After more than three centuries of debate, the movement for an independent Scotland is on the rise. Scotland’s current first minister, Alex Salmond, recently negotiated a referendum on the question of independence with the UK government, marking the commencement of an intense campaign to convince the Scottish people to vote for national independence. At the moment, the referendum is projected to take place in fall of 2014. But will the people of Scotland follow Salmond’s lead and support independence? And if they do, what does independence mean for the future of Scotland and its place in the European Union?
History of the Movement
The Scottish independence movement can arguably be traced back to the signing of the Act of Union in 1707, which officially tied Scotland to England. Though many believed unification was necessary to prevent Scotland’s impending financial ruin, opposition to the Act of Union was strong at the time.[i] Still, for the next two hundred years, in which the British Empire was at its peak, notions of Scottish independence were not seriously considered.
All of this changed with the founding of the Scottish National Party in 1934. The formation of the SNP—which, notably, coincides with the decline of the British Empire—is a formal reflection of the shift toward nationalist attitudes that has been building ever since. In 2007, the SNP gained a minority presence, and in 2011 it became Scotland’s majority party. But does Scottish support for the SNP necessarily equate support for independence? After all, although Salmond has always been a vocal nationalist, the Scottish people were highly aware that he could not declare Scottish independence without the peoples’ support when they elected him. Indeed, despite Salmond’s popularity, recent polls suggest that if the referendum were held tomorrow, only about one-third of the population would vote “yes” for Scotland’s separation from the UK.[ii]
The Yes Scotland Campaign
Salmond’s Yes Scotland campaign officially began in May 2012. The goal of the campaign is to garner one million signatures for an independent Scotland prior to the 2014 referendum, which would effectively ensure its success. Numerous celebrities have since endorsed Yes Scotland, including actor Sean Connery and novelist Irvine Welsh.
But many disparage Salmond’s goals as implausible; after all, when the Yes Scotland campaign began, polls pointed to the consistent unpopularity of independence. Still, although support for independence hovers around a mere 30% of the population, deeper analysis of this number reveals just how flexible the Scottish people are regarding their nationalism. A YouGov poll found that 45% of people said they would vote “yes” if they believed it would benefit them financially, and 65% said they would vote for independence if it guaranteed them an additional £500 per year.[iii] This data exposes just how closely the Scottish people’s perception of independence is tied to its economic concerns; clearly, in order to run a successful campaign, Salmond must appeal to the people’s wallets. This may prove a difficult case to make, for in separating from the UK, Scotland also relinquishes its claim to the already fragile economic security that UK membership offers. These concerns have been compounded by Salmond’s intimations that he would prefer to break away from the pound as Scotland’s currency and convert to the precarious Euro.
Perhaps in an attempt to draw attention away from economic concerns and toward patriotic impulses, Salmond’s political rhetoric has grown increasingly aggressive in recent months. His comments in October took on their most brazen tone yet: “Why on earth do we allow this incompetent bunch of Lord Snooties to be in positions of authority over our country?” Salmond challenged. “Westminster would put this first-class nation in the second-class carriages.”[iv]
Although the SNP currently occupies a majority in Scotland, its leaders agree that independence requires a direct vote from the Scottish people, and will therefore not declare independence without holding the referendum. Moreover, all negotiations on the referendum have been and will continue to be arranged through the UK government, in accordance with Scotland’s current status as a part of the UK.
The Edinburgh Agreement—a formal document negotiated by the UK and Scottish governments that outlines the parameters of the referendum—was signed on October 15, 2012. The signatories were Prime Minister David Cameron, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, and Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon. The agreement declares that the Scottish government will legislate the referendum, and that it will adhere to “the highest standards of fairness, transparency, and propriety, informed by consultation and independent expert advice.”[v]
With the “highest standard of fairness” in mind, Salmond has pushed to include Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds in the vote, considering the enormous impact that the referendum could hold for their futures. The rest of the voters will include Scottish-born people who reside in Scotland, as well as citizens of other parts of the UK who now live in Scotland.[vi]
Voters will be asked a simple question along the lines of “Do you think Scotland should be an independent nation?” There has been talk of a “second question” that asks voters if they would support increased autonomy for Scotland, rather than total separation from the UK. However, it is unlikely that the second question will be asked; Salmond believes that it would dilute the results of referendum, while Westminster worries that the Scots are more likely to pass a referendum for increased autonomy than one for full independence.[vii]
At this point, it is too early to predict the outcome of the referendum with certainty. If Yes Scotland fails to persuade voters that independence will benefit them financially, the campaign will likely fail, resulting in a continuation of the status quo.
But what if the independence movement succeeds? In this case, Scotland would be required to re-apply for membership in the European Union—a complicated process that could deter residents from voting for independence. Moreover, the original members of the EU retain the power of veto for admission into the union, and some speculate that Scotland’s application would meet a surprising force of opposition—Spain. Because Spain is currently trying to suppress the stirrings for independence in Catalonia, it is very possible that the Spanish would reject Scotland’s application to signify the consequences of independence.[viii]