The Chinese philosopher Confucius said “may you live in interesting times”. And we certainly do in Scotland. Suddenly nothing is certain, everything is up for discussion.
Actually, let’s start with Confucius. Extensive research suggests – well, I did a Google search – that the phrase is in fact a relatively modern and Western invention. So even the validity of this reliable old saying is being questioned in these uncertain times.
To recap for new readers of my blog, I am English by birth and now resident in Orkney. Not familiar with Orkney? It is a group of islands off the north-east coast of Scotland which is part of Scotland, and part of the United Kingdom.
And, in case you have missed it, Scotland will vote in a referendum in the next couple of years on whether to become an independent country, separate to the UK. Because I’m resident in Scotland I will get a vote in this referendum.
These are exciting times. How often do you get to vote on whether the place you live should become a new independent country? Well, strictly, not new, as Scotland was independent before 1707.
It raises all sorts of questions. What about the head of state? Well, that’s quite an easy one. The proposal, if Scotland became independent, is to keep Her Majesty The Queen as head of state, assuming she will have us.
But what about the currency? What about the army? What about my taxes? What about the economy? And there’s more, as we shall see.
First, some background for those who do not live in the UK, such as my in-laws in California. Scotland already has a parliament. It was established in 1999 and it has powers over much domestic policy including health, education and justice.
In the most recent parliamentary election, in 2011, the SNP – or Scottish National Party – gained an overall majority of seats. This was unexpected because the Scottish Parliament was deliberately set up in such a way that no one party was likely to gain overall control.
And, as you will guess from its name, the SNP’s main wish is for an independent Scotland. Hence the referendum on independence, expected in 2014.
Now you might think they are likely to get their wish – clearly lots of people in Scotland voted for the SNP in 2011, surely those folk want the country to be set free from the UK. Well, not exactly.
The SNP did well in the 2011 election because they had performed competently as a minority government in the four years from 2007. For various reasons the other big parties in Scotland – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservative – did not perform well at the 2011 election.
Opinion polls consistently show the majority of voters in Scotland want to remain within the UK but the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, hopes he can convince them otherwise.
So what will happen? Well at this point I get out my crystal ball. Would you like the winning numbers for this weekend’s Lottery as well? Yes? Of course, I don’t know.
My guess is that we will have an exciting, lively, at times heated, campaign at the end of which there will be a fairly narrow vote to stay within the UK. But nothing in life is certain – except death and taxes, of course.
What if Scotland overall voted in favour of independence but Orkney said no? In the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution Orkney did vote in favour of a Scottish parliament but by the smallest margin of all areas – just 57.3 per cent.
Orkney was part of Norway until 1468 when it came to Scotland through a marriage dowry and it retains a healthy independent spirit. There is also suspicion in Orkney about being ruled from Edinburgh and whether it is any better than being ruled from London or some other remote place.
Remember, while tv documentaries about Orkney love to wax lyrical about its remoteness, at the edge of the UK, it is in fact other places that are remote from us. We believe we are at the centre.
In December at the Kirkwall Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, held in St Magnus Cathedral, Tom Christer Nilsen, Mayor of Hordaland – a region of Norway twinned with Orkney – made reference to the King of Norway in 1468 giving away what wasn’t his to give.
So I had been musing for some weeks on the possibility of a revolt within Orkney, a refusal to go into an independent Scotland, when about ten days ago the Earl of Caithness actually proposed that Orkney and Shetland should have the right to remain part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent.
Other changes could flow from the momentous change to an independent Scotland. What will happen to the rest of the UK? Will it still be called that? What might the people of Wales want to do?
What about the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed? This is a town just inside England, south of the Scottish border, which has changed hands many times over history between Scotland and England. Might they decide they would prefer to join Scotland? Would that be possible?
More worryingly, Lord Empey has warned that independence for Scotland risks reigniting conflict in Northern Ireland. I can imagine an independent Scotland being seen as the starting flag for the break-up of the UK, which could lead to pressure for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
I have no strong opinion on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or Ireland – let the good people who live there decide – but please let’s not return to the days of terrorism.
And what about England itself? In some ways the Conservative Party is taking an honourable position in this debate. Err, yes, you heard that correctly. I know it is always fashionable to knock the Tories.
But the party is fighting to retain the United Kingdom while simultaneously realising it would have much to gain from a Westminster parliament that has had all the Scottish Labour MPs removed, thereby giving the Conservatives an almost guaranteed majority.
I think also the birth of an independent Scotland would see the nature of England itself change. People would no longer have a split personality of being English and British – they would be English. The politics and society of England might develop in unexpected ways that we can’t imagine.
So, even if Confucius did not originally say it, we are living in interesting times in the UK, and certainly here in Scotland and Orkney. It’s a privilege to be here.
Let’s get strapped in and hold on for an exciting ride into the future.
To find out more
An explanation of what Confucius did not say:
My Who Am I? blog entry:
Some unresolved questions about Scottish independence explored:
What the Earl of Caithness had to say:
What Lord Empey had to say:
Blogs worth reading, from Brian Taylor, Political Editor, BBC Scotland: