He delivered an energetic speech not dissimilar to that of a political campaign, impregnated with nationalistic fervor and implying Scotland’s rising position as a self-sufficient state. Unfortunately, such sentiments were all but wasted on the predominantly non-Scottish guests in attendance that day, but his point was made nevertheless.
Today, some six years later, the first minister is at the center of an historic debate as Scotland seeks possible independence from the British union, a status it has not held in more than 300 years. Salmond has declared the intention of the Scottish Parliament, led by his Scottish National Party, to hold a referendum in 2014, allowing the people to decide by simple vote whether or not Scotland becomes politically and economically autonomous from the United Kingdom.
To the outsider, the very arrangement of the UK may seem perplexing. A long history of conquests, shifting national boundaries and titles one might be congratulated for comprehending, resulted in the union of England with the surrounding nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland (later to be reduced only to Northern Ireland).
Despite the difference in historical and cultural identities of each, the four slowly forged a sense of unity that has been sustained with relative continuity for the better part of two centuries. Scotland was previously joined in union to England in 1707, the dissenting ardor of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce long consigned to mere history.
The sense of oneness in the union was solidified by Britain’s imperial successes during the 18th and 19th centuries, an era that generated a proud disposition and the reinforcement of a British identity. This inclination, however, would have no such binds upon which to rely as the British Empire would slowly but surely evaporate in the 20th century. What is left is an emasculated patchwork of contradistinctive cultures, raising questions as to whether the union bears a practical function any longer.
The first answer to those questions came in 1997, when the central British government extended to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a degree of autonomy, known as “devolved powers,” under which they could form separate, but not wholly autonomous, government assemblies. Since then, the three have operated under this quasi-independent arrangement, one that has largely only whetted the appetite for greater removal.
The proposed referendum in 2014 will be the first serious attempt by any of the members to secure full separation from the UK. Few are surprised that this day would eventually come, yet the idea that Britain could realistically disband is a hard pill to swallow for those who have never known any different.
Legally, such a move is not quite as simple as it first sounds. The British government must first give Scotland permission to stage such a referendum, an invocation of what it refers to as its “reserved powers.” That such permission will be granted there is little doubt, but not without some disagreement over the particulars.
Westminster (the British government) wants a referendum to happen sooner rather than later. It feels the uncertainty caused by delaying the matter will only hurt Scotland’s economy. Salmond, however, has opted for 2014: the year marking the 700th anniversary of the historic Battle of Bannockburn in which Scotland roundly defeated England. The delay would also give Salmond and his government much-needed time to rally domestic support for the vote, as well as lobby for Salmond’s stipulations, namely that 16- and 17-year olds be allowed to vote (the current age is 18), and that a third option aside from “yes” and “no” be added to the ballot, to give the Scottish Parliament “maximum devolution” powers.
Whether the referendum is successful or whether instead it becomes a mere footnote in the history books depends on the will of the Scottish people. They voted in the referendum that brought devolved powers to Scotland in 1997, yet current polls suggest such numbers may not be in favor of complete separation. These polls indicate that anywhere from 28 to 38 percent would support the move, short of the required majority. Perhaps Mr. Salmond would be better to listen to his own people before assuming he represents the collective will.
A Britain without Scotland is hard to imagine. Conversely, and perhaps more seriously, a Scotland without Britain may be bleak. Many question Scotland’s ability to sustain economic stability without the help of Britain in what is already a fiscally weaker part of the union. The Scottish people will likely recognize this, as well as other good reasons for remaining British, in which case a red-faced Alex Salmond will learn a humbling lesson about the true meaning of being a representative of the people.
(Editor’s Note: Timothy J.A. Passmore is a visiting lecturer of political science at Lee University. His “Your World Today” column is published weekly in the Wednesday edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.)