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UK Squabbles: Scottish Independence Ahead?

Scotland may gain independence from the UK in just over a year. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), finally set a date for a referendum: September 18, 2014. The announcement comes after two years of campaigning and negotiating by the SNP leader. The LA Times reported on Salmond’s speech:

 “That day…is the day we take responsibility for our country, when we’re able to speak with our own voice, choose our own direction and contribute in our own distinct way.”

The referendum will ask: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” A victory for the “yes” side would dissolve a sometimes happy, sometimes rocky political marriage sealed in 1707.

The key facts here seem to be that UK Prime Minister David Cameron gave ground on timing (he had initially pushed for an earlier vote) but won key points on substance. Salmond had wanted to include a referendum that “also offered an alternative choice of increased autonomy,” rather than just the yes/no vote.

A straight up/down vote is not good news for the SNP. Polls show that full independence is only supported by about a third of Scots. In fact, critics like Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont argue that Salmond pushed the referendum well into 2014 to give himself more time to sway Scottish opinion. If the referendum were held now, independence would likely fail.

One factor that will probably play a role in how the Scots vote is how tranquil and well-managed the EU looks at the time of the vote. On leaving the UK, an independent Scotland would have to negotiate its entry into the EU, and it won’t be able to count on the opt-outs that have enabled the UK to stay in the union while keeping out of the euro. The messier Europe’s affairs look, and the more bitter the relationship between creditor and debtor countries, the more Scots will look askance at being citizens in what would necessarily be a weaker country with fewer cards to play in European politics.

A key factor driving independence movements across Europe has been the perception that the EU was becoming stronger and more reliable, making the old nation-states less important. If anything, recent events in Europe point to a renewed sense of national identification and a European project that looks ever sicklier and less attractive.

If true, this is bad news for the SNP’s dreams of a European Scotland.

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