Imperfect Union

From protecting pandas to chucking nukes, inside the heated debate over whether Scotland should be independent.

GLASGOW — In the United Kingdom's recent history, few government publications have been as keenly awaited as the Scottish government's "White Paper" on independence -- that is, a document outlining the case for Scotland stepping out on its own on the world stage. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, who favors independence, has said it will "resonate down the ages." His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, has promised Scottish voters that it will "answer all your questions."

On Nov. 26, the White Paper, all 670 pages of it, was finally unveiled in Glasgow. Standing in front of a background proclaiming "Scotland's Future" and surrounded by media, Salmond and Sturgeon outlined their pitch to the Scottish people.

There would be many benefits of independence, according to the White Paper: Scotland would become a European Union member and disavow nuclear weapons, but the country would also keep its currency (the Sterling) and still recognize the queen as head of state. The Scottish government would also improve public services, which would include building a new national broadcasting service and inaugurating a "revolution" in childcare.

Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP), which he has led for more than two decades, hope that the White Paper will convince people to vote "yes" in next September's referendum on ending Scotland's 306-year-old union with England. To date, Scots have been skeptical of independence; a poll issued just before the White Paper was released showed the "no" side of the referendum with a 9-point advantage.

There is disagreement over whether the White Paper will end up turning the tide of support. But in reality, the "yes" versus "no" debate might not be as clear-cut as many pundits and policy-makers say. Indeed, even if the independence campaign doesn't succeed, some argue that Scotland is likely to continue to diverge politically from the rest of the United Kingdom -- and, in the process, demand more autonomy.

Historically, Scottish independence has been a marginal feature of British politics. The SNP, which has always stood for an independent Scotland, was founded in 1934 but only made its first significant electoral breakthrough in 1967. And even then, the party struggled to make significant gains in the decades that followed. The 1997 creation of a devolved parliament for Scotland -- a legislative body with limited powers -- proved a turning point in SNP fortunes. With the charismatic Salmond at its helm, the party first won a minority administration in the devolved parliament in 2007 elections. Then, in 2011, the nationalists achieved the once seemingly impossible: an absolute majority and, with it, the chance to realize the long-held dream of a vote on independence.

Now, the SNP is the driving force behind "Yes Scotland," the campaign for independence that also draws support from the Scottish Greens and a number of smaller socialist parties. "Better Together," which advocates staying in the United Kingdom, is supported by the three largest parties in London: Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. It is led by Alastair Darling, erstwhile chancellor of the Exchequer under Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister.

Critics from Better Together have attacked nationalist claims that independence would require minimal institutional changes. "What currency would we use? Who will set our mortgage rates? How much would taxes have to go up? How will we pay pensions and benefits in future?" Darling has asked. Better Together, which has been dubbed "Project Fear" by some because of its negative messaging, has also warned that pandas would be taken away from the Edinburgh zoo under independence, and that England would be forced to bomb Scotland if the northern country were invaded by a foreign power that, in turn, threatened its southern neighbor.

In seeking to answer these charges with detailed proposals like those in the White Paper, Scottish nationalists are understandably defending their position. But some say they could also be fashioning a data-heavy rod to break their own backs. "They have fallen into a unionist trap," David Torrance, journalist and author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, says of the SNP. "If you issue a detailed policy document, by its very nature, it will be picked over by friends and foes alike. It will produce questions, which will in turn need answers. The White Paper could end up being more trouble than it is worth."

 James Maxwell, a Scottish writer and contributor to the left-leaning New Statesman, says that while nationalists and unionists battle over the White Paper, the document is unlikely to set the heather on fire for Scottish voters. "The White Paper holds no interest for ordinary Scots, who are already swamped under an avalanche of statistics and supposedly neutral ‘expert opinion,'" he argues.

Support for independence is closely aligned with income and social status: In general, poorer Scots are more likely to say they will vote  "yes" in the upcoming referendum than their more affluent compatriots. The White Paper is unlikely to change this, says Maxwell. "Professional Scots are simply unwilling to gamble on radical constitutional change, even if the alternative is prolonged austerity and falling living standards inside the U.K."

But if Scots do reject independence next year, in the long run, the unionists could still find themselves on the wrong side of history, says Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University and author of The Independence of Scotland. Politically, Scotland will continue to chart a distinct path within the United Kingdom, a process that began 50 years ago and sped up after devolution in 1997. Keating envisages a situation similar to that in Quebec, where regionally based parties with little or no ties to U.K.-wide organizations dominate the local political scene and the issue of independence remains unresolved.

Calls for independence in Scotland are a product of broader tensions pertaining to both the ties that bind the United Kingdom and the very notion of the nation-state, says Keating. "The context for all these discussions is the transformation of the state, a process of rescaling the state upwards and downwards," he adds. Even without full independence, demands for greater autonomy in Scotland are likely to grow.

What's more, the inclusive notion of "Britishness" that has long held the union together is fraying and will only continue to do so. In Scotland especially, this fraying began with the 1980s government of Margaret Thatcher, which lacked legitimacy over England's northern border, and only accelerated with Gordon Brown's more recent, failed attempts to rally citizens around British patriotism. "Unionists have started setting Scottishness against Britishness," says Keating. "[But] they can no longer weave a story about the union as encompassing all these different identities."

So while polls show that the unionists are likely on course to win next year's referendum, the future of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom is anything but certain. Meanwhile, Yes Scotland is holding out hope that the White Paper will disrupt everything, sooner rather than later: The SNP government has already set a date for formal independence after a "yes" vote -- March 24, 2016.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


The Bad Cop Syndrome

Stung by the Obama administration's Iran deal, Israel's political class is now convinced that there's no one to trust but themselves.

