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Scot Free: Is Scotland’s Independence from the U.K. Inevitable?

6 minute read

Corrections Appended: Nov. 18, 2011

What would an independent Scotland look like? Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist First Minister, sits in the formal reception room at his official residence, Bute House in Edinburgh, and quickly recites his list.

Free Scotland would, he says, still have the Queen as head of state. It would consider an alliance with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though it would insist that England remove its nuclear-submarine base at Faslane and its Trident-missile bunker at Coulport. Scotland would join the European Union and, like Ireland, would allow anyone to apply for citizenship if they could prove Scottish roots back a couple of generations. It would keep the British pound until the right moment came to join the euro. But no matter what the currency — and this is perhaps the biggest reason the country is taking Salmond’s drive for independence so seriously these days — Scotland would keep all its money for itself.

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In that way, Salmond’s argument is a slightly updated version of the American revolutionary mantra of the 1770s: he wants to stop lining London’s pockets. The First Minister points out that for the past five years — the only period of time for which statistics have been available — Scotland has not been a receiver state and contributes to the exchequer more than it receives. That status has always been controversial, however, with many critics arguing that Scotland remains dependent on funds from the central government in spite of recent statistics indicating a surplus. Salmond, however, believes that Scotland has not been a receiver state since the exploration and development of oil and gas reserves off his country’s peaty shores in the 1960s. The booming, whisky, salmon and tourism industries have also helped boost the Scottish economy. Salmond gestures toward Spanish architect Enric Miralles’ sleek new building housing the Scottish parliament, which started up in 1999 — the first local parliament since the Acts of Union in 1707 created a unified British legislature based in London. “What you have to understand is that the parliament up the road there,” he says, “has the powers of the majority of spending, but it only has the right to raise about 10% of Scottish taxation.” Add in how little political support Britain’s leaders have in Scotland — the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties that have formed a coalition government in Westminster won only 20% of the Scottish vote, combined, in the past elections — and Salmond makes a fairly credible case for taxation without representation.

Salmond, 57, a stocky, jovial character renowned for both his charisma and his temper, began his push for Scottish independence more than two dozen years ago, when he was first elected to represent Aberdeen in the north, the home base for much of the country’s surging oil and gas industry. His Scottish National Party (SNP) rose as Scotland did. “There was a rediscovery of the importance of Scottish nationhood,” Salmond says. “That rediscovery was happening at the same time as the decline of British identity at the end of the empire.” It was the SNP’s growing popularity that forced the Labour government, which had ruled Scotland for more than 50 years, to allow a Scottish parliament in 1999 with a Scottish head of government — the First Minister. Salmond won the job in 2007, when the SNP formed a minority government. The party’s growth has spiked, from 47 seats when it formed the minority government in 2007 to an outright majority of 69 seats out of 129 after elections earlier this year.

Independence, however, is by no means a forgone conclusion. It’s not just that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed Salmond’s plan “crazy” or that current Prime Minister David Cameron promised to “campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fiber that I have.” On Oct. 11, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said he planned to form a “Team Scotland” to fight Salmond. “We’ve always accepted that Scotland has a right to leave the union,” says Douglas Alexander, a Scotsman and a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet in London. “The question is if this is a good thing for Scotland, and most Scots aren’t convinced it would be.”

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It is true that for all the popularity of Salmond and the SNP, support for full independence has rarely gotten more than 40% in the polls. But it has been gaining traction. A Sunday Mirror poll out in mid-October found that 49% of Scots and 39% of Britons overall support independence, up from 11% and 6%, respectively, five months ago. Salmond plans to hold a referendum on independence before the end of his term in 2015, and he’s already working hard to ensure success. In October he announced plans to drop the voting age to 16; independence is more popular with young Scots. He’s also hedging his bets. The referendum will have two questions. One: Do you want Scotland to be independent? And two: Should Scotland have full financial powers — i.e., the ability to tax? Of course, Salmond prefers full independence, which would grant Scotland the powers of defense and foreign policy, but he’ll settle for the right to tax if the first question fails.

There are plenty of reasons to question how sure-footed Scotland would be on its own. In 2008 the British exchequer had to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland. And that gleaming new parliament building? It was finished three years late and cost 10 times more than its original estimate. For Salmond, however, the drive toward self-rule is inevitable and irreversible. Just look at the 50 countries that have sought independence from London since World War II, he says. “In just about every case, they were told the whole thing would be a complete misadventure, a disaster. And I’ll tell you something strange,” he notes with a grin. “Not a single one of them ever said, ‘We’re coming back under London rule.’ Not one.”

Corrections: The original story said that Scotland was a receiver state until five years ago, putting less into the British exchequer than it received. The Office of the First Minister of Scotland says that statistics are only available for five years on the Scottish surplus but adds that Alex Salmond believes that Scotland has not been a receiver state since the development of North Sea oil in the 1960s.
The original story said that England suspended the Scottish parliament in 1707. The parliaments of both England and Scotland voted to create a single united British parliament based in the Palace of Westminster in London in 1707.
The original version of this story said Salmond formed a coalition government with Labour in 2007. He and the SNP formed a minority government.
The original story said the Scottish National Party growth spiked from six seat in 2005 to an outright majority of 69 seats after a landslide victory earlier this year. The SNP boosted its majority in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh from 47 seats to 69 in the last election. It holds six seats in the British parliament in London.
TIME regrets the errors.

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