Making the case for an "aye" in Scotland
As the date of next year’s historic referendum on Scottish independence draws ever closer, it’s a Canadian expat – and Queen’s grad – who’s playing a key role in the “yes” camp.
Luke Skipper, Artsci’04, was understandably excited when on March 21 Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), announced the official date of Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum: September 18, 2014.
This will be the first such vote since the country joined the United Kingdom in the 1707 Act of Union, and as Chief of Staff of the SNP party at Westminster, Skipper is playing a key role as a campaign strategist and organizer. “Having a date for the referendum crystallizes in people’s minds that this is actually happening,” says the 32-year-old Canadian expat.
Skipper and the leaders of the SNP know they have a lot of work ahead of them before Scots go to the polls to answer that single vital question: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or no.”
In some ways, Skipper came to his role in this debate by a curious route following his student days at Queen’s. These days, he lives in London, where he works with the six-member SNP caucus that sits in the British Parliament at Westminster.
Growing up in Kincardine, an historic Ontario town of 6,200 people on the shores of Lake Huron, Skipper’s early life was infused with Highlands heritage. Kincardine has a sizeable Scottish-Canadian population. “A pipe band marches down the main street every Saturday,” he says. “In some ways the place is more Scottish than Scotland.”
Voted “Most likely to be Prime Minister” by his high school classmates and described as such in the school yearbook – “A title I have no aspirations towards, by the way,” he says with a laugh – Skipper applied to several Ontario universities before settling on Queen’s after a summer visit to the campus.
“One of the great things about Queen’s is that you’re not asked to specialize too early. I started out in History, but once I got drawn into Political Studies, that’s what I majored in. I enjoyed studying how politics works in terms of the practical application of political systems and how they develop,” says Skipper. “The courses I took at Queen’s gave me a real foundation for what I’m doing today.”
Skipper pursued his interest in politics when in third year he went to Edinburgh University in an exchange program. “This was hugely formative for me. Like 4.5 million other Canadians, I have Scottish heritage, and so Edinburgh seemed like a logical overseas destination for me. The city itself is what sealed it. Edinburgh is a wonderful city to live in.”
Skipper arrived in Edinburgh less than five years after the 1999 announcement that “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, 1707, is hereby reconvened.”
The Scottish Parliament now makes decisions that govern health, education, crime, housing, transportation, and aspects of energy, while the British Parliament retains all reserved powers.
The establishment of a devolved, unicameral legislature in Scotland after almost 300 years under rule by Westminster was a landmark event, and Skipper found the study of this new parliament and its newer politics exciting.
After finishing his undergrad degree at Queen’s, he returned to Edinburgh, earned a Master’s of Science degree in International and European Politics, and eventually landed an internship with Fiona Hyslop, MSP, then Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary of Education and Lifelong Learning and now its Cabinet Secretary of Culture and External Affairs.
Skipper found the SNP particularly appealing because it’s a relatively small organization. “With smaller politics you have smaller parties, and that allows staff members to be involved in many different tasks that sometimes prove to be quite significant. No one can hide in an organization of this size. It’s dynamic, and it allows someone like me to have lots of different experiences.”
While working briefly at the European Parliament, Skipper was intrigued by the decision-making powers wielded by the smaller countries of the European Union. That set him wondering about Scotland’s dearth of legislative powers. He continued to work with the SNP throughout his Master’s program and took a full-time job with the party in 2006, one year before the SNP’s historic – and unexpected – win by a single seat in the Scottish General Election. A landslide victory in 2011 made the SNP the first successful majority in a parliament designed to support coalition governance.
Skipper cites the reinstitution of the Scottish Parliament as the starting point for this apparent resurgence of interest in Scottish nationalism, which has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. “I think devolution has excited people. And it’s not about thinking Scotland is better than England or the U.K. Scottish nationalism is not about painting your face blue and running around with a broad sword,” he says. “It’s about wanting the best for your country. It’s about being the same as others, having the same ability to make decisions for yourself, as others do. All we’re saying is that the people of Scotland should be able to make decisions about Scotland here in Scotland.”
The Scottish National Party, which was founded in 1934, has had continuous representation in the British Parliament since an historic by-election win in 1967.
When Scotland’s Parliament was resurrected in 1999, the SNP became the second largest party in the devolved chamber. In 2007, the SNP took power as a minority government. In the 2011 elections, it won a landslide victory and became the first party to form a majority government in the Scottish Parliament since its resumption.
The SNP now holds six of 59 Scottish seats in the U.K.’s House of Commons and two of six Scottish seats in the European Parliament in Brussels. The SNP is also the largest group in Scottish local government and, in coalition, forms 12 out of 32 local administrations.
The left-leaning SNP has made the case that domestic oil revenues and income recouped from Crown estates would leave Scotland as well off after independence as it is now. The party is also in favour of domestic control of corporate taxes, development of the high-tech and green energy sectors, and a highly educated workforce.
While some of the SNP’s critics charge that Scotland’s bid for independence is Anglophobic, Skipper doesn’t agree. “England would lose a surly lodger and gain a happy neighbour,” he says.
He also draws parallels between the situation in Scotland and the process that lead to Canada’s independent status in 1867. “I think it’s natural for Canadians in the first instance to view the current situation through the prism of Quebec,” says Skipper. “However, the more I’ve looked into it – and we as a party have looked into it a lot – I think the more accurate comparison is with Canada itself. Canada went through a transition period where it became a dominion before eventually becoming an independent country. In that interim period, Great Britain gave Canada more and more powers. The word for that is ‘devolution,’ and that’s very similar to Scotland’s situation. At the end of the day, if the people of Scotland want to choose in a referendum to become independent, I think they should be able to do so.”
Skipper feels that insights like these from his “non-Scottish background” are appreciated within the party, just as SNP supporters quote the late Bashir Ahmad, an Indian-born immigrant who was Scotland’s first Muslim MSP. Ahmad once said, “It isn’t important where you come from. What matters is where we’re going together as a nation.”
Skipper echoes those words when he says, “The SNP is very, very open, and I think that changes the dynamic of the independence debate.”
While early polls suggested that a majority of Scots prefer to remain part of the U.K., more recent figures show an overall rise – from 30 to 34 percent – in support for independence. Support for the cause is particularly strong among immigrants and young people.
Skipper says low polling numbers don’t worry him. “It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but the only numbers that really matter are the ones on the day people cast their ballots. And the one thing we did learn from Quebec is that the turnout for the referendum is going to be very high. There will be people who don’t normally vote in regular elections, but they’ll come out to make this decision about the future of their country. We’re confident as the campaign progresses that we can close the gap between the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ votes and win the referendum.”
While Skipper’s day-to-day duties already keep him hopping faster than a Highland step dancer, he knows the lead-up to the referendum vote will be even more frantic.
“Much of my job is determined by the 24-hour news cycle. My expertise is foreign affairs and defence, and so I focus on those areas when I can. But we need to communicate our message any way we can, whether that’s in the Chamber, through speeches by SNP leaders, media releases, or whatever. With the referendum coming up next year, I think it’s really going to be a situation in which there’s a single fire in the room that will suck the oxygen out of everything else. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
It’s work that Skipper is more than happy to do. “It’s a huge honour and a privilege for me to be so involved,” he says. “Regardless of your opinion on the independence question, no one can deny that it’s an exciting time to be in Scotland. The eyes of the world will be on us, and how exciting is that?”
Regardless of your opinion on the independence question, no one can deny that it’s an exciting time to be in Scotland.