On Sunday afternoon, moments after Scotsman Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic to win the Wimbledon crown, a Scottish flag was unveiled in an unlikely place: the Royal Box at Center Court of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The bearer of the flag – which is also known as the "Saltire" – was Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond.
Directly below the Scottish National Party leader stood his UK counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron, seemingly oblivious as cameras captured him celebrating the first British victory in the men’s singles for 77 years against the blue and white backdrop of the Saltire.
The Saltire would become the flag of an independent Scottish state if Scots vote yes in a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom next September.
"The Saltire is our national flag, Andy [Murray] is a fantastic, magnificent Scottish sportsman, anybody has got the right to wave the national flag, it's a great way to celebrate this amazing triumph," Mr. Salmond told the BBC’s "Good Morning Scotland" program Monday.
But is Mr. Murray’s Wimbledon win a boon for Salmond and the nationalists, or does it attest to the enduring power of the union?
David McCrone, a sociologist at Edinburgh University who has studied Scottish and British identity, says that tennis success is unlikely to have a significant bearing on next year’s vote.
"I don’t think [Murray winning at Wimbledon] will have a long-term political effect," he says.
However, in a series of studies of national identity in Scotland, Dr. McCrone did note something he calls "the Andy Murray factor."
"We asked people if they got annoyed when Andy Murray is described as British when he wins and Scottish when he loses," he says.
The results were overwhelmingly affirmative – suggesting a particularly strong sensitivity to questions of Murray's Scottishness – and "way, way ahead," he says, of responses to similar questions concerning Scottishness and Britishness, such as if Scots were annoyed when Queen Elizabeth is described as "Queen of England," rather than of Britain.
Scotland has a long history as a distinct sporting entity. The first international soccer match was between Scotland and England in 1872, and Scotland has its own teams in rugby, cricket, and myriad other sports. Scotland provided the first British winners of the European Cup (now the Champion’s League), Glasgow Celtic, in 1967.
Scotland, though, is part of the UK in some sporting arenas, most notably the Olympic Games. Better Together, the campaign for a "no" vote, has held up last summer’s Olympics in London – when the Team GB won 29 gold medals – as an example of the strength of British identity. Earlier this year, Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who won six Olympic gold medals, said he was worried about Scottish athletes’ ability to establish themselves if Scotland were to vote "yes" in 2014.
What it means to be British in Scotland has changed over the past 30 years, with increasing numbers of people saying they feel more Scottish than British, says McCrone. The London Olympics are unlikely to change that pattern.
"What all these politicians banging on about British identity tells you is that there’s a problem with it. If [British identity] was so secure they wouldn’t have to keep going on about it," he says. And Scottish and British are not mutually exclusive identities, he added. Many Scots say that they feel both, to differing degrees.
Sport could yet play a role in deciding the outcome of the 2014 referendum. Next July, less than two months before the referendum, Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games, in which separate teams from England and Scotland will compete.
The Commonwealth Games could "inject pride in national identity which, if played carefully," says McCrone, "may have a long-term impact politically."