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Scotland and Okinawa—Autonomy and Independence

Takayoshi Egami
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics and Graduate School of Public Management, Waseda University

Before coming to Waseda University, I worked at the University of the Ryukyus for more than 25 years. Okinawans have never stopped discussing autonomy and independence for Okinawa even after the reversion in 1972, following the U.S. Army’s postwar occupation.

After experiencing such a unique political environment as Okinawa, I took interest in devolution in Scotland, Wales, and other regions in the United Kingdom, which became my main research topic when I studied at the University of Oxford and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London.

The referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 caught the world’s attention. As Waseda University allowed me to take a sabbatical leave, I traveled to Edinburgh in time for the referendum, and I examined political trends in Scotland and the United Kingdom at the University of Edinburgh for a year.

Movements toward Scottish autonomy and independence

The author gave a keynote speech at a London seminar hosted by the Japan Foundation in July 2015.

The United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In 1707, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England merged to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. At that time, Scotland lost its independence.

The United Kingdom has a population of approximately 64.7 million. In contrast, the population of Scotland is near 5.3 million, only about 8 percent of the United Kingdom's population. However, Scotland, which occupies the northern part of Great Britain, accounts for 32 percent of the United Kingdom's total land area. Unlike England, which is mostly flat, Scotland prides itself on its scenery, which includes rolling hills, and its unique culture. It also happens to be where the only nuclear weapons base in the U.K. is located.

Early in the 20th century, the Scottish started to have discussions for an autonomous government. In particular, when the effects of a bleak British economy hit Scotland after World War II, the Labour Party supported devolution of power to Scotland, and a referendum was held in 1979. Although this attempt failed, after it came to power in 1997 the Labour Party led by Tony Blair called for another referendum on devolution, and the majority was in favor of it this time. Scotland created its own autonomous parliament (Scottish Parliament) and acquired primary legislative and complete administrative powers. This was an epoch-making moment for Scotland.

When the Scottish National Party (SNP), which called for the independence of Scotland,, took power in 2011, the Scottish independence movement gained further momentum. As the conservative government in London held a firm grip on fiscal and defense policies, the discontent of the Scottish, who felt that their will was not reflected in British politics, grew in the Scottish constituencies where practically no conservatives were elected to Westminster Hall; and this led to the SNP's victory. The Conservative Party has been extremely unpopular in Scotland since the Thatcher Administration, which forced various harsh policies on Scotland.

2014 Referendum on Scottish independence

In October 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alexander Salmond of the Scottish government signed the Edinburgh Agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. Cameron, who had successfully hosted the London Olympics under the Union Jack, had great confidence in defeating the Scottish separatists.

In fact, the anti-separatists (unionists) prevailed overwhelmingly through the first half of 2014. However, the efforts made by separatists to use social media and grass-roots meetings started to show in mid-August, and they gradually narrowed the gap with the anti-separatists. An opinion poll conducted by the Sunday Times on September 7, eleven days before the referendum, showed that the separatist support had finally surpassed the anti-separatists, by 51% to 49%. Faced with the possible collapse of the existing U.K government, the Cameron Administration and anti-separatists fell into panic as the world’s attention focused on the vote for Scottish independence.

Yet, as you may already know, the desperate efforts of the anti-separatists to fight back with stunts involving even Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Barack Obama successfully overturned the polls. The anti-separatists finally won by a margin of 10%. Most of the countries of the world, including Japan, felt relieved to hear this result. However, the Scottish independence movement did not end with this defeat.

The Cameron's betrayal and the SNP’s breakthrough

In order to block Scottish independence, Prime Minister Cameron promised, just a day before the election, to take specific actions and measures if Scotland chose to remain in the U.K. Nevertheless, as soon as the election results showed the majority was against independence, he stopped mentioning such measures as if he had forgotten his promise. This betrayal infuriated the people of Scotland.

The membership of the Scotland National Party dramatically increased from 25,000 before the vote to over 110,000 today. The Scottish political climate became evident in the results of the House of Commons general elections in May 2015. The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 electoral seats, with one seat each won by the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats. In the entire United Kingdom, the Conservative Party won a majority, but in Scotland, the SNP, which has led the independence referendum, won a landslide victory. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggests that if the United Kingdom chooses to leave the European Union as a result of the referendum this June, the SNP will call for another referendum on independence.

Scotland and Okinawa

Okinawans are paying close attention to Scotland. When the independence referendum was held, Okinawan journalists and researchers earnestly exchanged opinions with the Scottish. Isobel Lindsay, who leads the movement for greater self-government in Scotland, once gave a lecture in Okinawa. It is extremely interesting to see how the exchange between the Scottish, who have a deep-rooted objection to the nuclear base and are maintaining the momentum for independence, and Okinawans, who have a history of an independent kingdom and are fiercely confronting the Japanese government over the U.S. Army bases, will unfold.

Takayoshi Egami
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics and Graduate School of Public Management, Waseda University

[Brief history]

Prof. Takayoshi Egami was born in Saga Prefecture in 1946. He completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University in 1977. In the same year, he became a lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Letters, University of the Ryukyus, where he became a professor in 1989. Egami came to Waseda University in 2003, as a professor at the Okuma School of Public Management. During this time, he also worked as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford; and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

[Writings (including co-authored books)]

The Frontier of Comparative Political Science, Minerva Shobo, 2015
New Directions in Global Political Governance, Ashgate, 2002
Technology and Modern Politics, Gakuyo Shobo, 1989