Backstory: The Bid for Scottish Independence

The UK's Fragile Unity

On September 18th, voters in Scotland queued (that’s lined up, America) at the polls to decide whether to remain a member of the United Kingdom or to secede and become an independent nation. Debate over the future of Scotland’s three-hundred year union with England has raged for the past year, seeing the pro-secession Scottish National Party (SNP) square off against the pro-union organization Better Together. Following months of enthusiastic and occasionally contentious campaigning, a record eighty-four percent of Scots turned out for an election that would reject secession by a margin of fifty-five to forty five percent. News junkies and the politically addicted might have seen shades of the 2012 American presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, as pollsters declared the race too close to call right up until they declared it to be a landslide. Although it remains a constituent of the United Kingdom and is still subject to British Parliament rule, the independence referendum is a significant milestone for a historically apathetic Scottish political mechanism.

Until the mid-2000s, the Scottish parliament (generally known as the Holyrood, after the building in which it convenes) was either completely ineffectual or, for the most part, simply didn’t exist. Until 1999, Scotland was governed by the British Parliament in London. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of the notion of a devolved Scottish Parliament, Tony Blair’s Labour party made the establishment of such a body one of its primary political objectives. Labour would come to power in 1997, and two years later the Holyrood was formed. Although it was a great achievement for supporters of Scottish home rule, the powers of the newly minted legislature were restricted to subjects directly related to domestic governance. Decisions regarding broader issues like taxation and economic policy, abortion, public utilities and military policy remained in the hands of the British Parliament. The largely toothless Holyrood actually had to request special permission from Parliament to hold the independence referendum since it lacked the legal authority to make such a decision.

Many Scots, tired of being spoon-fed their domestic politics by Parliament, felt that more power should be devolved from Parliament to the Holyrood. This idea grew in popularity until 2011 when Alex Salmond and the SNP won a majority of Holyrood seats in a landslide election. Ardent supporters of Scottish independence, the SNP would continue to hold the issue in the national spotlight until finally gaining enough support to hold last week’s referendum. Although it might seem that the rejection of independence in the referendum would be a heavy blow to the SNP and its supporters, the reality is quite the opposite.

In the months leading up to the referendum, it seemed increasingly likely that Scottish voters would vote in favor of independence. Scotland’s economy is crucial to that of Great Britain, being home to a great deal of industry and several major seaports but most importantly to the oil fields that lie in Scottish territorial waters in the North Sea. British lawmakers, becoming increasingly nervous about the prospect of losing these assets, began to make extravagant promises to the Scottish leadership in an attempt to deter support for the independence movement. A group of leading members of Britain’s three major political parties pledged to devolve control over taxation and government spending in Scotland to the Holyrood. Addressing the nation following the announcement of the results of the referendum, First Minister Salmond declared “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the ‘vow’ that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland.”

Although the question of independence was settled at least for a little while, the debate over the devolvement of power to the Holyrood is equally significant to the future political stability of the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister David Cameron caused a stir last Friday by saying that any increase in power for the Scottish government might be accompanied by a decrease in influence for Scotland in affairs concerning the broader United Kingdom. Indeed, tensions in British politics are running high over this issue. One British lawmaker went as far as to call for a resolution to dissolve the United Kingdom entirely, comparing the territories Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ungrateful children. While the analogy may seem silly when you consider the fact that children are not conquered by armies and governed in absentia, it does demonstrate a certain animosity towards the territories by some British taxpayers.

British party leaders, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown have committed to having a draft of a new Scotland Bill before the end of January. The Bill will put into law the Scottish Parliament’s increased powers. Whether or not British leadership will follow through on their promises to the Scottish people remains to be seen, but whatever the result, the United Kingdom is in for a turbulent few months.

Montclair State | New Jersey

Ben Sanders

Ben is an international man of mystery. He likes his whiskey neat and his plane rides without turbulence.