Scotland's Independence Bid: History, Prospects, Challenges

By Flamini, Roland | World Affairs, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Scotland's Independence Bid: History, Prospects, Challenges


Flamini, Roland, World Affairs


At exactly 17:14 on the evening of September 15, 2012, in Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium, thousands of fans at a packed soccer game stood up as one and chanted, "Independence!" The timing was chosen to coincide with the year 1714, when Spanish troops annexed Catalonia--of which Barcelona is the capital--to Spain. Catalonia has its own distinct language and culture, and Catalan activists have been fanning the flames of separatism ever since.

Cut to Edinburgh one month later, where British Prime Minister David Cameron and Alex Salmond, first minister of the Scottish Parliament and leader of the left-of-center Scottish National Party (SNP), signed an agreement for a 2014 referendum that could end the Act of Union of 1707 and allow Scotland to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. Unlike the government in Madrid, which has flatly refused to agree to a referendum on Catalonia gaining its independence, the UK government at Westminster has pragmatically agreed to a referendum--and, in effect, committed itself to accepting the outcome.

With most polls showing that only a third of Scotland's four million plus voters currently favor Scottish independence, Cameron may think hat agreeing to a referendum is not much of a political gamble: if the referendum were held today, a majority in favor of remaining in the union--a "no" vote, as the referendum question is expected to be phrased--would be the most likely outcome. But as Nicola McEwan, director of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh's Academy of Government, points out, "two years is a long time in politics, and it is impossible to predict how opinion will develop."

What the referendum agreement has done is to impose a political deadline one way or the other on the hot issue of independence. Underneath the British reserve, there is a growing concern in London over how separation could weaken Britain's position in the world. For example, could the "Disunited Kingdom" justify retaining a seat on the UN Security Council? On the Scottish side, Salmond is seen as betting independence on one throw of the dice. The referendum, he has said, is "a once-in-a-generation event."

Both sides have launched major efforts at a cost of millions of dollars to win over "the heart and the head" (as Cameron put it) of the Scottish electorate; a dozen organizations are now engaged in the fight over Scotland's constitutional future. "Yes Scotland" is the largest pro-independence group spearheading the breakaway campaign. Its main opponent, "Better Together," advocates remaining in the union.

Yes Scotland has launched a drive to collect a million signatures in support of the referendum by voting day. The declaration the Scots are being asked to sign says, in part, "! believe that it is fundamentally better for us if all decisions about Scotland's future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland. Being independent means Scotland's future will be in Scotland's hands." Inevitably, celebrities add luster to the cause: the actors Sean Connery (a.k.a. James Bond), Alan Cumming (who introduces Masterpiece Mystery on PBS), and Brian Cox are highly visible supporters of independence.

Within weeks of signing the referendum agreement, the British government published the first of a series of what it calls "analysis papers" about Scotland's importance to the union, and the benefits it derives from the affiliation. The SNP responded by releasing a "road map" outlining the steps from the referendum to full statehood early in 2016.

Salmond picked the autumn of 2014 as the referendum date because it coincides with a series of major sporting events that he hopes will make Scots feel more patriotic--the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Ryder Cup golf tournament at Gleneagles, and a Year of Homecoming for the Scottish diaspora. David Cameron has since announced a series of events, marking the hundredth anniversary of World War I, to focus attention on the joint British effort in that conflict. …

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