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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.

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Rather than staking their claim on ancient heritage or minority rights, 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. A preference for social democratic policies such as free higher education and generous pensions, as well as a pan-European orientation on foreign and defense policy distinguishes Scots from other Britons, says the SNP. Now, the "Edinburgh deal" envisions a single, up-or-down vote on secession and will allow voters as young as 16 years old to cast a ballot.

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Mr. Cameron has promised not to block independence if the referendum succeeds, but he will also probably move to grant even more powers to Edinburgh as a way of buying off Scottish voters – a policy known as maximum devolution, or “devo-max." However, over the next two years, the SNP, led by the gifted strategist Mr. Salmond, will counter those efforts with an energetic campaign to convince Scots that building a new and independent country is in their best interest. 

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 United Kingdom – ties of history, language, and culture – would 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 splitting off from the United Kingdom would be small.

Building what the SNP calls “a culture of independence” has defined its behavior as a governing party, and the next two years will be spent 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.

The SNP paints a vision of an independent Scotland that would be fairer, greener, and more progressive, yet still integrated with its neighbors, with Scots sharing the crown, a currency, and a common defense with the rump union of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But this outcome is still more fantasy than assured reality.

Much depends on the complex negotiations that would follow a successful referendum. The disposition of North Sea oil reserves, for example, would be one of the bargaining points, as would the apportionment of the British national debt. The status of British nuclear weapons currently stationed in Scotland would also come into question, given the SNP's desire for a nuclear-free country.

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