What if I were to tell you that it would be possible in our lifetime to see Scotland leave the United Kingdom? This may not seem likely to many, but in the next few years we could see radical changes in the relationship between Holyrood (where the Scottish Parliament resides) and Westminster. The likelihood of Scotland gaining almost complete autonomy and possibly complete independence should be a concern not only for the UK and its citizens, but for her allies as well. Scotland, already a country with little international influence, could face greater economic and international hurdles with independence, and the relationship between the U.S. and the UK may become just a little less "special."
Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the majority Scottish National Party (SNP), is preparing for what may possibly be the most significant British plebiscite since the UK general election of 1945. The vote will most likely consist of two questions: the first will be a referendum on complete independence for Scotland, and the second will be a referendum offering a less severe measure called “devolution (devo) max.”
Devo max is a system where Scotland would raise all of its own taxes and run its own welfare system while defense and foreign policy decisions would remain with Westminster. This may sound at first like the UK is moving towards a strong federalist government, similar in many ways to how conservatives in the U.S. view the battle between states’ rights and the federal government. But make no mistake; this is a battle for independence. The SNP has a full-fledged manifesto advocating the independence of Scotland. Any resolution that stops short of full independence will only satisfy the SNP for a small amount of time.
Salmond and the SNP are fairly obviously doing what they can to push this vote in their favor. The SNP knows that they do not have majority support for an independent Scotland, and as a result, have taken several measures to improve their odds of success. The referendum is not likely to be held until 2015, sometime before the next UK general election. The SNP has also made it clear that they are going to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 because they know that doing so will add another 125,000 potential voters, and the younger voters are more likely to be pro-independence nationalists.
Salmond has also not given any hint as to how the ballot will be worded, which could bias the voting. That the SNP, dedicated advocates of full independence, are even adding a vote on devo max to a referendum on Scottish independence suggests that the goal is not a straight independence vote, but to continue down the “slippery slope” knowing that the end result will be in their favor.
Worrying about the breakup of the United Kingdom is not a new phenomenon, and talk of such has been around since at least the founding of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. There has also been hope that the talk of independence could end in a way similar to the status of Quebec in Canada, but the passing of devo max would make Scotland far more autonomous and would leave a pro-independence party still dominating Holyrood.
There are still means by which devo max could be avoided or at least minimized. There is of course the chance that the vote will not pass. Another party (most likely the Labour Party) could also come to power in Scotland, or at least force the SNP to work in a coalition, dampening their ambitions. Despite the chances of avoiding the worst, Westminster must decide if they are willing to see the second-largest country in the United Kingdom secede.
Sooner or later, Westminster is going to have to draw a line in the sand, and that line should be drawn well short of independence. The views of those in the SNP are short-sighted and the way in which this vote is being held is suggesting that they may be turning the election into a far more focused referendum. England and Scotland have been officially bound together for 304 years and share a sometimes friendly, often tenuous relationship going back much further than that. To have such an integrated country leave the UK would be the equivalent of South Carolina trying to leave the Union once again.
The idea that the SNP has the right to simply leave a democratic union that Scotland has been party to for over three centuries for no good reason other than fleeting nationalist fervor is illegitimate. If Westminster is not prepared to accept an independent Scotland, it must make this point loud and clear at some point before this vote or after devo max has been passed. If it does not, then the European Union may have to get ready to accept a 28th member.
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