Winter - 2013 Scotland1

Published on March 27th, 2013


Greed and Grievance in Scottish Regionalism – Alex Salmond’s Framing of the Independence Debate

By Eline Kvamme Hagen

With a referendum on Scottish independence set to take place in 2014, the ongoing debate about Scottish independence is characterized by discussions about the motives for breaking out of the union versus deepening the process of devolution, but still remaining part of the United Kingdom. 

The independence debate in Scotland is happening at a time when Europe is experiencing a surge of separatist movements in wealthy regions, with hopes of holding on to their own wealth without having to subsidize poorer regions within the state. This development demonstrates how the Scottish case is not unique and can be related to greater regionalism tendencies within Europe.

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland

The pro-independence grouping in Scotland is spearheaded by the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leader and first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. But what motives does Salmond seem to favour when addressing the public in his political speeches, and how does Salmond’s way of framing the independence debate affect the course of events on the road towards the Scottish referendum?

In this context Collier and Hoeffler’s theory on explanations for conflict, namely greed and grievance, are applicable in order to examine which one of these mechanisms is at work, even though the claim for independence in Scotland is made through peaceful, democratic means. Economic issues, and Scotland’s problematic past and political relationship with the Union, forms a substantial part of the discussion regarding Scottish independence, thus making the concepts of greed and grievance highly relevant to the Scottish case.

Simply put, does Alex Salmond emphasise a cost-benefit analysis based on economic reasons when advocating a referenda on independence, or is the argumentation mainly concerned with Scotland’s need to break free from the “Westminster oppression?”


Greed and grievance as explanations for conflict

Greed and grievance as a theory of the explanations for civil war is outlined by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler. By greed the authors mean a rational approach to conflict where economic factors serve as the explanation for the outbreak of civil war. This explanation focuses on the profitable opportunities that may arise for rebels. The rebels then perform a cost-benefit analysis to decide on whether or not to go to war.

Grievance explanations are based in the deprived actor school and stress how discontent builds up to a state of conflict. In this case, deprivations cause grievances. Economic inequality, lack of political rights, government economic incompetence or an understanding of the region as underrepresented in government, are all factors that may cause grievances.


The uncertain future of an independent Scotland: is secession a beneficial or detrimental affair?

Turning to the context of the national separatist movement in Scotland, the Scottish oil as a potential reward of separating the Union is at the center of attention. It seems as though the finding of oil in the North Sea in the 1970’s spurred on the activities of the SNP. With “It’s Scotland’s Oil” as a party slogan, SNP envisioned an independent Scotland that no longer was dependent on the Union, but that rather could develop along the lines of the oil nation Norway. This fits well with theories on how large deposits of petroleum motivate local elites to mobilize a regional movement, in order to acquire ownership of these resources.

However, even though the benefits may have increased, a greed approach is characterized by a cost-benefit analysis. The benefits of separating the Union would have to outweigh the costs. Still, an assessment of the costs of independence has proven to be complicated. It is questionable whether Scotland actually would be better off economically without the Union, as it gets a certain amount of support from the British government. Finding the correct answer to this equation is problematical due to Westminster’s lack of a geographical overview of Britain’s revenues and expenditures.

All the same, Scotland is unquestionably the region in the United Kingdom that performs best economically with 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, despite forming only 8.4 per cent of the British population. Despite this positive outlook there are still economic problems Scotland would need to face if it was to pursue independence.

First of all, Scottish oil reserves do not last forever. Scotland has also failed to establish a retirement fund similar to that of Norway’s, a country Salmond likes to compare a future independent Scotland with. What is more, it is far from set in stone that an independent Scotland would obtain all the oil revenues from the North Sea, due to the Crown Estate’s property portfolio. This means that the Scottish oil could lawfully belong to the UK.

There is also the question of the political costs of secession. Factors that need to be taken into consideration are uncertainties about EU and NATO membership, and how much influence Scotland would exercise in these organizations. Finally there is the task of establishing Scotland abroad as a newly founded state.

