Scotland moves slowly toward independence

EDINBURGH, Scotland – Scotland’s grievances against England, its more powerful neighbour to the south, are deep and long, stretching back hundreds of years. But despite the country’s fierce pride in the things that make it different – culture, history, haggis – Scottish independence has always seemed like a quixotic dream, the fantasy of a vocal minority with more passion than power.

Until May, that is. The Scottish National Party, whose avowed goal is securing Scottish independence, surprised perhaps even itself by winning a resounding majority in the Scottish Parliament and taking direct control of the Scottish government for the first time (it had been leading a fragile coalition government since 2007).

The win puts it, paradoxically, in something of a difficult spot. Having long promised to hold a referendum on independence, the party’s canny leader, Alex Salmond, has no choice but to go ahead. The polls show that a majority of Scots oppose independence, and a “no” vote would likely be a huge blow to the nationalists’ credibility and cause.

But Salmond, who as Scotland’s first minister is in charge of its government, perhaps has some wiggle room. First, by delaying the referendum to the end of the current parliamentary term, perhaps to 2014 or 2015, he can buy time to make his case. Second, if he succeeds in getting more than one question on the referendum – so that voters could choose, say, between the status quo, the status quo plus more powers for Scotland and full independence – he might be able to finesse the issue.

“If they go for this multiquestion referendum, then Alex Salmond can lose the referendum on independence, but he can say that while independence is our aspiration, we would be content with the middle option,” said Guy Lodge, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning study group in London. “That would keep the momentum with them.”

The current situation is a logical extension of a process that began in 1997, when the Labour government at the time tried to address the perennial annoyance of Scottish nationalism by granting the Scots their own Parliament and a greater say over how to spend their money in areas like health and education. Devolution, as it was called, was meant to “kill Scottish nationalism stone dead,” as a member of the government said at the time, but it galvanized the Scots, giving them more confidence in the strength of their differences.

Scots have traditionally been to the left of England politically, and the Scottish Parliament has enacted a series of measures that would be unheard of in the Westminster Parliament, even under a Labour government. English universities charge tuition; Scottish universities are free (to Scottish students, at least). Older people pay for prescriptions in England; they get them free in Scotland.

In the meantime, something odd has happened: The Scottish National Party has changed from being a slightly out-there, one-issue outfit to a credible force able to stand up both to the national Parliament in Westminster, and to the increasingly defanged Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the Scottish Parliament. “A few years ago, they weren’t taken seriously, but that has all changed,” said Michael Galloway, 38, a musician who was having a drink outside a pub in downtown Edinburgh recently, and who voted for the Scottish National Party for the first time in May.

“People think of Alex Salmond as the best politician, and they want a firm and strong government by a politician who has Scotland’s best interests at heart,” he said.

Speaking at a recent conference on Scottish politics here, John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said that Salmond’s success as first minister had made the case for independence less pressing.

“Ironically, and this is the real SNP conundrum, people seem to like a government that fights within the union,” he said, referring to the union between the nations that make up Britain: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. “They like the SNP government being an awkward customer – and by demonstrating that devolution can do that, people do not feel they need independence.”

Since the May election, Salmond has been busily flexing his muscles. In the Scottish Parliament, he introduced a contentious measure to increase penalties for sectarian-related violence after ugly incidents at matches between the rival Celtic and Ranger soccer teams.

“I will not have people living in fear from some idiotic 17th-century rivalry in the 21st century,” he said.

He reintroduced a bill, defeated several years ago, to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol, saying that Scotland’s drinking had gotten out of hand and that “we tolerate a race to the bottom of the bottle, which ruins our health, our judgment, our relationships, our safety and our dignity.”

In Westminster, the nationalists have proved their scrappiness by insisting on further concessions in the legislation that sets out the relationship between Scotland and Britain and is wending its way through Parliament. Among other things, the bill would reduce the income tax that Scots pay to Britain in return for a reduction in the annual grant that Britain gives to Scotland. To make up the difference, Scotland would be allowed to levy additional income tax.

Britain’s Conservative Party, which leads the coalition government in Westminster and is highly unpopular in Scotland, has had to take a cautious approach for fear of alienating the Scots even further and giving unwitting fuel to the independence cause. The Conservatives are opposed to Scottish independence – as indeed are all the non-nationalist parties – but have agreed in theory to allow the Scots to hold a referendum on the issue.

The opposition parties miscalculated the mood in the recent election by making gloomy predictions about a Scotland controlled by the Scottish National Party, even as the party and Salmond were “oozing optimism about the future of Scotland,” as Lodge put it.

“They’ve given Scotland a pride in being Scottish,” said Richard Garrett, 43, a student who was waiting for a bus on Princes Street here.

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