Political Cry Raised: ‘Scotland Free by ‘93!’ : Scottish Nationalism Threatens British Unity

Times Staff Writer

Two notices in the window of the Govan District Information Center here tell a lot about the newly volatile character of Scottish politics.

One sarcastically offers “Tips for the poor” from the government’s Department of Health and Social Security: “Don’t go into a supermarket when you’re hungry. Buy nearly stale food ‘bargains’ or grow your own food. Give up meat and fish and substitute soya.”

The other reports: “Helpful advice from Mrs. Thatcher to a 73-year-old pensioner living on 9 pounds (about $16) a week: Get a bank loan.”


The first notice underlines the economically depressed condition of this industrial district of Glasgow; the second its bitterness toward British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And both are part of the story behind what has been seen here as one of the country’s biggest political upsets since World War II.

Firebrand Elected

Voting in a Nov. 10 by-election to fill a parliamentary vacancy, Govan residents sent to Westminster a nationalist firebrand who advocates that Scotland pull out of the 281-year-old pact that binds it to England as part of the United Kingdom.

Scottish National Party candidate James Sillars’ campaign slogan was “Scotland Free by ‘93!” and his upset victory in a district considered a shoo-in for his Labor Party rival jolted the country’s political Establishment. According to British press reports, it even prompted an extraordinary, private expression of concern from the Queen over the future of the union.

One election doesn’t spell the breakup of the state, of course. But Govan is just the latest sign of what appears to be a powerful new wave of Scottish nationalism, one that promises at the least to enliven British politics for many months to come, and at the most could reshape both Britain and the entire Western alliance.

“Govan suggests that the danger to the Union is a real one,” wrote William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the London Times and now a Conservative member of the House of Lords. “If the Scots will not accept the status quo, they cannot, in the end, be made to do so.”

Parliament in Edinburgh?

Bill Speirs, deputy general secretary of the powerful Scottish Trades Union Congress and former chairman of the Scottish Labor Party, said in an interview: “I think it’s safe to say that before the end of the century we’ll see a Parliament in Edinburgh in some form.”


Recent polls show that as many as three Scots out of four now opt for some type of self-government. As many as one in three favor full independence; the rest say they would be happy, at least for now, with a “devolved” legislature, empowered to handle purely Scottish issues, while Westminster continues to rule over such broader questions as defense and foreign affairs.

The rebellious mood carried into the House of Commons last week when 60 Scottish members of Parliament walked out in protest of the government’s failure to set up a new select committee on Scottish affairs. The day after the walkout, several of the parliamentarians set up their own “alternative” committee and demanded that government ministers instruct the underlings to voluntarily testify before it.

It now appears certain that an organization called Campaign for a Scottish Assembly has enough support to launch a constitutional convention in Edinburgh next month. Its mission: to be “a focus of resistance and political negotiation which rejects comprehensively the authority of the existing government on matters peculiar to Scotland; which describes and demands . . . a new form of Scottish government; and which encourages civil disobedience . . . so far as this forms part of an orderly program to achieve it.”

History of Rebellion

This is not the first time that the Scots have rebelled at what they perceive as English domination. “Almost since the Act of Union (in 1707) there has been a desire, almost a hankering in the bones, for Scottish self-government,” Sillars, the newly elected member of Parliament, said in an interview.

There was a wave of Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s and one in the 1970s that began when another Scots separatist, Margo MacDonald, won an earlier Govan by-election. That round ended badly for the nationalists in 1979, when a referendum that would have given Scotland its own Parliament while keeping it in the union failed to win enough votes.

For a while it appeared that the 1979 defeat had destroyed the movement politically, but less than a decade later, another Govan by-election catapulted Sillars, to whom MacDonald is now married, into Westminster.


Like those earlier spasms, it may be that this new wave of nationalism will also pass without lasting impact. But longtime observers note that there are at least two significant differences this time: Thatcher and the move toward a single European market by 1992.

Political Polarization

“All this would be an interesting human interest story were it not for the political polarization in Britain over the last 10 years,” commented a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. But Thatcher, he said, “has rigid views which are antithetical to the way a lot of Scots think.”

Scots see themselves as what MacDonald termed “sensible socialists,” concerned with values such as community and fairness. The unforgivable sin to a Scot is to be “on the make” for money, and that is what they see as the driving force of Thatcherism.

“She personifies the very worst of Englishness,” commented Bob McCreadie, an Edinburgh University law school instructor and vice chairman of the Scottish Democratic Party. “It has to do with self-interest and greed.”

Although they disagree with the assessment, even Thatcher supporters here confirm that it is widespread.

Anti-Thatcher Element

“There’s always been a small percentage of Scottish nationalists who are anti-English,” John McKay, chief executive of the Scottish Conservative Party, commented in an interview. “Now we have that allied to a very anti-Conservative, anti-Thatcher sentiment. They can’t beat her, so they want to separate from her.”


One argument against Scottish separatism has always been that an independent Scotland, or even a “devolved” one, would inevitably become politically and economically isolated--”a British Albania,” as the diplomat put it. But now some project that a Scotland freed from Britain could find a new home within the economically integrated Europe envisioned in 1992.

