Don’t look now — Syria, Iran, North Korea and our own domestic politics are far more compelling at this time — but be prepared to learn a bit of British history, soon, as a restive Scotland considers leaving the United Kingdom that was founded when the Scots put aside their proud independence and joined England as a single political entity in 1707.
Many Americans (and even many English) appear confused about the political structure of the United Kingdom. They tend to regard Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as subsidiary parts of England, that the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are England’s (they’re not). The Union Jack is not and never has been England’s flag; it is the United Kingdom’s. In fact, the blue parts of the Union Jack represent Scotland.
Unquestionably, with roughly 84 percent of the union’s population, England will always be the dominant partner in the United Kingdom. London is not just England’s capital city, it is also home to the British Parliament (there is no English parliament and no prime minister of England). Scotland has its own legal and education systems, however, and since the late 1990s its own parliament.
At any rate, the movement for Scottish independence has gained legitimacy in recent years and the Scottish Nationalist Party, led by first minister Alex Salmond, enjoys a majority in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. He is leading the push for a referendum on independence as soon as 2014.
Those who support Scottish independence like to cite the existence of North Sea oil, in waters that would be Scotland’s, as the engine that would drive the independent country’s economy. Beyond that, the supporters point out that an independent Scotland — with an estimated population of roughly 5.2 million (roughly half of whom have relatives in England) — would enjoy the same status as other successful small nations such as Denmark.
This week Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, went to Edinburgh to meet Salmond and to speak to the Scottish people. The Guardian, a London newspaper, gave him high marks for his performance while noting that Britain’s other political parties also need to get involved.
Cameron’s speech, it observed, “was good and important in many ways, especially given the dangers of what it might have contained or how it might have sounded. Though there was important content — the pledge to consider more powers in due course — the prime minister’s tone mattered every bit as much.”
The editorial suggested that in his speech Cameron “avoided the trap of sounding colonial. He avoided the trap of negativity. He avoided the trap of getting bogged down in procedural arm-wrestling. And he avoided the trap of sounding like Lady Thatcher (former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who never was politically popular in Scotland).”
The editorial credited Cameron with making “a measured and sincere case for a devolved Scotland staying in the union, with enough culturally sensitive and respectful references to reassure open-minded listeners and even an appropriate humility about his own party. For a first major effort in this new phase of Scottish debate, it was as effective a speech as one could reasonably have expected.”
Polls taken in Scotland earlier this year suggest that between 32 and 38 percent of the population support the idea of independence although a much higher percentage — in the 70s — are agreeable to the idea of a referendum on the subject.
Unlike earlier bids for Scottish independence, when a few extremists resorted to violence, this one is totally peaceful. For that reason alone, it merits our — and the world’s — attention and applause.
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