Opinion

Pro-independence surge in Scotland

13.05.11 @ 11:49

  1. By Tom Gallagher

Speculation has been rife ever since elections for Scotland's autonomous parliament on 5 May that the landslide obtained by the Scottish National Party (SNP) will create an unstoppable momentum leading to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

  • Scotland's independence may prove a headache for the EU (Photo: UK government)

Committed support for the 304-year old Anglo-Scottish union is fading on both sides of the border.

On 8 May, all predictions were confounded when the SNP obtained an outright majority of Scottish seats, winning in all regions and among all social groups.

The party's main asset is its shrewd and charismatic leader Alex Salmond who fought a presidential-style campaign, obtaining massive donations from industry and backing from key media outlets. With a competent leader and the campaigning skills of highly-motivated activists, the SNP combined the role of protest movement and party of government.

The Liberal Democrats were decimated due to their unpopular decision to keep the Conservatives in office in London. The Labour Party, previously the dominant force in Scotland, directed its fire against the Conservatives rather than the SNP for the first time in its 77-year-old history captured many of its strongholds.

This was as much a rejection of a lacklustre opposition as an endorsement for the SNP which ruled only with a one-seat majority when it took charge of the administration of Scotland in 2007. Now Alex Salmond can call a referendum on independence at a time of his choosing. He rarely mentioned independence in the election campaign and many commentators are convinced they will prefer devolution to separation.

Memories are still fresh of the near collapse of Scotland's two main banks in 2008; only the injection of £80 billion from the British Treasury saved them, money unlikely to be available for a post-union Scotland.

The SNP insists that independence could be viable thanks to the oil wealth in Scottish waters but oil prices fluctuate wildly and the supply is now depreciating. There is also growing confidence that technological breakthroughs will shortly enable Scotland to become ‘the Saudi-Arabia of renewable energy' thanks to harnessing wind and wave power.

It is possible that the SNP will make its goal a looser union rather than complete independence. With the EU considering the removal of important tax-raising and budgetary powers from eurozone members, full national independence appears increasingly out-of-reach.

Legislation at Westminster to allow Scotland greater fiscal autonomy is already near to completion. Rather than the asymmetrical form of devolution existing currently (with parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland while England with five-sixths of the population remains a unitary entity ruled from London), a federal Britain could be the basis for a new political settlement but little backing exists for this concept anywhere in England.

The SNP now has to deliver on the lavish spending promises which contributed to its victory. Vocal demands in England that Scotland should be encouraged to secede could become louder still if Scotland fails to absorb its share of expenditure cuts.

However, the SNP's biggest immediate challenge is to avoid becoming absorbed in the administrative grind of running a country with numerous economic and social problems: Scotland has one of the world's largest public sectors per head of population and the temptation to become the new party of patronage will be hard to resist.

Increasing thought is being given to Scotland's role inside the EU. If there is a smooth break with England and no bitter quarrels over territorial waters, defence issues, or sharing out the national debt, London is unlikely to place obstacles in the way of negotiations for Scottish entry being swiftly concluded.

But this is very much uncharted waters as there is absolutely no precedent for an EU member splitting and the component parts negotiating for membership or else being hastily re-absorbed into the Union.

The writer is professor of politics at Bradford University and author of "The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism."