Britain's Queen Elizabeth (front L) and Prince Charles (front R) react while watching the sack race at the annual Braemar Highland Gathering in Braemar, Scotland, September 6, 2014. 
Russell Cheyne / Reuters

The monument to Sir William Wallace stands near the city of Stirling, a castle town not far from the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. On blustery days when the sun peeks through the clouds, the sandstone memorial glows golden and majestic. That is exactly the effect its Victorian-era creators intended: a tower of imagined antiquity meant to evoke the spirit of a freedom-loving Scot. In the late thirteenth century, Wallace helped lead an uprising against England's King Edward I, for which he was eventually hanged, drawn, and quartered. There are no contemporary images of the hero depicted in the 1995 epic Braveheart, but when tourism began to boom after the film came out, enthusiasts made up their own. Until a few years ago, a bas-relief panel introduced the warrior-martyr to tour groups visiting the tower as they walked from the parking lot to the gift shop. The likeness was unmistakably that of Mel Gibson.

It is easy to snicker at the more inventive excesses of Scottish nationalism. The kilt-and-bagpipes version of Scottishness was the creation of fantasists such as Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria. Family tartans came about as a way of marketing Scottish woolens. Bagpipe bands were organized to keep British infantrymen in step. Even the shaggy Highland cow, with its ginger hair and barbaric appeal, was a feat of nineteenth-century genetic engineering that would have been a curiosity to cattle drovers of ages past.

Yet Scottish nationalism is alive and well -- and a more powerful force now than at virtually any time since Wallace's day. The question of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom is currently the single most pressing issue in British politics and a point of growing concern across Europe. The Scots opted for their own regional government in 1997, and a referendum planned for the fall of 2014 will offer them the chance to create their own country, a goal to which the Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority faction in Scotland's parliament, is expressly committed.

Rather than staking their claim on ancient heritage or minority rights, however, modern Scottish nationalists offer a novel argument for independence: that the people of Scotland embrace political and social values that set them apart from the inhabitants of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish government, has said he is campaigning "for independence not just as an end in itself, but as the means by which the Scottish economy can grow more strongly and sustainably; by which Scotland can take its rightful place as a responsible member of the world community; and by which the Scottish people can best fulfill their potential and realize their aspirations." The precise wording and legal status of the referendum are still being worked out, but Conservative, Liberal Democratic, and Labour members of parliament in Westminster agree that there is little they can do to dissuade the Scottish government from organizing such a vote.

Opinion polls suggest that the Scots are unlikely to approve independence outright. Instead, they will probably settle for some form of "enhanced devolution," an increase in the considerable policymaking power granted to Scotland over the last decade and a half. But the rise of Salmond's SNP has sent an unexpected shudder through British political life. The outcome of Scotland's vote will also reverberate throughout Europe, setting a precedent for dealing with fundamental questions of governance and sovereignty. What kinds of units deserve self-determination, especially when they base their claim not on minority rights but on the simple desire to do things their own way? What options are open to democratic polities that seek to counter secession when military force is unimaginable? The question of Scotland's future is not just about the durability of the United Kingdom. It is also about the uses of quiet maximalism -- the way in which astute regional parties, aided by creaky central institutions and unimpassioned opponents, can unbuild a workable country while no one seems to be looking.


Until the 1990s, when the modern Scottish independence movement gained steam, Scots were often dismissed as 90-minute nationalists: people who displayed their identity mainly during soccer matches against England and Wales. But the roots of Scottish nationalism run deep.

The crowns of England and Scotland were joined in 1603, and separate parliaments in London and Edinburgh voted for merger in 1707. Thereafter, Scots served loyally throughout the empire as British soldiers, merchants, and administrators. At the same time, Scotland has also been home to much discontent. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, the son of a Catholic pretender to the British throne, made common cause with Highland clans and sought to win back the crown in the so-called Jacobite rebellion. In the nineteenth century, the Free Church movement among Scottish Protestants challenged London's sovereignty over religious affairs. After World War I, dockworkers rioted in Glasgow and other cities, stoking fears that Marxism, not nationalism, would be the ideology that would unite working-class Scots in the new century.

