Will Scotland Go Independent?

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland

by the Scottish Government
649 pp., available at scotreferendum.com
Andrew Milligan/Press Association/AP Images
Graffiti in favor of Scottish independence, Bannockburn, Scotland, January 2012


On September 18, Scots will be asked to say yes or no to the following question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It is a beguilingly simple query, a model of clarity compared to, say, the 106-word essay put to the people of Quebec in a 1980 referendum that asked if they wished to break away from Canada, phrased in so convoluted a manner that many barely understood the question.

Much will hang on the Scots’ answer. Other states have recently broken up—the former Yugoslavia through war and Czechoslovakia by amicable divorce—but for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom would mark the dissolution of a state that has endured for more than three centuries, that is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and whose imperial rule once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface. At a stroke, the land of Shakespeare and Burns, Locke and Hume would lose nearly 10 percent of its people—there are 5.3 million Scots in a UK population of 63 million—and one third of its landmass. At stake is the future of Scotland and Britain, both uncertain how they would fare in the event of a yes vote, the former going it alone, the latter reduced to its three remaining constituent parts: England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But something else could be decided too, namely the changing shape and meaning of nationhood in the twenty-first century.

It’s worth noting what the referendum campaign is not. It is not a blood-and-soil clash over identity and ethnicity. The Braveheart notion of Scottish nationalism—spear-carriers, faces painted in woad, crying freedom against the English oppressor—has been extinct, even as myth, for several decades. These days you will see few kilts at the annual conference of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose landslide victory in 2011 gave it an overall majority in the Scottish parliament and, with it, the power to call a referendum on the idea that forms the party’s historic mission: independence.

Today’s SNP is avowedly of the civic nationalist variety, its focus on questions of democracy and governance. The “Nats” boast of their inclusiveness to ethnic minorities (there is a group called Scots Asians for Independence), are keen to see more, not less, immigration, and are in no hurry to be identified with their onetime sister parties in Europe, those assorted separatists and nationalists whom the SNP would now regard as insular if not xenophobic.

The difference lies chiefly in the history. The union of the Scottish and English crowns came in 1603 and could fairly be described as the initiative of a Scot, King James. The British Empire was a joint venture of the two nations, serving together as, if not exactly equals, then at least partners. Recall that the first British colonies of the New World were Jamestown, named for…

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