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  • Colin Burnett

Scottish Politics

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

The Act of Union of 1707 was seen by many of its Scottish advocates as an opportunity for economic prosperity and to put an end to periods of famine such as the 1690’s when Scotland suffered its last nation-wide famine and which had resulted in between 10 - 20% of the population dying (McLean 2010). This national disaster fuelled the nation’s elite’s desire to enter a union with England to gain access to its market. When coupled with the failed Darien colony affair in Panama as most had suffered huge financial losses through the venture (McLean 2010). The Scottish politicians voted 116 to 83 in favour of a union with England and most in attendance were pro-union because of England’s offer to compensate those who had lost money in the Darien scheme (McLean 2010). Scotland was perceived by the English as vulnerable given its steady economic decline and military shortfalls which could be seized upon by England (McGuire 2008). Which led England to adopt a more aggressive approach to influence the Scottish establishment to enter into a union with them (McGuire 2008). The Alien Act of 1705 was proposed by the English, whereby, Scots would be identified as Aliens by law in England if they opposed a merger between the two nations. An act that would prevent Scottish nobles from inheriting any English lands and a ban on Scottish imports would come into effect (McGuire 2008). Furthermore, McGuire (2008) indicates this measure was used to pressure the nobles in Scotland to support the proposed union as they held interests in England. One such noble was the Duke of Hamilton who supported the English government's proposal of appointing commissioners to handle the discussions of the political union (McGuire 2008). According to McGuire (2008) this opportunity gave Hamilton the platform to suggest the Queen should decide the commissioner for both countries which was sanctioned . An action that left Scotland's future at the hands of the middle and upper classes of the country who spoke as individuals and not as an nation


Whately (2000) argues that political union with England meant Scotland gained access not only to England but its North American colonies, so that entering a political Union with England was to serve Scotland’s economic needs and thus safeguarding Scotland from its traditional poverty. Key Scottish Enlightenment figures holding to this view included Adam Smith (1999) who advocated the economic riches from being aligned with England which would not only shield Scotland from poverty but would guide Scotland to modernity as it meant discarding Jacobite ‘romanticism’ and the remnants of what were viewed as Catholic pre-modern superstitions and backwardness.


With Scotland retaining its institutional apparatus of self–governance despite entering a union with England including church, law, and education (Kellas 1989) permitting Scotland to maintain some level of autonomy, this view of history and politics has dominated Scotland’s political landscape until 2007. Prior to this time, Scotland had been dominated by the unionist Liberal and then unionist Conservative and then Labour unionism (Cairney and McGarvey 2008). The Conservative party, which until 1965 was known as the Unionist party achieved much success in Scotland during the twentieth century mainly through their ability to incorporate what was important to Scotland within the wider British political arena (Ward 2007). The Conservatives in Scotland achieved great political success particularly in the 1930’s and 1950’s (Ward 2007), evidencing the reality that the Scottish were fully on-board with the idea of being British.


The Conservative vote in Scotland peaked in 1955 when it achieved a majority of the Scottish vote (50.1%), allocating them 36 out of 71 seats (Kellas 1989). However, a steady decline in the Scottish Electorate Conservative vote has occurred since this time as witnessed in 1966 when Conservatives gained 37.7% of the vote and 20 seats (Kellas 1989). 1974 saw Scotland’s growing discontent with the Conservative party as it only gained 24.7% of the vote – the party’s poorest showing since 1923.


Similarly, the Labour Party in Scotland from 1959 rose to be the dominant political force in terms of parliamentary representation of Scotland at Westminster with Labour typically not deviating from 40% of the vote (Steven 2010). A case can be made which identifies the 1960’s as the beginning of the decline of political Unionism in Scotland as a result of the SNP beginning to become politically relevant from this time as seen in its great breakthrough in Labour’s former stronghold of Hamilton in 1967 (Houston 2008), and which was followed by the SNP winning Glasgow Govan in 1973 and finally in 1974 when the SNP received one third of the votes in the general election, routinely associated with the discovery of North Sea oil (Houston 2008).


Before considering the political success of the SNP, it is essential to identify the sociological factors at work which gave the party its way to the forefront of Scottish politics. I maintain that Scotland becoming post–industrial is a crucial factor. Harvie (2004, p.125) argues “in the 1950’s Scottish manufacturing industry (about a third of GNP) was still largely privately and Scottish owned’’ and ‘’between 1950 and 1954 Scotland’s share of world shipbuilding output was 12% but by 1968 it was 1.3%’’ (2004, p. 122). The damaging effect of de–industrialisation upon Scotland’s industrial communities and localities was to eventually drive a wedge between the Labour Party and its core industrial electorate as the Labour party failed to re-invent or re-imagine its appeal to a post-industrial working class. Similarly, for Harvie (2004), Scotland’s sense of Britishness began to fade as ‘British emblems’ such as all-British industries and all-British trade unions began to diminish thanks to de-industrialisation in the 1980s and globalising and privatisation.


The urbanisation of Scotland could also be credited as contributing to the changing perception of the Scottish electorate as rural Scotland became de – populated and old political loyalties came under strain among younger generations. In this regard, Wilson (1982) coined the term ‘societalization’ in an effort to understand how formerly ‘rural populations’ lives are no longer orientated by local forces but are instead at the mercy of macro-social forces that are increasingly global. The way de-industrialisation alters Scottish social agent’s relationship towards unionism, then, is that this belief system has been de-conventionalised and ripped from its previous embeddedness in unexamined assumptions since Margret Thatcher’s tenure as British prime minister (1979 -1990).


This period is seen as having altered many Scots’ perception of both their British and Scottish identity (Ermisch and Wright 2005) because Thatcherism was to slowly entrench right-wing objectives that contrasted the sentiments of many of the Scottish electorate, thus placing Scotland in opposition to the Conservative government residing in Westminster and leading to what is known as the democratic deficit. Under the term of office of Margaret Thatcher, then, Scotland was governed by a parliament and politician and a party implementing policies that had no democratic mandate or legitimacy from 1979–1997 (Maxwell 2013). Within the Thatcher government it was perceived Scotland had been too dependent on heavy industries and to address this a service-sector economy has been created (Bryden et al. 2015).


Thatcherism exposed Scottish society to neo–liberal policies that meant the denationalisation of what was remaining of shipbuilding and steel industries (Bryden et al. 2015). But more importantly, it provoked the Scots into a politics of identity; a politicisation of their national identity. Hence, what began as class issues or social issues changed into the dynamics of the Scottish identity which can be epitomised by Scotland’s sense of alienation experienced through the miners’ strike (1984-85) and Thatcher’s introduction of the Poll Tax in 1987, one year before England were exposed to the policy (Houston 2008). The acts of the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher led to a divergent politics in Scotland from England and a strain in the relationship between the Scottish electorate and the Conservative government which was illustrated in 1997 when the Tories lost all their MP’s in Scotland (Harvie 2004).


This pre-history explains why Scotland achieved a form of Home Rule in 1999 thanks to the ‘re-calling’ of the first Scottish parliament since 1707 (Oneil 2014). In 2007, the SNP won the third Scottish general election, and in 2011 the SNP won an absolute majority in the Holyrood Parliament which permitted the party to hold a Scottish Independence Referendum (2014) with 55% voting No and 45% of the Scottish population voting Yes for independence (Doherty 2016).


Gilfillan (2011) has documented the changes in the Scottish electorate voting patterns and has described how younger working-class generations are much less unionist in terms of culture, politics and economic life than previous generations. As there are no longer all-British trade unions and all British companies that reproduce a sense of Britishness among the working class, being unionist is now more associated with an older generation of pensioners i.e. those who were born into the British Empire.


One of the main catalysts for the people of Scotland to shun their opportunity to regain its independence in 2014, has been identified by Fabbrini (2017) as the fear of the nation losing its EU membership. Throughout the lead up to the historic independence referendum (2014) the pro-UK, ‘Better Together’ campaign proposed the only way Scotland could secure its EU membership was by remaining part of the UK (Fabbrini 2017). Furthermore, it was indicated if Scotland did achieve independence EU membership could potentially take years to gain as a sovereign state (Fabbrini 2017). With no assurances its membership would be welcomed by other EU nations on Scotland’s own merit. This issue according to Fabrrini (2017) may have guided Scottish voters to dispel Scotland’s chance to become independent.



The assurance provided by the ‘Better Together’ campaign that by remaining part of the United Kingdom Scotland would protect its EU membership resulted in a false promise. As through the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum which took place on the 23 June of that year, witnessed the UK voting to leave the EU by 52% to 48% who voted to remain (BBC News 2016). Crucially, though Scotland overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU by 62% to 38% - with all 32 council areas supporting to remain (BBC News 2016). An example of the Scottish electorate becoming further alienated from the wider British context. This result has energised the SNP to call upon a second independence referendum to be held as Scotland has been removed from the EU against its own desire to remain as a member of the EU (Fabbrini 2017).

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