POLITICS JANUARY 25, 2008
On July 18, 1698, 1,200 Scots set sail to colonize a section of Panama known as Darien. Scotland was the first Western European nation to realize Panama's strategic potential as a bottleneck of interoceanic trade, but it was among the last to learn the cruelty of the tropical clime: less than a year after their arrival, the settlers abandoned the colony. The majority perished, their fevered corpses buried alongside failed crops of potatoes and yams. But Darien's final casualty was not suffered until eight years later, when the Scottish Parliament, still crippled with debt, voted itself out of existence, forfeiting Scotland's sovereignty and joining it with England beneath the banner of the United Kingdom.
2007 marks the 300th anniversary of that union. It may also mark the beginning of its end. In May, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won control of the Scottish Parliament, becoming the first party other than Labour to govern the body since it was resurrected with limited powers in 1999. Fulfilling a campaign promise, two weeks ago the SNP and its leader, Alexander Salmond, introduced a White Paper to the Scottish Parliament calling for a public referendum on Scottish independence. The measure is an important symbolic victory for the SNP, but it is also a certain failure, with all the other major parties, whose combination forms a majority in the multi-party Scottish Parliament, united in opposition. Even if, by some miracle, the measure succeeds and a referendum is held, it's unclear if the Scottish public would choose independence: poll results fluctuate between less than 30 and slightly over 50 percent of Scots in favor of independence, depending on how the question is worded. According to the Scottish historian Tom Devine, "the success of the SNP in the election can't necessarily be seen as a positive vote for Scottish independence."
The SNP has always been essentially a one-issue party. Formed in the 1920s, the party was not successful until the 1960s and '70s. The Empire was collapsing, and a sense of overarching "British" identity caved in with it: Scots began viewing some of their problems as unique from England's; with both the Labour and Conservative parties opposing any slackening of the Union, the SNP became attractive. Their brief electoral achievements were soon overwhelmed by Conservative successes in England, and the SNP disintegrated into a series of ideological factions, with independence as their only shared commitment. The party reorganized in the late '80s, but it was hurt over the next decade by Labour's embrace of "devolution": returning control of local issues to Scotland while essentially preserving the Union. The capstone of devolution was the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. That year, Tony Blair himself took shots at the SNP, denouncing it as "a one-issue party." But Scottish politics changed quickly in eight years; during the recent elections, Blair once again accused the SNP of campaigning on "one issue." But the issue was no longer independence: it was Iraq.
This election, although the SNP did not disguise their commitment to independence (they did, after all, promise the referendum), they were careful to downplay it. The party's 2007 manifesto mentions the word "independence" in relation to an independent Scottish state an average of .2 times per page; the rates in 1999 and 2003 were .83 and .93, respectively. Instead, they focused on what polls indicated was one of Scots' top-three concerns: The war in Iraq. It didn't matter that the election held no sway on the issue, since foreign policy is outside the Scottish Parliament's jurisdiction. Salmond pledged that an independent Scotland would withdraw all of its troops. As the Financial Times wrote the day after the election, "even battle-hardened Labour officials have been dismayed by the depth of Scottish voters' unhappiness over Iraq--and the relentlessness with which the issue has been targeted by Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and long-standing critic of the invasion."
Blair scoffed at the SNP's strategy. "They talk endlessly about Iraq," he said in a speech last year, "as if either the vote in next year's election could change that decision or even more absurdly as if Scotland should decide its entire future as a nation on the basis of this one issue." As in England, the war's unpopularity gave a boost to the opposition party. But there, that party was the Conservatives. In Scotland the Conservatives are moribund, still moored to the memory of the hated Margaret Thatcher (one Scottish politician dubbed her "the greatest of all Scottish nationalists" because of the unity Scots show in opposing her). SNP was able to cast itself as Labour's alternative in Scotland; its victory in May indicates that it can act the part.
More surprising than the SNP's victory in May is its success so far in governing Scotland. Various polls have indicated that the Scottish public approves of the job the SNP is doing and that, were another election held today, the SNP would increase its current one-seat edge over Labour. It has embraced numerous devolutionary measures, which are more popular with the public than outright calls for independence. It has prevented the closing of local health services, abolished fees for prescription medicines used to treat chronic illnesses (which must still be paid in England) and scrapped the "graduate endowment fee," a 2,300 pound charge levied on graduating college students, for Scottish and E.U.--but not for English--students at Scottish universities. It is also mulling more controversial plans, including the creation of an independent Scottish Olympic team and increased Scottish control over broadcasting and North Sea oil revenues (an essential precursor for independence, since Scotland currently receives about 11 billion more pounds in government spending than it pays in taxes).
By pairing its call for a referendum on independence with smaller, more gradual, and more popular measures, the SNP is trying to, in the words of Devine, "demonstrate that a SNP government is not fly-by-night, and that it can perform competently, and that it will not just go picking fights with England." Each legislative success is a new case in the argument for Scottish independence. And while the opposition parties have rejected independence, they have indicated that they will support further devolutionary measures.
If SNP continues governing popularly, a public referendum could occur in the not-too-distant-future. Historians might look back at the war in Iraq and the rise of the SNP as the straws that broke the Union's back. The Union that began in 1707 with the failure of one partner in the distant land of Darien may end 300 years later with the failure of the other partner in Iraq. In their unpopular insistence that the British people stitch together a foreign land, Tony Blair's Labour Party might have accelerated the unraveling of its own.
Ben Crair is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.