The unexpected and resounding triumph of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May 5 regional elections, which against all expectations saw the party win 69 of the 129 seats at stake, has opened the door to a referendum on Scottish independence.
Considered a chimera just 10 or 15 years ago, the possibility of independence is beginning to be taken seriously. Not so long ago, however, polls revealed the paradox that the English want the break more than the Scots.
The system of self-government for Scotland, the so-called devolution or transfer of powers, was launched by Labour in 1997. The idea behind that decentralisation was that the more autonomy the Scots had, the less desire they would have for independence. Many now believe that the opposite has come about, while others say the end of the road still lies ahead.
The SNP victory has caused a stir in Spain, where parallels are being drawn with the longing for independence among the Basque and Catalan populations. But the differences are worth considering. The United Kingdom was forged four centuries ago with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and it was sealed with the voluntary merger of their parliaments a century later, in 1707. Britain is not, unlike Spain, a complex map of 17 autonomous regions expressing varying degrees of ambition for self-government.
Among some Scots there is a feeling the union should be preserved
With Scotland it is a poor state, not a rich one, that wants to leave, unlike Spain, where the Basque Country and Catalonia are relatively well off. And the national identity of the Scots and the English is not in question.
For whatever reason, the possibility that Alex Salmond, the charismatic leader of the SNP, will call a referendum is not causing any political storm in Britain. “It’s a bit optimistic of the SNP if they think they can win a referendum on independence,” believes historian [Sebastian Balfour](http:// http://www2.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/Expertsfirstname.lastname@example.org), Professor Emeritus of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics.
“The SNP would suffer severely from the consequences of a negative outcome, because it would give rise to a very curious situation. It’s very different from Spain in that there are many more English than Scots that want Scottish independence, and there are fewer English against it than Scots.
“Among some Scots there is a strong feeling that the union with England should be preserved. It’s as if the English had leapt from a nationalist-imperialist identity to a post-national identity, a civic identity, we might say, at a more local or regional level, and so I honestly doubt that the SNP will raise the referendum issue for the time being. What they will have to do, and I think it’s a long-term strategy, is to demonstrate an ability to defend the interests of Scotland,” he says.
For Scotland, the language is not a problem
How can the overwhelming victory of the SNP affect Spain? “It may to some extent reinforce the pro-independence camp, but I don’t believe it will have a big impact,” Balfour says. “I don’t see it as all that important. There are big differences. Scotland is being compared to Catalonia and the Basque Country now that it has a nationalist party holding a majority in Parliament, but that’s nothing new in Spain,” he adds.
Scotland is nationalist “in the sense that people feel overwhelmingly Scottish; yet they are also British,” agrees David McCrone, co-director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh. “In Catalonia this question has a five-point scale: to be Catalan but not Spanish; to be more Catalan than Spanish; to be as Catalan as Spanish; to be more Spanish than Catalan; and to be Spanish but not Catalan. In that sense, Scotland is much more Scottish than Catalonia is Catalan. The latter has a lot to do with immigration from the rest of Spain. And perhaps with the language issue too,” he says.
For Scotland, the language is not a problem. “The language has been eliminated as a toll that people have to pay to be Scottish,” he explains. “To be Scottish is a territorial issue, not a linguistic or ethnic issue. And that makes it easier for people who come to Scotland to feel Scottish. The language doesn’t become a reason for being, an essential element of national identity or a way to express differences, as happens with religion, or as happens with the French language in Quebec.”
Or in Wales, where nationalism is weaker than in Scotland but where almost one in four Welsh speaks the Welsh language. That gives the debate on independence in Scotland a more pragmatic tone than the debates around that same idea in the Basque Country or in Catalonia.
The Disunited Kingdom of Great Britain?
In McCrone’s judgement, what really lies behind the SNP victory is not so much independence from the Union as it is the degree of self-government that the Scots want. “In the past 20 years, some of us have focused less on distinguishing between independence and autonomy and more on studying the question of how self-government evolves. The debate really comes down to self-government and how to achieve more of it.”
McCrone laughs at the simplicity of the view from London of the Scottish question. “The view from there tends to espy two possibilities: that Scotland will never be independent, and that independence is inevitable. I think it’s much more complicated than that. We live in a world where independence can be a problem. In reality, we’re talking about degrees of self-government. If independence is understood to be the classic nineteenth-century independent state with borders and armies and all those things, well, of course that’s not going to happen. That’s not the world we live in,” he explains. “In the world today, self-government is shared at different levels. Both Spain and Britain are members of the European Union. And the EU has power too. It’s not a matter of absolute sovereignty, but of shared sovereignty.”
“My personal prediction is that Britain will follow a path to a confederation,” David McCrone continues. “In other words, when it will have to come, at some point in the future, there will be higher levels of self-government. Just as there are in Belgium, for very different reasons and in another context. Devolution of powers in Flanders and Wallonia is considerable. We are moving toward a world confederation, not a world of completely independent states. A world in which Scotland, Catalonia and of course the Basque Country will go further in self-government. Things change. And the way central governments respond is absolutely crucial. The UK Conservatives have learned a few lessons here. They are not as aggressive and stupid as they were when they were previously in power. We’ll see if it lasts,” he concludes.
Will we live to see the Disunited Kingdom of Great Britain? Alex Salmond: “They said they would never be a Scottish Parliament, and there is. They said we would never win the elections, and we won them in 2007. They said we would never have an absolute majority, and we have it. Now they’re saying we’ll never win a referendum on independence.” Who knows?
Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer
Oil no guarantee of independence
According to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “an independent Scotland would not be viable from an economic point of view” even if it does have “goods to sell other than just oil, whiskey and bagpipes.” Generating 15,453 billion pounds (17,811 billion euros) in 2007, the energy sector remains the main source of income, writes the Zurich newspaper. But with price fluctuations and declining oil reserves, establishing a stable budget in the medium term “would pose a real challenge to Scotland.” Wind power, capable of mitigating these losses, is certainly “booming, but for now it’s still running at a loss.”
Finance, the other pillar of the Scottish economy, is also volatile in times of crisis, adds the NZZ. The Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS had to be bailed out by British taxpayers. “For those reasons, the independence dream of the Scots would lead to a rude awakening. Greater financial autonomy, however, could boost their economy,” the newspaper concludes.