Last week, Britons gave the ruling Labour Party a dressing down in local elections. But the vote went further: An independence-minded nationalist party surged in the Scottish parliament, overtaking Labour. It was as if Texas voters had punished the GOP by voting for a secessionist party.
The vote in Scotland was seen as largely a rebuke of Britain's three-term prime minister, Tony Blair, and his support of the Iraq war. Still, the Scottish nationalists did nearly double their seats, putting the Scottish National Party one seat ahead of traditional leader Labour – though the vote count is being investigated.
These nationalists have the goal of independence clearly before them. Three hundred years in a marriage with the United Kingdom is enough, they say. What's in it for Scots with the spoils of the British Empire long gone? Why not divorce and take their North Sea oil and gas riches with them?
Look around the region, these Scots say: Scotland could mimic the success of an Ireland or Norway. If small nations such as Latvia can be members of the European Union, why not the same for Scotland? Last year, tiny Montenegro in the Balkans voted in a referendum to part from Serbia. The Scottish nationals, too, are pushing for a referendum.
To accommodate such growing nationalism, Mr. Blair has returned some self-government to both Scotland and Wales. In 1999, a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly were born. But the nationalists in the north are not satisfied with simply legislating health, education, justice, and tax issues. London still decides matters relating to Britain as a whole, including defense, energy, and foreign affairs – all sore points for the independent-minded Scots.
They don't agree with London's drive toward nuclear energy or the renewal of British nuclear missiles. Most of all, they ask, why should their soldiers sacrifice for a war they don't support?
On this last point especially, the Scots are in step with many Britons who are angry with Blair over the decision to go into Iraq and the course of the war there. Many see him as the "poodle" of President George Bush.
The war has become such a central issue in Britain that it's overshadowed Blair's considerable accomplishments: peace in Northern Ireland, strong economic growth, and governing from the political center.
Many Britons have long waited for Blair to step aside, and for the premiership to pass to a Labour colleague – presumably treasury minister Gordon Brown. Blair is expected to announce his departure timetable later this week.
The issues that Mr. Brown would inherit are as prickly as the thistles of his native Scotland – problematic healthcare and education, as well as the war and the Scottish question. Brown vigorously opposes Scottish independence, but his heritage could remind English voters of their own resentments toward the Scots – especially perceived subsidies they send northward and that Scottish members of the British parliament have a vote over issues that affect England.
It's true that less than 30 percent of Scots support independence. But divisions over Scotland and the war will make Labour's job of uniting the country more daunting than that of a decade ago.