On September 18th anyone aged 16 or over who resides in Scotland, is on the electoral register and a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or an EU country will get a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote (no other option is available) on the most important issue in the 307-year history of Great Britain. The question on the ballot paper is stark, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’? The cataclysmic ramifications behind this apparently simple question is nothing less than the dissolution of the union of England and Scotland which, together with Wales and six of the nine counties of Ulster, forms the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As the UK is a nuclear power, a leading world economy and one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, this has global implications. How did this state of affairs come into being?
On May 1st 1707 England (which had de facto annexed Wales in the Sixteenth Century) and Scotland which had hitherto been two separate nations, united politically. They were already sharing the monarchy from the royal House of Stuart since 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The parliaments of both countries had passed their respective Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 and in effect Scottish independence ceased from that point. Why did Scotland voluntarily cede its independence? In reality it had little choice in the wake of the ill-fated Darien Scheme. This was an attempt to compete with England in world trade and colonization. The project sought to plant a Scottish colony on the narrow isthmus of Panama in the fond hope that it could thus control trade carried overland between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This would save merchant ships, so the thinking went, the long and hazardous sea-route around Cape Horn and so was a kind of Panama Canal forerunner. An incorporated trading organisation, The Company of Scotland, was formed and more than £400,000 (worth over a hundred times that in today’s money) was raised by subscription and invested in the plan. To put this immense sum into perspective, it was about one fifth of all the liquid capital in Scotland at the time.
Unfortunately the scheme proved to be a disaster from first to last.The settlers found the land difficult to cultivate and couldn’t feed themselves, the natives were unwilling to trade food, the Spanish claimed sovereignty over the area and were actively hostile and the climate, mosquitoes and disease unbearable. The King, William III, was unwilling to risk war with Spain and refused help to the colonists.
By the time the enterprise was abandoned, three quarters of the settlers were dead and the capital had disappeared. An attempt to recoup money by trading along the west African coast also failed and three ships were lost. A fourth chartered ship was seized by the English East India Company to deter competition. Scotland was almost bankrupted by this debacle. When proposals were again resurrected to bring about a political union with England under the last Stuart sovereign, Queen Anne, they were received north of the border with more enthusiasm than hitherto. Negotiations between parliamentary commissioners ran between April and July 1706. Scotland had to concede that if Anne died without surviving issue (which she eventually did) then the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty would succeed to the joint throne. In return it got access to the England’s colonial markets and a cash payment to offset Scottish liability to England’s national debt. In addition, the Scottish pound was stabilized at the fixed rate of one Scottish pound to one English shilling. Thus was born Great Britain with a joint parliament in Westminster and none in Edinburgh.
Fast forward now to 1997 when the then Labour government included plans for a devolved Scottish assembly, which came into being in May 1999. After the Scottish National Party became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament and later won an overall majority, pressure for a full independence referendum became irresistible.
Where does this leave the Scottish Jewish community? There are an estimated 6,000-7,000 Jews in Scotland, mainly located in Glasgow with smaller communities in Edinburgh and Dundee and small pockets scattered around the country. Historically Jews have not been oppressed in Scotland but there is palpably much animosity to them north of the border. This is sometimes disguised as anti-Zionism but often without even this fig-leaf. Operation ‘Protective Edge’ this summer stripped away any pretense that this antagonism was merely directed at Israel and not at Jews per se. In the first week of August, more anti-Semitic incidents were recorded than in the whole of the previous year. Insulting graffiti on synagogues, verbal and written threats, incitement to violence, open hostility to Jews in universities, trade unions and town and city councils (some of which have flown the Palestinian flag) are everyday events and are making life difficult for Jewish Scots. The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign is particularly active and displays a fanatical hatred of Israel and by implication, Jewish self-determination.
Yvonne Ridley, a former reporter captured by Jihads and ‘turned’ by them to their cause, tweeted that she wanted a ‘Zionist-free Scotland’ As many, if not most, of the community support Israel’s existence, this implies a Jew-free Scotland. The Scottish Parliament itself has debated more anti-Israel motions than against all other countries combined despite the horrendous slaughters all over the Muslim World. Alex Salmond, who stands to become an independent Scotland’s first Prime Minister has variously called Israel ‘not a normal state’ and ‘a criminal state’ and one ‘which should be subject to sanctions.’ An independent MSP, Jean Urquhart on her website denounces ‘Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian People’ while four local councils have publicly said they will boycott all Israeli goods. The Church of Scotland issued a document denying any Jewish claim to the Holy Land although this was partly ameliorated after a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community. Scot, George Galloway who is notorious for his anti-Israel obsession and is one of Bradford’s MPs, said that no Israelis should be tolerated in that city. The Scottish Human Rights Commission has issued seven statements condemning countries, six of those were against Israel. These are just a few examples of the unhealthy and manic obsession that Scots have with the Jewish state and which is directed at no other country, no matter how evil.
The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities in August this year issued a statement calling on public bodies to recognize the growing number of incidents of antisemitism in the country. Should the Scots vote for independence and the restraining hand of Westminster be removed, one wonders how long it might be before motions to ban schechita (kosher animal slaughter) and brit milah are debated in the Scottish Parliament. This has already happened in some European states and is a ‘respectable’ way to make life difficult for Jews.
Would Scottish Jews be required to swear an oath of non-allegiance to Israel? Would an Israeli ambassador be even allowed into Edinburgh? These hypotheses may seem fanciful but given the climate of hostility, I suspect not. There’s an old, wry joke about a Jew who receives a telegram (these days it would have to be a text message, email or Tweet) from a relative which says “start worrying- details to follow”. Scottish Jews, I’m sure are worried, very worried. As always, and as reaction to this summer’s events in Gaza has thrown into sharp relief, prudent Diaspora Jews need to keep a bag packed at all times.