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Lecturer Peter Watt discusses the issues and history surrounding Scottish Independence

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

According to the BBC, the “no” votes have a couple of percent lead in the upcoming referendum vote for Scottish independence from the U.K.

Now joining us from Sheffield, England, to discuss the question of Scottish independence, as well as the historical roots of the issue, is Peter Watt. He’s a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. He’s currently working on a book about the political culture of Britain with co-author Jason Freeman.

Thank you so much for joining us, Peter.

So, Peter, for our viewers that might not be familiar with it, give us a brief historical background of why this vote’s happening now. Scotland’s only been part of the U.K. for about 300 years, so it was independent before that.

PETER WATT, LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, it’s been part of the U.K. for 300 years. But now the idea, I think, of the U.K. kingdom is largely bankrupt after the two countries joined in union, which wasn’t necessarily a very popular thing at the time. It was an agreement between the crowns of the two countries, but it wasn’t necessarily backed by the popular will.

But, of course, in that period between then and now, you had the right and the slave trade, for example, and Britain expanding its empire throughout the globe. And that was–Scotland was as much a part of that as England was. There is a lot of people in Scotland who don’t like to remember that. And it was also part of the Industrial Revolution, which allowed for the United Kingdom to become a major world power. And then, more recently, Scotland and England and the United Kingdom fought two major wars.

But that was some time ago now. And this union, the currency of this union, has kind of begun to decline. And that’s happened in a very marked the way in the last two or three decades. And my sense is that the major reason for this is that the political parties–the Conservative Party (the Tories), the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats–have all inflicted policies on Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland which have really been to the detriment of the majority of the population. They’ve been policies, as elsewhere, that’s very similar to what’s happened in the United States, that benefit the rich, create higher levels of unemployment. We see the rise of the corporate sector as kind of taking over the state.

NOOR: And, Peter, so you support the independence vote. Thanks to two gracious volunteers for The Real News, Alan Knight and Tim Mitchell, we are able to speak directly to some voters in Scotland. This is voter Sue Brogan (spl?) about why she’s voting no.


SUE BROGAN, VOTER, SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM: As a labour supporter, I believe in solidarity and community and everybody working together. And we worked together to build the National Health Service, welfare state, BBC, Open University, equal pay. I come in born in the welfare through the NHS, passed the Eleven Plus, got free education, free university education.

The economic case has not been made. Long term, very long term, Scotland’s got a lot of resources, and it might be fine. But in the medium term, short and medium term, I think it’s going to be very difficult.


NOOR: So, Peter, that was a voter who was agreeing with the idea that Scotland is more left of the rest of the U.K. But she’s saying because of that Scotland needs to stay with the U.K., or the U.K., as we’ve already seen in the recent election, it’s a moving to the right, and by losing this 8 percent of the vote of the population, the rest of the U.K. will move even farther to the right. How would you respond to arguments like that? This is going to make the working-class people of the United Kingdom, and maybe even Scotland, more vulnerable if Scotland becomes independent.

WATT: Well, the Labour Party that she’s referring to no longer exists. There’s a reason why many people in Scotland called the Labour Party of today “the red Tories”, because essentially the three parties, aside from the SNP, the three parties you have an England–the Liberal Democrats, The conservatives, and the Labour Party–essentially all agree on the main issues. So she referred to free education. Which party was it, remind me, which brought in the tuition fees? It was under Tony Blair. It was the Labour Party. You used to be able to get free education in England, but you can’t anymore. And, in fact, now you have to pay 9,000 pounds a year at least for one year of university education. In Scotland, however, they couldn’t pass that through, because Scotland had–by the time Mr. Blair started introducing these things, it was so unpopular in Scotland that they couldn’t pass it.

So it was the Labour Party who sold out on education. It was the Labour Party responsible for the deepening of neoliberal policies. Mr. Blair continued and Mr. Brown continued the Tory agenda. There is very little difference between those two parties. It was Mr. Blair of the labor government invaded Iraq, the military operations in Afghanistan. Mr. Tony Blair started five wars, military invasions. It’s Tony Blair, the Labour Party, who supported the increasing expansion into the West Bank, who supported the sale of armaments to Saudi Arabia and to Israel. This was all done under the Labour Party.

So what I would say to the person you just had on is that she’s talking about a Labour Party which no longer exists. The three parties which we have which govern Westminster are completely out of touch with popular interests.

NOOR: And so, Peter, and so what about the argument that if Scotland leaves the U.K., that the rest of U.K. will become more to the right?

WATT: The arguments that Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom to kind of save England from itself I think is absolutely a terrible argument. Why should the people in Scotland, the voters in Scotland, why are they responsible for the Tory government? Surely it’s the–I mean, in Scotland there are more panda bears then there are Tory members of Parliament. It’s ridiculous. We have the one MP in Scotland for the Tory Party. And yet Scotland is expected to suffer under a Tory government for decades just to save England from having that fate.

I’ll give you an example. There’s never been Tory majority in Scotland since 1951. Scotland doesn’t vote Tory, and yet it always gets a Tory government. And then the issue of labor, well, yes, Labour Party would lose 41 MPs. But if England wants to vote labor, then it should do so, but they should focus–the focus should be on English people voting Tory if Scotland goes independent. That’s the problem. It’s not that Scotland wants to go independent.