TEL AVIV — "Everyone had to play their role," Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in an interview on Israeli television Sunday night, Nov. 24, less than a day after the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program was signed in Geneva. He was trying to parry criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stern handling of the diplomacy surrounding Iran -- but his statement could have easily substituted as a deeper observation for how Israelis see the international diplomacy swirling around their country.

In the borderline hysterical response from Israel to the interim deal, what is often lost is that each actor in the unfolding drama had a role to play. For Israel, that role is (and has always been) the "bad cop," or, as one Israeli columnist put it last year, the "Polish mother" -- constantly nagging Israel's allies to make more of themselves. That has been Netanyahu's default setting over the past several weeks, as he emerged as the staunchest international critic of the deal while the talks were underway, and subsequently castigated it for making the world "a much more dangerous place" even before the ink on the agreement was dry.

"What was the alternative [on offer to Netanyahu]?" Lapid asked rhetorically, about Netanyahu's response before the deal was signed. "To come out [publicly] after a deal was struck?" Lapid could have been echoing the old rabbinical saying, attributed to Hillel the Elder: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?"

For the Israeli political elite, the exact details of the interim deal struck in Geneva are secondary, as are the utterances from Israeli security professionals who see the agreement as better than the alternatives No, the prevailing sentiment is that Israel came out a loser -- abandoned by its great power ally and left to fend for itself in a volatile region.

Israeli government officials' prognostications have accordingly vacillated between ominous and mildly apocalyptic. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman assuredly said the deal "brings us to a nuclear arms race," while Naftali Bennett posited that the deal may lead to a "nuclear suitcase explod[ing] in New York or Madrid" in five years' time.

The Israeli public, so far, has taken all of these developments, all of this bombast, in stride. The biggest story of the past few weeks, in fact, has been a sordid sex scandal involving a prominent pop star and a bevy of underage teenage girls -- not exactly an issue of existential importance.

Part of this is likely due to "nuclear fatigue," coming as it does after years of screaming headlines declaring that the "moment of decision" regarding Iran was at hand. "[The agreement] isn't good, but it's not the end of the world," Nahum Barnea, the veteran political columnist for the Yediot Aharonot daily, wrote yesterday.  "Every Israeli, whether a nuclear expert or not, understands this." Indeed, the Tel Aviv stock exchange has reached record highs over the past few weeks, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the Iranian nuclear talks.

But part of it might also have to do with the clear-eyed realism of the Israeli public. The role of Israel's political and military leaders is to keep the country safe, whether Iran has more or fewer centrifuges. The role of the international community, in many Israeli minds, is to disappoint the Jewish state. As one acquaintance put it with a heavy shrug, "This is an existential issue for us, but it's not the first one. I hope the world powers know what they're doing."

The complete lack of trust and communication between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, however, may have surprised even the most cynical of Israelis. It's not only that Obama didn't apprise Israel of the year-long secret talks taking place with Iran in Oman. The real anger began a few weeks ago, during the first round of talks in Geneva, when it became clear that the United States would adopt a gradual, confidence-building strategy toward the Iranians, rather than the hardline positions championed by Netanyahu. More than anything, the latest spasm of official Israeli statements is anger at Washington's perceived naivety in the negotiations.

Despite the protestations of the U.S. administration, there is little belief in Israel that if it came down to it, military force remains "on the table" for resolving the Iranian nuclear problem. The aborted U.S. strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime for its use of chemical weapons weighs heavily on the minds of many Israeli officials and analysts. "The Obama Doctrine," said Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent for Channel 2 news, can be summed up thus: "Avoid military action at all cost."

For the Israeli political class, however, the public tone has already begun to shift from one of anger to one of resignation. "We won't surrender, and we will continue with our efforts" to stop Iran's nuclear program, Lapid said in his Sunday television interview. What these efforts might include are open to speculation, but in all likelihood we can expect a redoubled Israeli offensive in the diplomatic arena, an attempt to drum up public and government support against additional concessions to Iran, as well as a ramping up of the covert war inside Iran (think more dead scientists).

Some in the Israeli commentariat are already counseling restraint. Roni Daniel, a veteran military analyst not usually known for his cool head, highlighted the work that must be accomplished in the coming months, soberly observing that "Israeli intelligence on Iran is going to be crucial, as will the international inspection regime."

What the above efforts will likely not include is any unilateral Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities -- not as long as the United States and Europe are negotiating with the Iranians. Israel might not be bound by the Geneva agreement, as Netanyahu stated emphatically after its signing, but it is bound to its relationships with the West. Grumblings from inside the political arena at the prime minister's handling of the Iran issue have more to do with his style than with his policies on Iran. If, as an anonymous Israeli politician said, "at the end of the day, Israel will look for someone to blame," it won't be Netanyahu -- it will be Obama.

With all the talk of "winners and losers," the biggest casualty of the Iran saga might very well be the Middle East peace process. Netanyahu himself linked the Iran and Palestinian issues in his hurried and impromptu press conference a few weeks ago at the Tel Aviv airport, right before Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva for the first round of talks. The implication could not be clearer: Israel would not move on the peace track without progress on the Iranian track. Absent Israeli trust in the American president, the chances for a breakthrough will likely vanish. 

That's a sad thought, to be sure, and even a dangerous one. But after this saga, the belief that trusting outsiders is simply too fraught with risk for Israel is no longer simply a fixation of right-wing revanchists -- it has entered the Israeli mainstream.

"We always knew that we can only trust ourselves," Lapid said retrospectively. In the Israeli perspective, everyone has a role to play -- whether right or wrong, whether real or imagined.