Few of these sources of dissent have had real staying power. Dyed-in-the-wool Jacobites survive mainly among Americans who attend Highland games and enroll their children in bagpipe classes. The Church of Scotland suffers from the same waning membership that has bedeviled its sister congregation, the Church of England. And although Scottish voters have leaned consistently to the left over the last century, that tradition has actually cemented Scotland's place in British politics. Successive Labour governments in London have depended on Scottish support in parliamentary elections, and Conservative and Liberal Democratic challengers have shaped their platforms with a view to chipping away at Labour constituencies north of the border.

In 1979, London consented to a vote on devolving greater regional power to Scotland, but the move was more the product of electoral politics than of nationalist agitation. The SNP had achieved major gains in the general election of October 1974, and both Labour and the Conservatives wanted to demonstrate that public support for the cause of "home rule" remained weak. In the referendum, more Scots voted for devolution than against it, but with a lackluster turnout, the measure failed to attract the required 40 percent of eligible voters.

After 1979, reveling in the lost cause became as much a part of Scottish nationalism as remembering a glorious past or imagining a different future. Things changed in the 1990s, however. As Tony Blair's Labour Party sought to capture the political center, the SNP discovered a new strategy. The legacy of Margaret Thatcher had pushed the United Kingdom's major parties to the right, the SNP now argued, and the union had remade itself in ways that alienated the progressives of the north. Calculated nostalgia came to define the Scottish cause. The SNP looked back at the pre-Thatcher 1970s not as a time of labor unrest and industrial decline but as one of ample state-sponsored pensions, quality medical care, and dignified public housing.

This was, to say the least, a charitable way of remembering that era, but it provided the SNP with an ideology that was at once tradition-laced and forward-looking. Out-lefting the left became the core element of the SNP's strategy; its rallying cry was a postmodern species of nationalism that was multicultural, social democratic, and pro-European. In the short term, however, the party platform mattered less than the political context. British electoral politics once again became the vehicle for Scottish interests. In 1997, the Blair government, seeking to strip the SNP's platform of its key plank and ensure long-term Labour victories in Scotland, organized a new referendum on devolution. Three-quarters of Scottish voters approved the restoration of a regional parliament, and two years later, the new assembly took up quarters in the Holyrood section of Edinburgh.

Elections to the Scottish parliament initially rewarded Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the traditional winners in Scottish constituencies. But voter discontent with the governments of Blair and Gordon Brown, along with the second wind that devolution gave to the SNP, transformed the electoral landscape. After the 2011 elections to Holyrood, Scottish nationalists emerged with a set of advantages they had never before enjoyed: a majority of seats in the regional parliament, executive control of Scotland's government, and a message that emphasized the welfare state over ethnic heritage. They also had a standard-bearer in the person of Salmond, arguably the most gifted political strategist of his generation. The result has been a region careering toward a vote on its place within the United Kingdom with little real sense of the implications for itself, its present country, or the rest of Europe.


As they make their case for independence, SNP leaders have found themselves in the difficult position of talking up the importance of a referendum while also downplaying the significance of the result they hope to attain. Salmond has repeatedly affirmed the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own fate, but he has insisted that the social union between Scotland and the rest of the kingdom -- ties of history, language, and culture -- will endure long after the political union vanishes. Moreover, with a sovereign Scotland still firmly planted in the European Union and presumably NATO, he argues, the costs of dissolving the United Kingdom would be small.

Holyrood and Westminster are gearing up for the tense, protracted, and complex negotiations that will inevitably follow the 2014 ballot. Even if the SNP fails to garner an outright majority for full independence, the mere act of holding a referendum will represent a victory in itself. Scotland will have established its right to organize the plebiscite and proved that sizable numbers of Scottish residents support greater empowerment. The SNP will also have gained a leg up in future elections for the Scottish parliament, the British parliament, and the European Parliament -- all venues in which it will continue to make the case for secession.

The race to 2014 has already spurred action in London, with recent legislation granting tax-raising power to Holyrood. Still, no concession from the British government is likely to slake the nationalists' thirst for a referendum. Building what the SNP calls "a culture of independence" has defined its behavior as a governing party, and it will spend the next two years in permanent campaign mode. Such determined advocacy will cloud the ability of Scots to make a clear-eyed assessment of the costs and benefits of leaving the union.

