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.
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.
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.
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.
Scotland's independence bid, like all nationalist movements, is the product of calculated moves by political elites within existing institutions. Independence movements come about not because every member of an ethnic minority wakes up one day and decides to wave a flag or, worse, shoulder a rifle.
Instead, they usually begin with the simple assertion that local laws should take precedence over those devised by distant legislators. They progress toward more radical demands for control over local natural resources or an end to military service beyond one’s own frontiers. Their culmination is marked not by the roar of celebration, but by the whimpering realization in the capital that the benefits of staying together are just no longer worth the costs.
A nationalist movement seeks its own country. A nationalist party seeks a country that will keep electing it. The SNP has structured the debate over Scottish independence in ways that make it difficult for voters to distinguish these two demands. The SNP’s nationalism is certainly more palatable than the blood-and-soil variety. But its example is politically self-serving and ultimately harmful to Scotland's – and even Europe’s – long-term well-being.
To restive regionalists, the SNP provides a tutorial in how a secessionist party can win ground by understanding existing institutions better than the people who should have been most committed to preserving them. The SNP has astutely transformed the policy of devolution – a set of concessions designed to empower local government while strengthening the sense of common cause between Scots and other Britons – into a prelude to possible independence.
To the rest of Europe and the world, Scotland once embodied the belief that local distinctiveness, united governance, and democratic practice were mutually reinforcing. It would be a shame if the Scottish model became something else: a handbook for transforming muscular regionalism into territorial separatism.
Charles King is professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His essay “The Scottish Play,” from which this article is adapted, appears in the Sept-Oct issue of Foreign Affairs.