Last year Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, remarked that Scotland was “two thirds” of the way towards becoming an independent nation. The creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 had constituted the first third, he explained, while the election of a minority SNP (Scottish National Party) government in 2007 was the second of three steps. The SNP, of course, wants to break up the United Kingdom, thereby completing the circle.
Or at least that is the sort of language used by the SNP’s opponents. Invariably, Alex Salmond and his party want to “smash” up the UK, “break” the 300-year-old Anglo-Scottish Union, or at the very least “separate” from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In response, the SNP has gone to great lengths – ironically – to reassure Scots that they wish to do nothing of the sort.
A vision for an independent Scotland
The first important step in this was the adoption of an “independence in Europe” policy back in 1988. By essentially committing to European regionalism, the SNP successfully neutralized the Labour charge that the Nationalists were isolationist, even though that meant conceding a little sovereignty in the process. Then, following the election of Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP in 1990, there were further strategic shifts.
An independent Scotland, proclaimed Salmond, would retain Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, while working hard to forge a “social union” with England and working with all parts of the UK within a beefed-up “Council of the Isles” modelled on the Nordic Council. After independence, he claimed, Scotland would become England’s closest international friend.
The latest shift is perhaps the most important. Just this month, Salmond announced that although independence remained a long-term goal, the “centre of gravity” in Scottish politics instead lies with “full fiscal autonomy”, a process by which Scotland will remain part of the UK but raise and spend all of its own taxes.
The UK, therefore, is safe for the time being. Far from “killing Nationalism stone dead”, as the former NATO chief George Robertson once boasted, devolution has demonstrated that support for the SNP can go up without a corresponding increase in support for independence. Devolution, curiously, has strengthened the fabric of the Union.
In Wales the same dynamic applies, where the SNP’s sister party Plaid Cymru shares government with the Labour Party yet shows no signs of increasing support for independence (which, in any cases, many Welsh Nationalists do not want), and in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Nationalists Sinn Fein co-govern – surprisingly harmoniously – with the Unionist DUP, again with no overt signs that a reunified Ireland is any stronger a prospect than it was in the 1970s or 1980s.
Redefining the UK
As Scottish Nationalists lead the way in redefining “independence”, it seems likely that the nature of the United Kingdom will be reconstituted without breaking up. Alex Salmond is, above all, a pragmatist, and that pragmatism could see him follow in the footsteps of Catalonia or the Basque Country, campaigning – and ultimately settling for – maximum autonomy within a united European member state.
The constitutional historian Peter Hennessy put it well when he concluded that “Scotland will be to the UK what Quebec is to Canada and the UK is to the European Union – the awkward one spewing out a constant drizzle of complaint but never pushing it to the point of rupture”. Amen to that.