Conditions in Scotland today are mixed. On some indicators, such as child poverty, Scots have it better than most other Britons. On others, such as diet, they have it worse. It is probably better to be old in Scotland than in England, given the generous long-term health-care benefits north of the border. But you will be older for shorter: life expectancy is lower there, substantially so in the city of Glasgow, where men in the poorest neighborhoods die around a decade earlier than men in other parts of the United Kingdom.

How this picture might change in an independent Scotland depends on what Scotland would take with it if it exited the union. SNP leaders claim that revenues from North Sea oil and gas rightfully belong to the people of Scotland, where the bulk of the United Kingdom's offshore fields actually lie. If it got a fair share of these resources -- 90 percent, say -- Scotland would become one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP. And if more money flowed directly to Edinburgh, Scotland could better address some of its basic development challenges, such as a weak industrial sector and deep-rooted urban poverty.

The SNP paints a vision of an independent Scotland that would be fairer, greener, and more progressive, yet still integrated with its neighbors. People would move freely across the border, and the Scots would continue to share the crown, a currency, and a common defense with the rump union of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

But achieving this appealing vision of postmodern statehood would require hardening the very walls that Scots have been told will fall away after independence. Rather than simply harmonizing tax and regulatory regimes with the rest of the union, Scotland would have to create entirely new ones designed to ensure that revenues and decision-making power stayed in Edinburgh. The government would presumably keep in place the policy of providing tuition-free college educations to Scottish residents but not to students from England or Wales, who must pay out of pocket to attend Scottish universities. It would have to establish a new state-funded pension scheme and development fund to channel resource revenues to Scottish workers, while ushering non-Scots out of the queue. Keeping money and people in Scotland is precisely the point of independence, yet the realities of what this would entail are at odds with the SNP's internationalist tone.

The prospect of independence also raises thorny questions about foreign and defense policy. British defense reform has already produced a theoretically separable force, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, through the amalgamation of smaller units. But the SNP, which opposes nuclear weapons, has not said what it plans to do about the United Kingdom's nuclear-armed submarines stationed near Glasgow. Given this murkiness, it is not surprising that polls show ordinary Scots to be unenthusiastic about full independence. Scottish support for secession generally hovers in the range of 30 to 39 percent, but around 70 percent of voters say they would opt for maximum devolution, or "devo-max": substantially increased powers for Holyrood short of full sovereignty. Overall, Scots seem to believe that independence would reduce their personal incomes and job security and lower Scotland's standing in the world -- hardly a rousing endorsement of the SNP's plans.


Regardless of what happens over the next two years, the lasting result will be the further devolution of power to Scotland. Whether that shift ends up drawing the union tighter or stoking nationalist ambitions will depend more on Westminster than Holyrood. Successive waves of constitutional reform have transformed the United Kingdom into a de facto federation -- but one with few of the legal and political mechanisms that allow other democratic federations to function and survive.

Typical federal systems involve constant bargaining among multiple levels of governance. States or provinces generally push for more power; central governments often resist. To keep things together, the federal government has to convince political elites on the periphery that they have a stake in what happens in the national capital.

Devolution in the United Kingdom has not been accompanied by creative thinking about how to achieve that goal. Parliament has reasonably empowered some of the kingdom's historic units, but this process is not just a matter of local governance; it affects the very foundations of British political life. Giving Holyrood what it wants without reforming central institutions would only widen the divide between Edinburgh and London. The result would be the weakening of alternative political voices north of the border, as the SNP cemented its long-term electoral dominance, and an SNP faction in the British parliament that acted more like ambassadors to a foreign country than members of a united legislature.

Such an outcome may be nearly inevitable, however. Political diversity in Scotland will probably suffer no matter what happens in 2014, since the SNP desires a stable majority in the Scottish parliament whether Scotland is fully independent or merely more sovereign. The pro-union cause will likely get weaker, given that Labour and Liberal Democratic politicians, especially those trying to protect their dwindling Scottish constituencies, are uncomfortable wrapping themselves in the Union Jack. Prime Minister David Cameron, for his part, must be aware of a tempting possibility: that saying goodbye to Scottish voters could tip the House of Commons toward a durable Conservative majority.

Given these perverse incentives, it might turn out that the United Kingdom has been mistaken about its identity all along: a monarchy that became a federation while dreaming it was a union and, in the dreaming, simply ceased to be. Over the long term, the rise of the SNP has made the end of the United Kingdom a thinkable proposition. And that fact, even beyond the outcome of the referendum, has been the chief source of interest in Scotland's example beyond the British Isles.