Still, the depiction of a future independent Scotland as a prosperous nation is at the center of the SNP’s party programme. The party presents the public with seemingly clear numbers of the economic benefits of separation, even of how much each citizen would benefit from independence, made visible in Alex Salmond’s political speeches. Arguably, providing guaranteed numbers of “an independence bonus” is shady business with the uncertainties of both the economic and political costs of independence in mind.


Scottish grievance narratives

Scotland’s precarious relationship with the Union throughout its history as part of the United Kingdom has naturally characterised the independence debate and has been frequently used by the SNP as a grievance narrative.

Today, Scotland’s lack of political rights is most notably connected to the region not having a say in high politics areas. By levelling severe criticism at how Westminster and the British prime ministers handles prominent high politics issues in his political speeches, Salmond has simultaneously emphasised Scotland’s need for powers in this area and how Scotland’s national reputation is harmed by decisions taken at Westminster, especially with regards to the Iraq war.

Salmond seeks to establish an independent Scotland as a soft power nation on the lines of Norway, meaning a focus on peace building and environment friendly policies instead of the realist notion of a nation with large military capabilities, something Scotland nevertheless would not have the capacities for.

Even though Scottish oil revenues play a major part in a greed approach to independence, it is also relevant to grievance narratives where Salmond accuses the Westminster government of looting of Scottish oil, thus creating an unequal distribution of wealth within the UK.

Additionally, the SNP is able to put the blame on the UK government for Scotland’s current economic state by advancing the argument that due to Scotland’s lack of political and fiscal self-government, and hence its inability to enforce local taxes, it becomes the suffering region struggling with unemployment and poverty.  Considering that Scotland could have been the richest region in the UK if it was allowed to redistribute the income from Scottish oil regionally, instead of having the oil redistributed to all the UK regions at state level, this is an outrageous situation according to the SNP.

What is more, “the long-term damaging austerity cuts” introduced by the Westminster government are similarly characterised by Salmond as mismanagement on the UK government’s behalf, forcing Scotland to take control of its own resources. The conclusion is that Westminster has proven incapable of ruling Scotland based on Scottish interests and producing economic growth, hence leading to a demand for independence.


Alex Salmond’s role in framing the Scottish independence debate

As one can see, crucial aspects of the independence debate are framed by Alex Salmond as greed and grievance narratives throughout his political speeches made at the SNP’s party conferences. These frames function as ways of organizing the event of independence and thus highlight economic incentives and Scottish grievances as ideas about the causes and solutions to the independence debate. Salmond’s way of framing the debate undoubtedly affects the direction of the debate; what arguments the counterpart of the discussion, the unionists that is, turns to; and how Salmond responds to the unionists’ attempts to reframe the debate.

The rational actor school typically emphasises the role of the elites in trying to change the status quo in a society whereas the deprived actor school can be argued to have more explanatory power with regards to rebellions that rise from the masses due to the processes of relative deprivation.

With this in mind it could be expected that Alex Salmond favours economic motives and uses a rational approach towards Scottish independence. However, it might seem as though grievance narratives are created by the SNP in order to secure a favourable outcome of the referendum. Comparable to theories on how ruling elites use ethnicity as an instrument for enhancing or staying in power,

Salmond arguably uses Scottish identity to fend off the challenging political parties in Scotland by characterising them as threats towards Scotland and creating an “us” and “them” divide between Scotland and the Union, making the independence debate about being Scottish enough.

Scottish wildcats

Alex Salmond seemingly uses Scottish culture and history as instruments to generate patriotic feelings amongst the public. A famous battle fought against the English army during the Wars of Independence celebrates its 700th anniversary the year the referendum of independence is to be held, clearly showing the importance of Scottish history and culture in the debate on independence and how the SNP takes advantage of patriotic feelings in order to secure a successful referendum.

