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Scotland’s Caucasus dilemma

by Nathan Gray at 29/03/2012 20:28

Scots, like the mountain peoples of Russia’s North Caucasus, are known for being a rugged, independentminded lot.

Historically, both Scotland and the North Caucasus (particularly Chechnya) have fought several wars with their bigger neighbors for independence.

But while in the Caucasus matters are still often settled with violence, in Scotland questions of greater autonomy have for centuries been decided by more peaceful means. Recently, momentum has been building behind a push for independence, which is going to be decided by a referendum.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s current first minister, is leader of the Scottish National Party, which has campaigned for independence from Britain for decades. But now he, like Chechnya’s more controversial leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, may be finding that it’s better to work within the larger nation than outside it.

Of course, Alex Salmond is no Ramzan Kadyrov – certainly he doesn’t share Kadyrov’s dodgy human rights record, and he’s probably not much good at dancing the lezginka, either.

But the two leaders do have something in common: they are both former ardent secessionists who, once in power, are learning to deal with the reality of being part of a bigger country – and trying to get the best deal for their smaller nation by compromise.

In Scotland, the political temperature has been rising since a Conservative government came back into power in London in May 2010. Back in the last century, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher devastated Scotland economically, but in the last decade and a half Scottish ministers in Labour governments have arguably gone some way to redressing the balance.

Now Scotland will need to decide how far it wants to assume power to raise its own revenue, rather than depend on support through block grants from London.

The Conservative victory may have been the key factor that pushed Salmond’s SNP to an outright majority in the Scottish parliament one year later.

The parliament in Edinburgh began in 1999, as part of a devolution settlement from 1997. The Scottish government has control over affairs such as law enforcement, health, and education, while the British government retains control over such areas as the economy, defense, and foreign policy.

Since the SNP came to power, momentum has been building for a reassessment of the 1997 settlement. Salmond is calling for a referendum in 2014, but controversy exists over what it will ask.

Salmond would prefer three questions: whether the voter would prefer the status quo, according to the 1997 settlement; maximum devolution, or “devo max,” which would grant full taxing and spending powers; or full independence. Critics, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, see the threequestion referendum as ambiguous, and demand a clear-cut yes-or-no question.

Surveys are indicating, however, that while there is lukewarm support for outright independence, greater freedom and responsibility to raise revenue for social programs appeal to the public.

British political parties (the Conservatives, Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats – who are far different from their Russian namesake) have been focusing on why Scottish independence would be bad, not why the retaining the union would be good. More than the others, Labour has a political reason for opposing independence, because if Scotland left the United Kingdom, it could be locked out of power.

The problem facing those who favor full independence for Scotland is like that facing Chechen insurgents: How would their small nation survive economically – particularly given the global economic crisis?

The Scottish government has higher spending commitments on education and social spending than its mother parliament in London.

Salmond’s nationalists, who have supported these commitments to the Scottish people, may lose their popularity if they were to go it alone and had to implement a tough program of austerity and cuts. And that’s without having to manage Scotland’s independent defense and foreign policy.

At a time when the Conservatives in London are slashing public services, and more liberal Scots are seeing their parliament as a cushion against a repeat of the Thatcherite 1980s, the nationalists may not want to be too rash in making promises.

And like Kadyrov in Chechnya, Salmond may find that maximum autonomy within the “United” Kingdom (and the subsidies that offers) gives his people more than the chilly prospect of total independence.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #23"
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