Although the SNP is staying focused on the next two years, its leadership has talked up the wider meaning of the Scottish case. "An independent Scotland could be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield," Salmond said in January. He went on to argue that progressives should make policy "according to the specific circumstances and wishes within the other jurisdictions of these islands and beyond." Salmond's careful language masks a revolutionary understanding of self-determination: that short-term policy differences provide sufficient cause for politicians to lead their regions out of existing states.

Salmond regularly cites the distinctions that now obtain north of the border, from ancient ones, such as Scotland's unique legal system, to modern ones, such as its alcohol-pricing plan that discourages overdrinking. But given that the SNP has rejected the shortbread-and-tartan version of Scottishness, the case for independence ends up sounding self-serving. Social Democrats of the world should unite, the argument seems to go, by carving out their own pieces of real estate, the chief outcome of which will be to guarantee permanent governance by social democratic parties.

In this sense, Scotland offers both a novel philosophy of self-rule and a window onto the way that nationalism really works. Independence movements come about not because every member of an ethnic minority wakes up one day and decides to wave a flag or, worse, shoulder a rifle. They are instead the product of calculated moves by political elites within existing institutions. They usually begin with the simple assertion that local laws should take precedence over those devised by distant legislators. They progress toward more radical demands for control over local natural resources or an end to military service beyond one's own frontiers. Their culmination is marked not by the roar of celebration but by the whimpering realization in the old capital that the benefits of staying together are just no longer worth the costs.

The single greatest predictor of countries' starting down this path is not ethnic difference, a long history of grievances, or political oppression. Rather, what gives rise to independence is the presence of some set of defined institutions -- a local parliament, an administrative structure, a separable military force, even lines on a map distinguishing one piece of land from another -- that allow nationalists to translate aspirations into political action.

Of course, another commonwealth democracy has long experience with managing nationalist demands. Like the United Kingdom, Canada had its own provincial secessionists who were progressively empowered by the federal capital. But the Québecois quest for independence involved a religious and linguistic minority seeking to secure its status against perceived English-speaking dominance. Canada's federal-level commitment to bilingualism and multiculturalism reduced the cost of remaining inside the federation. New waves of immigration to Quebec -- from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere -- complicated the old dividing lines between Anglophone and Francophone interests. Economic growth gave Québecois voters a continuing stake in the status quo.

Scotland is different. Not only is it difficult today to define an "ethnic Scot," but the SNP has understood that its greatest hope for differentiating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom is to embrace values, not nationality, as the region's defining principle. Although the Scottish government publishes official documents in Gaelic, it also translates them into Chinese and Urdu. The year 2014 will be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when a Scottish army famously routed the English, but journalists more often note this coincidence than politicians. The challenge for the SNP will be to stay atop the narrow isthmus between touting multiculturalism and democracy and claiming that these values are best realized outside a kingdom where both are already sacred. The challenge for Westminster is to care enough to make a passionate and convincing case for a fourth century of united government, rather than just betting that "devo-max" will be enough to kick the problem down the road.

A nationalist movement seeks its own country. A nationalist party seeks a country that will keep electing it. The SNP, aided by the history of devolution itself, has structured the debate in ways that make it difficult for voters to distinguish these two demands. Scots are just now realizing that the issues devolution was meant to address -- development, jobs, education -- will soon be overshadowed by a campaign to convince them of their own natural nationhood. The troubling lesson is that secession, even shorn of its ethnic trappings, can still be an alluring strategy for regional parties dissatisfied with the policies of their central governments.

In an age of tough austerity programs and unpopular bailouts, that strategy is one that Belgium's Flemings, Spain's Catalans, Italy's Piedmontese, and Romania's Transylvanians can take to heart. The SNP's nationalism is certainly more palatable than the blood-and-soil variety. But its example is doubly unfortunate. To restive regionalists, Scotland is a tutorial in how a secessionist party can win by understanding existing institutions better than the people who should be most committed to preserving them. To central governments, it is a cautionary tale about surrendering too much sovereignty to provincial elites. Scotland once embodied the belief that local distinctiveness, united governance, and democratic practice were mutually reinforcing. It would be a shame if the Scottish model became something else: a handbook for transforming muscular regionalism into territorial separatism.

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  • CHARLES KING is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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