This use of historical references purposefully frames the present independence debate in a grievance context where the SNP’s fight for independence is merely a continuation of the battle against the Unionists. Consequently, Salmond defines the Union as a threat to Scottish interests and by framing the debate in various grievance narratives related to this threat the focus is shifted from the uncertainties of the economic and political costs of independence, being an issue that threatens the party’s agenda.

The SNP’s characterisation of its political challengers’ focus on the costs of independence as a grievance narrative where they are simply interested in continuing the looting of Scottish resources, demonstrates how the SNP shifts focus from threats to the party to threats to Scotland as a nation.



Tapping into the focal point of the ongoing debate, Alex Salmond argues that Scotland does not benefit from having a Westminster government but when taking the economic factors of separation into consideration this might indeed not be the case. This render visible how Salmond frames the debate based on the SNP’s political program and rule out certain aspects of the independence debate, not providing a full image of the pros and cons of independence.

Being the leader of a political party vigorously fighting for independence, it is quite obvious why his speeches do not consider the potential costs of secession. Any discussion of the current economic problems simply blames the UK government, stressing that Scottish financial problems are a result of prolonged oppression by the Westminster government. Separating from the Union is thus the answer to Scotland’s economic problems.

Looking at the overall picture this highlights the necessity of having political parties opposing each other in the debate about Scotland’s future, making it more likely that all the aspects of how Scotland would cope with the realities of independence will be addressed in the time ahead of the referendum.

Grievances arise from the masses through processes of relative deprivation. But it might seem as though Salmond adds on to the Scottish public’s grievances in order to get ahead in the political tug of war about the region’s independence. The instruments used for this ranges from an accentuation of ethnic identity through the means of Scottish cultural and historical references as well as Scottish symbolism; an encouragement of frustration with the Union; and defining the Union as an outside threat to Scotland.

Through this last instrument Salmond is able to shift focus from issues threatening the SNP’s political agenda, namely economic and political costs of independence. The aim of this strategy is to eradicate alternative political parties by framing the debate into a question of being Scottish enough and thus creating challenges for the Unionist parties and the UK government to reframe the issue.

The SNP’s demand for independence is part of a visible larger European trend where wealthy regions seek to find a solution to the ongoing fiscal crisis by searching for ways to locally distribute its wealth rather than having to subsidize poorer regions. This supports the notion of greed as a strong mechanism in separatist movements. Hence, the outcome of the Scottish referendum and how a new nation would be received by the international community, the EU and NATO would function as a guinea pig for the other regions demanding independence.

Moving on to predictions about future developments in the Scottish independence debate, most interestingly is what the SNP’s response to a negative outcome of the referendum would be. The SNP would have to reframe their ideas on the causes and solutions to Scotland’s economic and political problems if it does not go through, seeing as it can no longer refer to the Scottish people as oppressed and frustrated with the Union if the majority voted no.


Further reading:

Collier, P. and Hoeffler, A. 2004. Greed and grievance in civil war. Oxford Economic Papers, 56, p. 563.

The Economist 2012. The economics of home rule. The Scottish play. [online] 14 April 2012. Available at:

Kay, John 2011. Breaking up the union may have a greater financial impact than the SNP wants. The Scotsman [online] Aivalable at: -the-union-may-have-a-greater-financial-impact-than-the-snp-wants-1-1655930.

McCrone, D. 2012. Scotland out of the Union? The Rise and Rise of the Nationalist Agenda. The Political Quarterly, 83 (1), p. 69.


*Cover photo by Rupert Ganzer, landscape photo by Dimitry B., Horse photo by Andrew King, piper photo by Cok Francken, cat photo by Marie Hale


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One Response to Greed and Grievance in Scottish Regionalism – Alex Salmond’s Framing of the Independence Debate

  1. Pingback: ‘Greed and Grievance in Scottish Regionalism– Alex Salmond’s Framing of the Independence Debate’- Popular Social Science | Jack Black

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