Scottish independence - the Jewish view

Scotland’s Jews are preparing for their ancient nation's possible secession from the UK.

David Cameron 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
David Cameron 311
(photo credit: Reuters)

The political map of Scotland today doesn’t so much shout nationalist bright yellow of Scottish National Party (SNP) colors, as positively scream it. The scale of the victory of the SNP in the Scottish parliamentary election in May was nothing short of historic.

Having secured their first-ever parliamentary election triumph over their bitter rivals Labor in 2007 by a narrow 47 seats to 46, the SNP, which subsequently served a four-year term as a minority government, was handed a stunning 69 seats out of 129 by the Scottish electorate. That pushed Labor, seen by many as the natural party of government in Scotland, into a distant second with 37 seats, giving the nationalists a majority with which to secure their much-coveted referendum on independence.

More than half a year after that earthshaking election, the debate over Scotland’s future has been as fierce as it has been all-encompassing. Taking in all four corners of the United Kingdom’s second-largest constituent country, the question on everybody’s lips – from politicians to the public at large – has been the constitution and the future direction of one of the world’s most successful unions. For Scotland’s sm all but thriving Jewish community, there’s an additional question: “What will it mean for us?”

While only 10,000 Jews inhabit this nation of 5.2 million, they, like the rest of those residing within the northern third of the island of Great Britain – and the rest of the UK – stand to be affected by a constitutional question greater than that posed in 1997. That year, Scots voted emphatically for the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament – with tax-varying powers – after its suspension in the 1707 Act of Union.

Today, the people of Scotland are being prepared for the vote of their lives when, in the next two to three years, they will be asked to decide on whether Scotland’s future lies as a nation within the UK – as it has done for the last three centuries – or as a fully independent country taking its place at the top table of sovereign nation-states.

For individual members of Scotland’s Jewish community – many with fears of the rise of nationalist political parties and the future relationship any independent Scotland would adopt with Israel, not to mention the more domestic concerns of Scottishness versus Britishness – their verdict on this once-ina- lifetime question will be no less profound.

“I was dismayed by the rise in the SNP’s support,” says Dianna Wolfson, a retired head teacher from Glasgow, speaking to The Jerusalem Report of the day that put Scotland’s nationalists and unionists on a collision course.

“But, I think that they got the support for several reasons. Firstly, voters were disillusioned with the Scottish Labor Party, both nationally and locally. Secondly, there was no strong Labor leadership in Scotland. Thirdly, [SNP leader] Alex Salmond is a very clever and charismatic politician. He fought a great campaign. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is also a very good politician and an excellent speaker.”

Many Scottish political commentators agree that the Salmond factor was a big draw for Scotland’s voting public in the May poll.

A consummate politician, who cut his teeth as a member of parliament in London’s Westminster, Salmond threw his support behind the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament within the UK political framework but had to wait eight years from its first sitting in 1999, and two successive Scottish Labor-Liberal Democrat coalition governments later, before taking the SNP to the pinnacle of Scottish political life and installing himself as the country’s first minister – albeit in a minority administration.

Yet, today, the man whose approval rating leaves others trailing in his wake sits at the head of a majority government in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, with his and the SNP’s most cherished prize in sight.

“I was surprised and delighted by the win in May,” dentist and long-time SNP voter Frank Angell tells The Report. “The SNP had the most positive campaign and tended to give Scots a feeling of confidence in their abilities. In general, I would not support a nationalist party as they tend to be racist. The SNP, however, is an inclusive party and seeks a better solution for its population regardless of their origins.”

Chartered civil engineer Philip Mendelsohn was a first-time SNP voter, though he contends that its resounding victory was “a fluke.” “Speaking personally I managed two ‘firsts’ in my voting,” says Mendelsohn, who usually supports the Liberal Democrats, speaking to The Report.

“I voted tactically and I used one vote to vote SNP. Why did I and others vote them in? I think they had done an excellent job as a minority government in the previous parliament. This time around Labor was beyond the pale and neither the Conservatives nor the Lib-Dems were electable. Why it happened was that too many of us actually directly supported them because of this; we failed to realize that we had good minority government because we had not voted directly for the SNP. All that said, they still seem to be doing a pretty good job,” he says.

With Salmond and his SNP bestriding Scottish politics like a colossus, the prospect of severing or at least renegotiating the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England has never been greater. Opinion polls have indicated that about a third of Scots – sometimes less, sometimes more – are in favor of complete self-determination.

In October 2011, a ComRes poll found support for Scottish independence at 49 percent with 37 percent against. A December 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey poll put support for Scotland “becoming an independent state” at 32 percent with 49 percent believing that the country should remain part of the UK but “with some tax powers.”

Yet, intriguingly, the very same survey recorded support for independence rocketing to 65 percent when pollsters put it to the voting sample that, under an independent Scotland, “the standard of living would be higher and people would be £500 a year better off.” In early December, Scottish political commentator Iain MacWhirter wrote in the Glasgow newspaper “The Herald” that “it suggests that most Scots would now opt for independence if they thought it could b made to work economically.”

“My only real concern [with the SNP in majority power] is the referendum itself,” says Mendelsohn of the forthcoming independence vote. This is thought to be earmarked for 2014 or 2015 by the first minister – the title given to Scotland’s head of government – whose moves to build a referendum consensus in the last parliament as a minority government were thwarted by his unionist opponents.

“Not because I think they will get the majority they are seeking but because it will be a huge distraction when there are more important things to worry about,” Mendelsohn says.