“We are talking about freeing Scotland from England within the context of the European Community,” said Sillars. Within the EEC, he added, “England would be no more than a friendly partner and there would be no control of Scotland from England whatsoever.”

Simple Cultural Image

To an outsider, it may come as a surprise that Scots consider themselves in danger of being swallowed up by the English. Few nationalities have a more widely recognized, albeit overly simplistic, cultural image.

In practical terms, too, the Scots retain many symbols of nationhood. The Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) is independent, and both the legal and educational systems are significantly different from those south of Hadrian’s Wall, the historic dividing line between Scotland and England erected by Roman conquerors in the 2nd Century.

The Bank of Scotland issues its own bank notes, even though these are fully interchangeable with their English counterparts.

Scotland elects 72 members to the 650-seat British House of Commons, and one of them serves in the Cabinet as secretary of state for Scotland. Whether he or she serves as Scotland’s voice in London or London’s enforcer in Scotland is a matter of debate.


Scots Feel Cheated

Still, most Scots apparently feel cheated.

“The spirit underlying the Treaty of Union has been eroded almost to the point of extinction,” according to the predominantly leftist constitutional steering committee which set out the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly’s case. “The wishes of a massive majority of the Scottish electorate are being disregarded.”

Instead of financing tax cuts, some Scots argue that more of the billions of dollars of “their” North Sea oil revenue should have been invested in a new economic infrastructure that might have relieved some of the region’s chronic unemployment, for example.

The area’s economic problems reflect its claim as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Coal, shipbuilding, heavy machinery manufacture and textiles were Scotland’s big industries. And like the situation in the smokestack cities of the American East and Middle West, that heritage is today Scotland’s curse.

Shipbuilding Suffers

Glasgow’s shipbuilding yards along the Clyde River, which a century ago launched nearly half the world’s ships, are economically peripheral today. The Govan yard, which as recently as a generation ago still employed 12,000, is now owned by a Norwegian firm and employs 1,800. That is slated to drop by another third by the end of next year in a streamlining move.

Scotland has become a major world electronics center, sometimes referred to as “Silicon Glen.” Across from the nearly empty King George V cargo dock in Govan is Radio Scan Ltd.’s Cellular Telephone Center. But such new industry has yet to pick up the job slack, and Scottish unemployment is still well over the national average at 11%. In Govan, it is closer to 25%.

The government says the “economic miracle” that has transformed the south of England is just a little slower working its magic north of Hadrian’s Wall. But the Scots appear tired of waiting.


The leftist Labor Party is more to Scottish tastes, but most here despair of its being able to oust Thatcher’s Conservatives anytime soon. Labor controlled 50 of the 72 Scottish parliamentary seats until Govan. But its power here is more than offset by Thatcher’s strength in the populous southeast of England, and as a result it has proved incapable of adequately defending what the Scots see as their interests. To Sillars, those Labor members of Parliament were the “feeble 50.” Now they’re 49.

Home Rule the Goal

With only four seats in Parliament, Sillars’ tiny Scottish National Party is not going to overturn Thatcher either. But he hopes that it will become the touchstone for a campaign that will bring so much moral pressure on the government that it will be forced to bow to some form of Scottish home rule. Either the constitutional convention or regional council elections scheduled for 1990 could provide impetus for a referendum that could force the government into a corner. So could the next general elections, probably in 1991 or 1992, if the Scots should vote out their last Tory members of Commons.

There are only 10 left after 1987’s highly successful “Campaign for a Tory-Free Scotland” cut the Conservative total by more than half.

If those 10 lose next time, Tory official McKay conceded, “I think that will be a difficult position. I think that will threaten the union.” And, he added, Thatcher’s opponents “can devise electoral pacts that would bring that about.”

High Stakes Battle

The stakes in the political battle here are high.

Although it is home to only 10% of the United Kingdom’s population, Scotland makes up about one-third of its land. North Sea oil is a crucial ingredient in the entire British economy. And Scotland is a vital link in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense chain, with at least 25 military bases, including important listening posts and nuclear submarine pens.

Although he says he is “willing to do our share for the defense of Western Europe,” Sillars noted that “our party is profoundly anti-nuclear deterrent. We don’t want nuclear weapons on our soil.”


Even a “devolved” Scottish Parliament would be an irretrievable step down the “slippery slope” toward separation, opponents contend. “The idea of devolution--that Scotland becomes the only part of the United Kingdom that has a double Parliament”--its own, plus representatives in Westminster--”is inherently unstable,” said McKay of the Scottish Conservatives.

Federal System Sought

True enough, nationalists retort. So why shouldn’t other areas--Wales, Northern Ireland, maybe even the north of England--have their own parliaments as well, and Britain be transformed into a federal system like the United States or West Germany?

To McKay, the nationalists are unrealistic, “trying to live in a world without negative consequences.”

So they don’t like Thatcher? “Mrs. Thatcher is not immortal. Is this a reason for ending a union which has gone on for 280 years?” he asked.

Back at the Govan District Information Center, there’s another sign of the times, this one a cartoon posted on a bulletin board.

The drawing depicts a miniature Thatcher peering out of a heavily guarded, multistory fortress that dominates one side of a Monopoly game board. Opposite is what could be a Scottish worker, seemingly without resources but with a determined look on his face.


“Your move!” says the Thatcher figure.