In 1707 the Act of Union gave Westminster political and economic authority over Scotland and some Scots have been protesting ever since. Nearly 300 years later, a process of devolution has been set in place with a Scottish Parliament coming into being in 1999. Devolution has disappointed many Scots as there have been no obvious major regional improvements and there is a feeling that too much was expected too soon, especially of a body without full taxation powers. But devolution is a process not an event, and at least it gives Scots an opportunity to be heard in two parliaments, instead of the former arrangement where Scottish Question Time was held in Westminster only seven times a year.
The new Parliament Building at Holyrood, scheduled to open in 2001, finally opened three years late with an estimated cost of £414 million, after an initial estimate of around £40 million. In a poll, 68% of Scots felt that the cost of the project was too high and that it gave devolution a bad name - a symbol of the grumbling that continues in Scotland, culminating in the latest flurry of media interest in renewed calls for independence.
Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, had a stunning victory in the May, 2011 election when his Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority with 69 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, a clear mandate he says for pursuing his plans for a referendum on independence. But in 2001, only 27% of the Scottish electorate wanted independence with the majority wanting to retain the present parliament but with extended powers. His election triumph enables Salmond to claim the moral authority to call a referendum, as promised in his election manifesto, an issue which is being hotly contested by the UK government. Salmond has the even more challenging task of persuading hesitant Scottish voters to vote for independence - at present only about 30- 40% are in favour - and he will want to delay a referendum until no later than 2015 to allow time for the independence movement to build.
It is hard to imagine that the newly empowered Scottish leader would risk defeat in a referendum, and in the context of calls for independence from people suffering under repressive dictatorships around the world, it is hard to see the SNP's demands as anything but sentimental, and even frivolous.
Granted, Scottish nationalism is a powerful force in Scotland today and resentments have also been powerful since North Sea oil was discovered and appropriated for the UK by the Thatcher Government in "the greatest act of international larceny since the Spanish stole the Inca gold" as Salmond said in a recent Economist interview. If independence is just about finances however, the complexities are legion. Alex Salmond is convinced that Scotland is in better financial shape than the UK and includes revenues from North Sea oil and gas in his calculations. But counter arguments exists as to whether England subsidizes Scotland or vice versa. When pressed on EU membership and Scotland's future currency, Salmond seems to envisage an England-Scotland monetary union "negotiated in an atmosphere of goodwill."
Other analysts argue that Scotland's creditworthiness may not survive going it alone and there is the huge issue of the toxic liabilities of the Royal Bank of Scotland and how to share that liability. If Salmond expects to get 90% of North Sea oil and gas revenues, he should expect to inherit a large part of the bank debt as well.
Defence policy is another major item, and when asked if Scotland would leave NATO he answered that Scotland would be like Sweden and Ireland - within the Partnership for Peace. He was firm about his country's desire to have Britain's Trident submarines - removed from Scottish waters but said that Scots will still continue to serve in the British Army. He stresses the idea that his brand of Scottish nationalism is outward-looking and international and not angry or embittered anti-Englishness. His speech at the 8th Hugo Young lecture on January 24th will be closely analysed as it is entitled "Scotland's place in the world." It will be very interesting to hear his definitions of the modern Scottish identity and the role of recent immigrants.
In the meantime he has invited the prime minister and deputy prime minister to Scotland to discuss the independence referendum. In spite of Salmond's mandate of an absolute parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Cameron has stated that the UK central government should have control of the terms and timing of the referendum to ensure that it is "legal, fair and decisive", resulting in accusations that Westminster is interfering again. He is also on record that he "will campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fibre that I have."
Salmond's alternative to a failed referendum is to continue to make the case for greater powers for Scotland's devolved parliament. He wants to offer another option in the referendum question where Scotland would gain full autonomy in its domestic affairs, including the right to set taxes, running everything except foreign affairs and defense. The gradual accumulation of power may be more to the taste of Scottish voters in the end, though many Scottish Nationalists share the patriotic fervor of the young Scots who stole the Stone of Scone, a powerful symbol of Scottish independence, from under the Coronation chair in Westminster Abbey in 1950 and returned it to Scotland. Also known as the Stone of Destiny, it was taken back to London until 1996 when it now is kept in Edinburgh Castle with the understanding that it shall go back to Westminster Abbey when it is required there for future coronation ceremonies. The emotions surrounding this square piece of sandstone give insight into the complexity of the English-Scottish relationship.
It will be interesting to see the final resting place of the Stone of Scone along with the fate of Scotland itself if Alex Salmond has his way and independence comes to Scotland again. And if the referendum goes against his dream, then devolution will have proved to be enough and rivalries will continue to be fought out on the rugby fields of the United Kingdom instead.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an Adjunct Research Professor at the US Army War College, Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com
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