Gerry Hasan is a writer for Foreign Policy.
Scotland's nationalist ambitions don't generally get international attention, but the past few weeks have been a uniquely exciting time in the long-running campaign for Scottish independence. On Jan. 25, Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, and his Scottish National Party (SNP) government announced plans for a historic referendum on independence to be held in the fall of 2014, attracting coverage, comment, and curiosity from around the world.
The SNP government's proposed question is "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" The SNP is considering whether a second, as yet undefined question should be asked, suggesting an intermediate step of devolving powers to the Scottish government without full independence. This notion, known as "devo max," has the support of a significant portion of public opinion — though this support remains unmeasurable given that no serious detailed proposals have yet emerged.
London has not responded well to this development. In a speech on Feb. 16, British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to "fight with everything I have to keep our United Kingdom together." He continued: "To me, this is not some issue of policy or strategy or calculation — it matters head, heart, and soul. Our shared home is under threat and everyone who cares about it needs to speak out." In the end, Cameron may find that this type of rhetoric will only hasten the demise of the union he has vowed to protect.
Many are wondering why, exactly, this disquiet has emerged in Scotland. After all, the union has been a pretty peaceful one since at least the 17th century. But there is indeed a strong case to be made for an independent Scotland, a case that has only grown more compelling in light of Europe's and Britain's latest economic woes.
Scotland is a different place from the rest of the United Kingdom, and increasingly there is no such thing as a unitary UK politics, but Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, and English politics with devolved parliaments and assemblies in the first three.
The union of Scotland and England created the United Kingdom in 1707, but Scotland has grown gradually more independent over the last century. First there was the Scottish Office, a department of the UK government set up in 1885 to oversee the slowly expanding state, followed by the "secretary of state for Scotland" becoming a full cabinet post in 1926 with more junior ministers added over the postwar era. Then, in 1999, the Scottish Parliament was established, with control of most of Scotland's public services.
The SNP was formed in 1934 and in its early days stood for full self-government. It then began to become a serious political force from the mid-1960s onward. In the 1980s, the SNP — which defines itself as a party of the center-left — was a vital part of the anti-Tory coalition against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But the SNP is also a big tent reflecting the spectrum of Scottish society, with a majority in the Scottish Parliament and six seats in the House of Commons.
The last 30 years have seen a long, slow decline in Scottish voters' identification with and trust in the British state. In 2009, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 61 percent of Scots trusted the Scottish government to act in Scotland's interests versus 25 percent who trusted the British government. Increasingly, Westminster's interventions and policies — including macroeconomic policy, welfare, defense, and foreign affairs — are seen as problematic to many Scottish voters and inviting challenge. And the majority public opinion increasingly points toward wishing to have a more autonomous, distinctive Scottish political space in which the Scottish Parliament runs most domestic issues, leaving defense and foreign policy to the folks in London.