The Scottish way
When I first came to the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, I experienced various awkward moments because of my lack of cultural understanding and poor English proficiency. One sticky situation was when I would ask a person if they were English and they would respond that they were Scottish. I couldn’t quite understand the correction.
Then I learned that what Koreans generally consider England is actually Britain, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. England is the biggest and most powerful part of the kingdom, but Great Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. England and the three other entities that constitute the United Kingdom have different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and original languages, although they now use English most commonly.
Because of the historical background, many people think that the referendum on Scotland’s independence that was held on September 18 was a matter of ethnic sentiment. However, the key points of the Scottish independence debate were actually economic policies.
In the United Kingdom, Scotland has enjoyed a status different from Wales or Ireland. While England defeated and took over Wales and Ireland by force, Scotland voluntarily joined England in 1707 and played an important role in building the great British empire after the merger.
Among great British figures that we all know, many are Scottish. Some notable Scots are Adam Smith, the father of modern economics; James Mill and John Stuart Mill, masters of classic economics; philosopher David Hume; steam engine inventor James Watt; scientist William Thomson, who was commonly known as First Baron Kelvin and came up with the concept of absolute temperature; and William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England. Since the 18th century, many Scottish people have served pivotal roles in the development of British philosophy and technology. Without Scotland, the history of Great Britain and the world would have been different.
Because of their history, Scottish people have a strong national identity but didn’t consider themselves persecuted like the Irish and the Welsh. Therefore, not many people initially wanted independence. While the referendum result showed 45 percent voting for independence and 55 percent voting “no,” earlier this year it was expected that at most 30 percent would support independence.
The situation changed when the Scottish Nationalist Party, which led the pro-independence movement, displayed clear policy plans instead of simply appealing to nationalistic sentiment.
Most importantly, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed in 2010 pursued a drastic reduction of the welfare state for the United Kingdom, and even the Labour Party recognized the need to cut down on welfare expenses. In contrast, the Scottish Nationalist Party advocated reinforcement of the welfare state.
The Scottish Nationalist Party has been the largest party since 2007 and the majority since 2011 in the empowered Scottish Parliament. It has been rejecting policies that are implemented in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as the expansion of medical privatization and the introduction of college tuitions.
In the debate over the referendum, the Scottish Nationalist Party pointed out that Norway, which discovered the North Sea oil around the same time as the United Kingdom, created a sovereign wealth fund and accumulated a national pension, while the United Kingdom squandered a lot of money by offering tax cuts for the wealthy. The Scottish Nationalist Party promised to use oil revenues for welfare if Scotland became independent and the pledge attracted many supporters.
After the referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron hurriedly prepared plans to grant more autonomy to Scotland, and the key point in the plan is giving the Scottish Parliament new power over taxes and welfare. It shows how important welfare policy has been in the Scottish independence debate.
The Scottish Nationalist Party transformed the independence controversy, which could easily have remained a purely emotional battle, into a genuine policy debate and garnered wide support that was thought impossible a few months ago. It is a case study that Korean political parties that wish to turn around their situations should study carefully. Emotion counts, as it always has. But voters also want smart policies from their politicians.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 25, Page 35
*The author is a professor of economics at the University of Cambridge.
by Chang Ha-joon