“But, I would vote against – Scotland is far too small to be a viable economy at present and we only need to look at the Euro Zone to see that we could not go there for stability and security. I am not saying I would never be for independence, as – or maybe if – the European Community develops into a viable community then there is a case for areas like Scotland to cede from their current structure and be direct partners in Europe.”

Wolfson, the retired teacher, a former convener of the Scottish Inter-faith Council, agrees and resolutely believes in Scotland’ place within the UK. “I will vote no. I feel British and want to remain part of the United Kingdom. There is much mobility between Scotland and England.

Many young [Scottish] people who study at English universities find employment in English towns and settle there,” she offers. “I think that we are stronger together. I also worry about SNP foreign policy. I would be concerned about their policy towards Israel, though I have no hard evidence about the policy a future SNP independent government would have regarding Israel.”

Yet , for the likes of Angell, a committed nationalist, who is due to stand for the SNP in the Scottish local government elections of May 2012, only with independence can Scotland’s potential be truly realized. “I would vote for independence as I believe that an independent Scotland would be more able to cope with its population’s requirements when divorced from the needs of the southeast of England,” says Angell, the dentist.

“Take immigration policy – people in Scotland are saying we need more people to come into the country, whereas down south [in England] they’re of the belief that they’re a bit on the full side, and they’re trying to downsize their population growth. Scotland already has many of the basics for independence, such as its own borders, flag, legal system, education system, sporting teams and so on."

People in Scotland are less scared of independence than they were at one time, and with complete independence certain things would remain – I don’t see the end of the BBC as such, for instance. I’ve always felt a strong sense of being Scottish as well as being Jewish – I’ve never found a conflict between the two.”

Angell, who is running as an SNP councillor in East Renfrewshire, one of 32 council areas of Scotland, believes that far from being a process fraught with difficulties, the country’s emergence onto the international stage as a sovereign state would be rather more seamless.

“The Czech and Slovak model is one example of how two different entities that made up Czechoslovakia didn’t, for whatever reason, want to be together anymore, and there didn’t seem to be any animosity, no riots on the streets. Theirs was an amicable split, and my attitude is that Scottish independence would be similar –

an amicable divorce with joint custody ofthe children.”

Salmond, a keen betting man, who likes a flutter on the horses, has floated the idea of an extra question being added on to any future referendum ballot – known as “independence-lite” or “devolution-max.” Today, the Scottish Parliament has control over health and social services, law and order, transport, tourism and economic development, and sports and the arts. Other areas, such as foreign policy, defense, immigration, and benefits and social security are the preserve of the government

in London

“Devo-max,” as it is known in its abbreviated form, would give Scotland full fiscal autonomy, retaining its links to the union through only a shared foreign and defense policy, a calculated fall-back position, say many of Salmond’s detractors, but a settlement which, in a December 2011 Ipsos Mori poll, was favored by 68 percent of Scots (with 28 percent against) compared to 38 percent for independence (with 57 percent against).

“I would consider ‘devolution max’ as a step in the right direction if full independence was not supported,” says Angell.

Mendelsohn, too, sees a progression to a greater degree of self-accountability as a laudable aim, starting with the expected arrival from Westminster of the Scotland Bill, which is due to hand the Scottish Parliament even more law-making powers – including £12 billion of new tax and borrowing powers – but which the SNP says doesn’t go far enough.

“I am not desperate that we achieve independence, but am willing to countenance a journey – we have started that and are about to embark on another stage, [with the] increased tax raising powers,” says the bornand- bred Glaswegian.

“It will be interesting to see if and when the SNP is brave enough to use them – before or after the referendum? I can foresee further steps on a progressive journey but do not see suddenly moving to ‘devolution max’ as a short or even long-term goal. We will continue on the journey and I could envisage Scotland as one of the states of a United States of Europe in the long term. I think this is more viable and likely than Scottish independence per se.”

In the realm of foreign affairs, Scotland has already had a foretaste of the rough and tumble of international diplomacy. In 2009, the country grabbed the headlines when, under its independent legal system, it released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, on compassionate grounds.

In the summer of 2011, the nation provoked criticism from Israel, the US and local Jewish circles – but went more or less unnoticed by the vast majority of Scots – when it emerged that Scotland’s West Dunbartonshire council had, in early 2009, taken the decision to boycott Israeli goods in protest against Israel’s operation against Gazan rocketeers, leading to many spurious allegations of “book-burning” and prompting many foreign-based critics to label Scotland an anti-Semitic backwater with Nazi inclinations.

“I think that it is going a bit far to brand Scotland as a whole an anti-Semitic country or backwater,” says Wolfson of the controversy. “This is not my experience. The West Dunbartonshire issue did upset members of the Jewish community at the time, but that said, it has blown over.”

Mendelsohn agrees, dismissing the row as a tempest in a teacup. “It was totally overblown by the press and mismanaged by a very ineffective local authority, which had failed to make sure that the councillors and officers communicated with each other and responded to developments.”

Angell says that while he believes many more SNP members identify with the Palestinians’ cause over that of Israel’s case, he’s never encountered any anti- Israel or anti-Semitic sentiments from anyone in the party in all his years of membership. And on the prospects of Scotland seceding from the union, Angell remains hopeful, adding that much of the decision will hinge on the prevailing economic conditions at the time of the vote.

“If the country is doing well economically, then the vote could go with independence, but if there’s a vast economic crisis then people would probably be more scared to vote for independence. There is a certain, ‘looking after your own interests’ factor, which we all do, of course.”