Why Scots face historic election

A pro-independence party looks set to win the May 3 vote, 300 years after Scotland united with England.

Scottish voters go to the polls Thursday for what the First Minister, Jack McConnell, has described as the "most important election in Scotland in at least a generation."

At stake, whether the country – which this week marked the 300th anniversary of its union with England – will vote on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom within the next three years.

At the headquarters of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Edinburgh the yellow walls of its campaign room bear the election slogan "It's time."

After years of trying to bring independence to Scotland, the party believes it's on the brink of a historic victory. If the SNP does form the next government, it is promising to hold a referendum in 2010 on independence.

Claiming Scotland's right to 95 percent of North Sea oil revenues, the SNP says such a move would be economically viable despite Scotland's current heavy dependence on UK revenues.

Ironically, the swing toward the pro-independence SNP comes just as Scotsman Gordon Brown looks set to take over as prime minister from Tony Blair, who is widely expected to announce his resignation next week amid all-time low popularity ratings.

Some see the shift as a reflection of dissatisfaction with Mr. Blair's Labour party, which has been in power for 10 years this week. But others see the SNP's popularity as a fundamental shift – not just a mood for change, but a genuine desire to break away from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

"There has been a glacial shift over a long period of time against being British," says David McCrone, the director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh.

He points to the fact that 30 years ago a third of Scots said they were British first, then Scottish. Now that's down to less than half that amount, at 15 percent.

Still, opinion polls show only about half of Scots, at most, in favor of independence. Some put that figure as low as 25 percent.

Professor McCrone, who says that the true figure is around one-third, says there is still a strong mood toward greater powers for Scotland.

"There is a shift to greater self-government," he says. "Around two-thirds of people want the Scottish Parliament to have more powers."

Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has had devolved powers, though many key issues like defense and taxation remain with the UK parliament in London, which for nearly 300 years governed Scotland's affairs.

McCrone describes the move toward greater self-government as an ongoing trend that people want to push further. "It may be less a question of independence and more of interdependence in the future," he says.

'80 to 90 percent' support a referendum

The SNP, though, argues that most people support the idea of at least holding a referendum on independence.

Its charismatic leader Alex Salmond, says, "What is not in doubt is when you ask people do you want a referendum? Do you want the right to decide? Then the majority is overwhelming, it's 80, perhaps even 90 percent in favor of that."

Apart from the SNP, none of Scotland's main political parties are in favor of independence.

"A referendum is probably the single most damaging policy a political party has put in a Scottish election," says Labour's Scottish leader and First Minister, Jack McConnell. "That uncertainty and instability would lead to companies delaying investment, making preparations to leave or perhaps not to come to Scotland.... I think it would cause division, chaos ... real difficulties for Scotland."

The Scottish Liberal Democrats, coalition partners with Labour for the past eight years, could once again hold the balance of power if, as expected, the SNP wins but falls short of the 65 seats needed for an overall majority.

The Liberal Democrats' price for going into coalition with the SNP is likely to be a promise that a range of options will be put on the referendum ballot paper rather than a simple yes or no vote on independence.

Economic viability disputed

One key point if Scotland is to ever become independent is the question of North Sea oil revenues. The oil fields lie off the Scottish coast and the SNP says it wants the UK government to return the income to Scotland.

But Scotland would also stand to lose: At the moment it receives more per head in UK government support than England because of the difficulty of delivering services to remote rural areas. That would be lost if there were breakup.

For now, answers to all these questions rests mainly on speculation. What is clear is that Scotland is at a crossroads. Today's vote will decide which direction it heads in for at least the next four years and possibly many years to come.

Few would disagree with Mr. McConnell's assessment. "This is a huge election, probably the most important election there's been in Scotland for at least a generation and the outcome will have consequences for years to come."

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