The Economist raises Scotland's ire with 'Skintland' joke

The Economist was targeting Scotland's interest in becoming independent, pointing out that 'Skintland' relies heavily on the United Kingdom.

Scottish nationalists have reacted angrily to an Economist magazine cover which renamed the country "Skintland" and poked fun at its towns and regions, giving them indebted nicknames.

The normally high-brow magazine labeled the capital Edinburgh "Edinborrow," Glasgow "Glasgone," the Lowlands as "Loanlands," and the Isle of Mull as "Null," implying that Scotland only survived economically by relying heavily on Britain's central government and that substantial debt awaits it after independence.

A two-page article in the magazine highlighted the cost of going it alone if the Scots vote yes in a 2014 independence referendum, while an editorial piece headlined "It will cost you - Scottish independence would come at a high price" warns Scotland could become the "Athens of the North" – in financial terms, not architectural. 

The ruling Scottish National Party has chosen 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at Bannockburn, for a referendum vote on whether Scotland will declare independence from the United Kingdom, and campaigning has begun in earnest.

The provocative UK edition prompted immediate criticism from Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Alex Salmond. In an interview with Radio Clyde in Glasgow, Mr. Salmond said, “This is how they really regard Scotland. This is unionism boiled down to its essence and stuck on a front page for every community in Scotland to see their sneering condescensions. They shall rue the day they thought they’d have a joke at Scotland’s expense.”

But he was careful not to hurl his accusations at the population as a whole. “This doesn’t represent England. Goodness’ sake, I wouldn’t insult the people of England the way the Economist believes it should insult the communities of Scotland," he said. "This is a particular strata of London society. It’s not a very attractive strata. They’re not even funny, let’s face it. If it was a decent joke we’d have a laugh at it. This is just plain insults.”

Although critical of the tone of the package, opposition Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat politicians in the Scottish Parliament said Salmond and his Scottish National Party failed to address the more serious points made: that Scotland would struggle economically if it became independent; that the North Sea oil supply, upon which Scotland relies heavily, is finite; and that the once powerful Scottish banking sector continues to suffer in the wake of the credit crunch.

“If Scots really want independence for political or cultural reasons, they should go for it. National pride is impossible to price," the Economist wrote in the piece. “But if they vote for independence they should do so in the knowledge that their country could end up as one of Europe’s vulnerable, marginal economies. In the 18th century, Edinburgh’s fine architecture and its Enlightenment role earned it the nickname "Athens of the North." It would be a shame if that name became apt again for less positive reasons.”

Maybe the Economist has a point?

Scottish political commentator Carlos Alba, a former Scotland editor of London's Sunday Times, said the front page was typical of the thoughts of the right-wing, Tory-supporting Economist and was meant to be funny, not offensive. 

Mr. Alba, who now runs his own public relations company in Glasgow, said, “The map is a caricature of what some people in London think will happen in Scotland if it goes independent, but the reality is different. It’s always been claimed that Scotland doesn’t pay its way and is a basket case economy reliant on old industries, but it’s not true. Scotland performs better than some English regions and we have a thriving high-tech sector, a big whiskey industry, North Sea oil, and a finance sector.”

Alba speculated that the Economist was trying to "stop Scotland 'sleep-walking' into independence," but that its efforts might backfire by riling up Scots who Salmond is trying to persuade to support independence. "I’m not a friend of the SNP and I am one of the people who Alex Salmond is trying to attract but when I see something like this, it makes me angry. I’ve got a sense of humor and enjoy the good-natured banter across the border but the front page is hamfisted and insulting," he said. 

But, Alba acknowledged, the piece inside made a "nuanced argument against independence" and raised some important points about it that need to be addressed.   

Tom Devine, a senior research professor in history at the University of Edinburgh, agreed. 

“The big question around independence is the economic question and I think, inside the Economist, the reports were fair and balanced. The SNP always gives a Pavlovian response to data like that, saying it needs to be analyzed and a response given in time."

He says he laughed at the front page when he saw it at a family event. To him, the Scottish National Party's fury seemed over-the-top. 

“I think everyone found it funny, which makes the SNP’s knee jerk reaction all the more astonishing. … This type of thing pops every so often at middle class dinner parties or in the letters page of the Daily Telegraph," Mr. Devine said.

I think Scotland is actually doing well compared to other regions in the United Kingdom so I don’t know why the higher echelons of the SNP were so angry about this – their media unit is usually better than that. … In truth most Scots probably haven’t seen the Economist … This will fade and I’m not sure why Salmond has to say ‘you will rue the day’ you published this – what’s he going to do, bring in contract killers on the magazine?”

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