularly Eire, provides an exact parallel with Scotland, but Norway’s progress since independence has fired the imagination of many Scots.

It's a bracing example for us that most of our contemporary debate about Scottish independence is not new - indeed, that there is little that's all that novel in our public discourses. The fabled Scottish Nationalist 'arc of prosperity', a Celtic and Nordic zone of stability stretching from Iceland to Sweden via Ireland, has for many decades constituted an alternative northern alliance to replace England on the country's southern flank. Many Nationalists, and many Scots who wouldn't necessarily call themselves Nationalists, look to Scandinavia for inspiration.

That's why the insolvency and debt crises of many of these countries hasn't damaged Alec Salmond, Scotland's First Minister and the arc's most recent advocate, as much as many have thought it would. Scotland's ancient ties with Norway, for instance - cultural and historical as much as economic - are being revived, for instance. Not everything is about economics. Most of the arc of prosperity is still wealthier than the UK, by the way - though rich economies have their own sclerotic institutional problems. All that's a bit irrelevant to this debate, which is about image and perception rather than reality of course, but that's another story.

Norwegian independence, starting in 1905 with the country's break for freedom from Sweden, is a much happier exemplar than one of the alternatives - Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec, where the separatists ruled for more than two decades, lost an independence referendum (very narrowly), forced the rest of Canada to amend its constitution, and then lost credibility in a series of squabbles before getting hammered last year at the polls.

So will Scotland turn out to be like Quebec, or like Norway? On that question much of the next decade's political history hangs.

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