The Canadian man behind the Scottish independence movement

Luke Skipper on independence, whisky, and why Scotland isn't another Quebec

On independence, whisky, and why Scotland isn't another Quebec

Photograph by Zoe Norfolk

Scotland has announced that in 2014, it will hold a referendum to decide whether to quit the United Kingdom. It turns out the Scottish National Party’s chief of staff, a man dedicated to tearing the U.K. apart, isn’t Scottish at all, though. He’s Canadian—not even fully Scots-Canadian, but equal parts English, Polish and Scottish—and arrived in Scotland all of six years ago. At first, the Kincardine, Ont., native admits, he felt funny trying to make the case, but he’s grown comfortable in the role, leading the charge for a free and independent Scotland. And yes, he’s acquired a wee Scottish brogue.

Q: So how does a Canadian come to champion Scotland’s independence movement? What was your connection to Scotland before this?

A: My stepdad is Scottish, that was a big influence in terms of Scottishness. And I have other family links to Scotland, including on my dad’s and mother’s side. I grew up in Kincardine, which obviously is named after a Scottish town, and was settled by two Scots; there’s a pipe band every Saturday in summer that marches up and down the street. It was settled quite heavily in the ’60s and ’70s with recent immigrants, sort of the second wave of Scots, and that included people like my stepdad. Edinburgh University has fantastic links with Queen’s University, where I did my undergrad, and I was very much encouraged to take an exchange year abroad. So in my third year, I went to Edinburgh and had a fantastic time. I started studying U.K. and Scottish politics then but I wasn’t involved with the party. For my master’s degree I was looking at continuing to study politics, and I applied to Edinburgh University, and got in.

Q: When did your political awakening to the national question occur?

A: I did a stint working in the European Parliament [in 2005], as a paid intern for one of Scotland’s members, Alyn Smith. I’d spent time in Scotland, then in Brussels, and I saw countries like Sweden, Estonia, Finland, countries that are actually quite close to Scotland—they’re smaller but have similar populations— and they were there negotiating and getting the best deal for their people. I thought, “Why is Scotland so uniquely incapable of doing that?” And I’d obviously spent enough time in Scotland at that point to feel a connection with it as well.

Q: Tell me about Scots’ new-found assertiveness, and desire for independence. Why now?

A: I think the Scottish people are on a journey, although it’s been quite a long one. With the advent of the Scottish parliament in 1996, for the first time considerable decision-making powers were transferred from London to Edinburgh. When people came to see that institution as doing things that made their lives better, they felt a reawakening of that identity; that gradual process culminated in a very historic election in 2011 [in which the SNP won its first majority over the traditionally dominant Scottish Labour Party].

Q: Why do you think regular Scots are joining your campaign?

A: A lot of the case for independence in Scotland is an economic one. It’s one of the head, and not necessarily the heart—it’s how will Scotland be better off? That’s the case that we’re taking to the Scottish people. [With independence], decision-making simply shifts from London to Edinburgh, and with that switch we’re better able to tailor our policies and create Scottish growth. So I think it’s very much an economic argument.

Q: In the United Kingdom, the SNP represents Scotland’s independence movement in London. Is the Scottish National Party the U.K.’s version of the Bloc Québécois?

A: Well, it’s different in the sense that our parties are totally unified in the U.K., so the first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, is the leader of the SNP, and the SNP is one party.

Q: There doesn’t seem to be the same degree of acrimony and tension between England and Scotland as exists between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Is that a fair comment?

A: I agree with that. As a Canadian, you can imagine I often get asked about the comparisons with Scotland and Quebec, but really, the closest comparison is with Scotland and Canada. An independent Scotland would keep the Queen as the head of state, it would be a member of the Commonwealth, it’s anglophone, and it has very close relations to the rest of the United Kingdom, like Canada does as well. Canada had a very long process of the U.K. Parliament slowly ceding powers to the Canadian Parliament, and that’s what happening in Scotland. It’s happening incrementally, but we’re going to have a referendum. The process—which we call devolution—is one that happened in Canada starting 150 years ago, so it’s much more accurate to draw those parallels.

Q: But there are historical grievances, and some segments of Scotland do feel anger toward England, no?

A: I think, yes, Scotland joined in a political union with England 300 years ago. Are there people that focus on that? I suppose there are. But the SNP doesn’t. The SNP needs to make a modern case about independence and civic nationalism. I think Scottish nationalism is inclusive and open.

I’m a good example of that, I’m a Canadian working for them. Our leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, MP, was born in England and is half German. We’ve got Scots-Asian members, support from immigrants in the EU, from new Scots. That sort of grievance of battles long past is something that, while it hasn’t faded totally from people’s memories, is not what they think about day to day.

Q: You talked about the idea of Scottish devolution, which began in 1997 when Scotland’s parliament was established and given limited powers to enact laws. The irony is devolution was supposed to have the opposite effect and discourage independence, was it not?

A: That’s correct. There’s an infamous quote from Lord George Robertson [who in 1995 was shadow secretary of state for Scotland]. He said devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead.” It very clearly hasn’t. The Scottish people accept the parliament, they are proud of it, but they want more.

Q: There’s been talk of a potential clarity act going through the British Parliament, similar to legislation Canada passed in 2000 laying down the conditions for negotiating with Quebec over separation. Is Prime Minister David Cameron pushing ahead with a clarity act?

A: I’m not privy to the strategy of the opposition, so I can’t answer that. I think what’s important to stress, though, is the fact that the SNP has a mandate to have a referendum on independence, whereas there are more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs, so it’s difficult for them to seek to bring in legislation of that sort. And I think the other difference is [Canada’s] Clarity Act was brought in after two referendums in a country that’s a federation and that has a constitution. There’s no constitution here and it’s not a federation, and there hasn’t been a referendum.

Q: Does economic uncertainty make your case a harder sell?

A: Undoubtedly, the world is in uncertain times, economically, and people in Scotland feel that as acutely as people in Canada do. However, I think when they view the situation they’ll listen to our arguments about having the responsibility over things like taxation, things that can actually make a difference in terms of growth, and they will listen to that equally in times of good and bad. So I think there is a growing confidence, and people are in listening mode about this because they certainly see what’s happening now and it’s not working for them. So there is an openness to that.

Q: David Cameron has offered a legally binding referendum, probably in 2014. What’s happening to get ready for that?

A: We’re working flat out already. We’re encouraged by the people’s perceptions, the momentum has started, and people are talking about it.

Q: You’re based in London, but do you have a home in Scotland as well?

A: No. I’ve got a small flat in London, but I’m in Scotland quite a bit, as you can imagine, travelling back and forth. There’s always a question from my mother when I’m coming home, so still I don’t know. It’s a different world to the one in which my grandmother came to Canada and was a homesteader in Manitoba. It’s a different world. It’s so easy just to hop on a plane and be home in six or seven hours.

Q: When you are up in Scotland, what are some of your favourite spots to visit?

A: Edinburgh is fantastic. I was just out recently in the Western Isles, which are the Outer Hebrides. It’s just breathtakingly beautiful out there. I also like the northeast as well: you know, golf and whisky country.

Q: Do you think you’ll eventually live in Scotland permanently?

A: When you ask yourself questions like that you think, “My career is here, my contacts, so many of my friends,” and I think as time passes I see that increasingly becoming a possibility, but also as my parents get older there are issues about that I have to weigh up at some point. But I think definitely, for the foreseeable future.

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