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Opinion

Scotland independence movement sends dangerous message

Scotland's Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron signed the 'Edinburgh deal' – allowing Scotland to hold a referendum vote on independence in 2014. As Europe's bonds are tested, the push for Scottish independence sends a dangerous 'go it alone' message.

By Charles King / October 16, 2012

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond sign an agreement in Edinburgh, Oct. 15 that allows Scotland to hold a 2014 referendum vote on Scottish independence. Op-ed contributor Charles King writes: 'Now is a time when bonds must be strengthened and perfected, not broken....The success of the Scottish independence movement in persuading London to accede to a referendum serves as a warning to Europe's democracies on how calculating politicians can undermine the very institutions most in need of preserving.'

Gordon Terris/AP

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Washington and London

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. On Monday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron signed what has been dubbed the “Edinburgh deal” – allowing Scotland to hold a referendum vote on independence in 2014.

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Scots have had their own regional parliament for more than a decade, but the referendum will offer them the chance to create their own nation-state. That is a goal to which the Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority faction in the Scottish Parliament, is expressly committed.

As Europe faces a dire fiscal crisis, and some within Britain call for an exit from the European Union, the push for Scottish independence sends a dangerous “go it alone” message. Europe’s – and Britain’s – problems require unity. Now is a time when bonds must be strengthened and perfected, not broken.

Secessionist movements were once seen as the last option for embattled ethnic minorities or struggling democrats lodged inside brutal autocracies. But the Scottish deal represents the first wave in a new tide of independence claims in some of Europe's most stable democracies, from Spain to Belgium. The success of the Scottish independence movement in persuading London to accede to a referendum serves as a warning to Europe's democracies on how calculating politicians can undermine the very institutions most in need of preserving. 

And to would-be secessionists in other countries, it is a lesson about the uses of quiet maximalism – the way in which astute regional parties can dismantle a workable country while no one seems to be looking.

Scotland joined its royal house with that of England in 1603; the countries' two parliaments were merged in 1707. Afterward, Scots retained many of their ancient institutions, such as a separate legal system, and Scots spread throughout the British Empire – from America to India – as soldiers, administrators, and merchants. In 1998, the Scottish Parliament was restored in Edinburgh, giving Scots much greater control over local governance and eventually even significant tax-raising powers. 

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