For me this is a question of democracy, that the people in Scotland should get the government that they vote for. That’s not a view that is being peddled by the “no” campaign, and it’s certainly not being peddled by the BBC or the media establishment, who are firmly against this kind of democratic opening that’s taking place before our eyes in Scotland. The media’s quite astonishing, the kind of levels of participation, corporate participation, which has really taken the Westminster elites by surprise. So 97 percent of eligible voters are now registered to vote. The turnout in this referendum could be 87, 88 percent. That’s much higher than what happens in U.K. general elections.

NOOR: And so I don’t think people in Scotland are worried about their long-term economic outcomes, because it’s sitting on huge oil reserves. The per capita wealth of the average Scottish person is significantly higher than that of England. But banks are threatening to pull out. So I think a lot of people that are opposed to independence are worried about, as this woman, Sue, said, they’re worried about the short-term economic impact that could happen in Scotland. How would you respond to those concerns?

WATT: Well, actually the boss of the Royal–see, that’s one of the myths that’s kind of been, again, peddled by the BBC, that suddenly the Royal Bank of Scotland is going to pack its bags and leave for the city of London. It’s simply untrue. But it was reported by the BBC and it was leaked, apparently, leaked by the Treasury in London. But, of course, the following day the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a letter to all its employees saying there was no question that they were going to pack up and leave. They may relocate their central office to London, but there was no issue of jobs suddenly leaving.

And I think the reason for that is quite simple. Why would the Royal Bank of Scotland in fact, or any other bank, suddenly leave because they’re independent? The banks are doing very well, and I imagine they’ll continue to do so very well. Remember that in the midst of an economic recession, it’s the banks, the global banks, like the Royal Bank of Scotland, who saw their profits rise by about 15 percent, while in your country, in the United States, homes were being foreclosed and there was a serious economic downturn.

The banks, in fact, are largely responsible for the economic recession. It’s not because people are going to vote for democracy and for greater political participation that’s going to cause an economic recession. I think this is just, really, part of the scare campaign, which kind of makes sense, because the governing elites of the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, and Labour Party, they treated the Scottish referendum campaign with a great deal of condescension. You know, here’s the Scots again, ungrateful. They’re pushing for these things. There’s no way they could ever make it on their own. And so they dismissed it. And now the polls are showing that it’s going to be very close. So they were very complacent.

And then the three leaders of the main parties, Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Tweedle Dumber–that’s Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg–all rushed to Scotland to say, we don’t want you to leave. You can have devolution, you can have an improved version of devolution. And, of course, it was kind of ironic, because prior to the referendum, the idea of the devolution, what we call devo max, maximum devolution, was very popular. In fact, the idea was to put that option on the ballot paper, so that you would have either devo max or complete independence. And the Westminster government said that’s out of the question, it’s independence or nothing, because they never expected this groundswell of ordinary people, working-class people, this grassroots campaign suddenly becoming politicized. And what we’re seeing is really a kind of massive support for the “yes” campaign, which has just grown and grown in the last few weeks.

NOOR: And so, Peter, even if the vote goes to the “no” side, which polls indicate they may, what is this groundswell of activism, this engagement by the masses? What could that mean for Scotland’s politics and U.K.’s future?

WATT: I think even if there is a “no” vote, a “no” vote is, I think, kind of a vote for the status quo. But I don’t think that things can stay the same after this. All I could remember growing up in Scotland was this sense of disempowerment. There’s nothing you can do to change it. This was the years of Margaret Thatcher–there is no alternative, she said, there is no such thing as society. So you had drummed into you from a very early age there was nothing you could do to change things. And, of course, that continues, so that young people in Scotland today, who–they’ve known–and nothing else, they can’t remember anything else, suddenly they have a stake in Scotland’s future. They feel like their voice is going to be heard, is going to be counted. And I’m not saying that everything will end with independence[, ’cause (?)] it can answer all the questions more so than the problems.

But I certainly think it’s a step in the right direction because the present setup is so corrupt, rich state, rich government is massively corrupt and massively undemocratic. And I think any attempt to redress that imbalance is a positive thing. The “no” campaign keeps referring to this kind of narrow nationalism of the “yes” camp. Actually, I don’t think it’s about nationalism. These are questions of class. It’s about social justice. It’s about getting nuclear arms out of Scotland, weapons of mass destruction. And it’s about protecting the National Health Service. And the person you spoke to talked about the National Health Service. Well, it’s the Labour Party which have pledged to continue with the austerity cuts that have been imposed by this president government. So, unfortunately, the Labour Party are not an alternative anymore. And that’s why I think so many Labour Party voters have moved towards the idea of independence, because the Scottish National Party, certainly not a perfect party and probably not the party I would want to see in power–but then I’d want to see any of the others or any of other mainstream parties in power following independence if it happens. But it’s the SNP which are filling the boots of Labour, because Labour has completely and utterly abandoned its project.

NOOR: Peter Watt, thank you so much for joining us.

WATT: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Peter Watt is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK and is currently working on a book about the political culture of Britain with his co-author, Jason Freeman.