The Rapid and Unlikely Rise of Scotland's Independence Movement

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How the Scottish National Party went from being a minor player to leading the drive for secession in only 10 years.

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Graffiti marks a derelict cottage outside Blackford, Scotland. Reuters

Across Europe, politicians are held in disdain. Most political parties are hemorrhaging members and failing to attract talented future leaders.

But Scotland appears to be bucking the trend. The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is enjoying a surge of popularity. It was once in charge of a minority government running Scotland's internal affairs. But in May 2011, it gained outright control after routing each of its rivals in a stunning electoral victory.

In January, Britain's prime minister David Cameron unveiled plans for expediting a referendum in which Scots would be asked whether they preferred full independence to remaining within the United Kingdom. But Cameron is assailed with problems as Britain becomes increasingly harder to govern. He simply doesn't have the time, nor the advisers in the civil service in touch with the Scottish scene, to enable him to easily thwart the plots and maneuvers of a Machiavellian figure like the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond.

Ironically, even as the party establishes its electoral domination, opinion polls show that the SNP's preferred separatist future is rejected by Scots. (Polls have fluctuated but the median averages indicate that the pro-independence movement are still no more than 35% of the voting population). Not enough of them are convinced that the country's oil wealth would be a reliable substitute for the financial subsidies that Scotland receives from the rest of the UK.

But cultural changes are producing a far less risk-averse Scotland. A society rooted in religious activism and a successful education system has been replaced by a consumer society infused by a cult of celebrity. The SNP's romantic call for Scots to accompany it on the freedom journey has enjoyed success in a febrile atmosphere of poor-quality media.

The proverbial hard-headed caution of the Scots has been discarded by many who have become alienated from London rule, due first to Margaret Thatcher's free-market policies, which damaged Scottish manufacturing industries in the 1980s, and later to a set of unpopular wars pursued by Tony Blair.

And discontent is hardly confined to Scotland. In much of England, a remote and complacent political elite absorbed with niche issues chiefly of concern to metropolitan elites in London has fueled alienation with the status quo. But so far, there is no alternative populist force like the SNP for disaffected English citizens south of the border to turn to.

The SNP's Rapid Rise

Nearly a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Britain might soon be sliding towards a breakup. In the 2003 elections for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP won only 17.3 percent of the national vote. In 2001, Alex Salmond, who had devoted his life to the independence cause quit as leader, preferring to concentrate on his role as a member of the Westminster Parliament. But in 2007 he was back, the leader of a minority government in Edinburgh. Even in an era of abundant state funds for Scotland's enormous public sector, the task of administering the country had been too much for a Labour Party better suited to being in opposition.

For the next four years, the SNP proved adept at doing nothing--but doing it very well, as one opponent put it in 2011. Scotland was left in the hands of the civil service. Meanwhile, Salmond concentrated on presenting himself as the guardian of Scotland's interests, ready to take up the sword against the predatory London elite. His government briefly made international headlines when, in August 2009, it released on compassionate grounds the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing of December 1988. (Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi continues to live in Libya even though his release was justified by the claim that he had only three months to live.)

Salmond's conviction that the flourishing financial sector could make independence economically viable was dealt a massive blow in 2008 with the failure of Scotland's two largest banks, RBS and HBOS. What were in fact the country's two largest businesses were rescued by the UK government. Critics claimed that an independent Scotland could never have saved these banks.

But the SNP's salvation was the crisis that overtook each of its rivals. A complacent and lacklustre Labour Party continued to disappoint its key support groups in Scotland, not just lower-income voters but white-collar professionals working for the large state sector. The Conservatives remained toxic due to the continuing controversy flowing from the Thatcher era. The Liberal Democrats, who had been ahead of the SNP in the 2005 UK general election, collapsed completely due to the wildly unpopular decision of forming a coalition with Cameron's Conservative Party.

Thus, Scotland witnessed a near collapse of its party system in 2011 that left the SNP miraculously unharmed. Italy underwent a similar upheaval in the early 1990s, and the resulting vacuum was filled by Silvio Berlusconi, a businessman with populist gifts. His Forza Italia was packaged as a club of Italians devoted to the national cause. The SNP has projected itself in a similar way. In many ways, it is a gigantic national club, vague on policy matters but claiming to be unceasingly engaged in patriotic work. Salmond has projected himself as "the people's friend," a trustworthy guy who just happens to be in politics.

Salmond's personal life seems unimpeachable, and he enjoys horse racing and golf. Accordingly, voters seem prepared to grant him more indulgence than the average despised politico. In March, when it emerged that he had channeled several million pounds into a struggling golf tournament in Scotland, most of the media remained silent--but if David Cameron had come to the rescue of a golfing buddy, uproar would have ensued.

The SNP employs numerous journalists in Scotland through openings in the civil service and Scottish Parliament as information officers. Journalists working for the BBC and newspapers like the Scottish Daily Mail are increasingly cautious in their assessment of a party that appears on the verge of a long ascendancy. In March, Salmond received a tribute from Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that the SNP leader was "the most brilliant politician in the UK" and that it was time for Scotland to take charge of its destiny.

The Trump Card

Some question whether Salmond's aim is outright independence. This would make Scotland responsible for tackling deep-seated social and economic problems that give it some of the worst figures for crime and health in the developed world. No longer could England be a convenient alibi for such shortcomings. Thus, some believe Salmond's true goal is fiscal independence while remaining within what becomes a confederal UK. A plan called devo-maxwould still leave room for friction over implementation of advanced devolution. This means that an accomplished political agitator could still exploit latent Anglophobia while absolving his party of responsibility if what is now a postindustrial country remains stuck in an economic rut.

But there is evidence that Salmond hates the idea of even foreign and defence policy remaining the concerns of London. Much time has been devoted to establishing friendships with China and Persian Gulf states in the hope that their sovereign-wealth funds can be tapped so that Scotland can be less reliant on UK government funding. Salmond also wishes to remove the base in Scotland that is home to Britain's nuclear submarines, something strongly opposed in London.

Under Salmond, the SNP has come far from its existence on the exotic fringe of British politics. The champion of the underdog cleverly exploits populist themes that resonate well with lower-income voters even though the SNP is now bankrolled by some of the leading Scottish capitalists. Huey Long's alleged refrain to voters in Louisiana eighty years ago that "if you aren't getting something for nothing, you aren't getting your fair share" could easily have been uttered by Salmond, who brilliantly manipulates the politics of resentment and leaves local opponents floundering.

One vocal opponent of Salmond has been the flamboyant American businessman Donald Trump. This fellow populist was one of the first international figures who Salmond drew to Scotland. A large golf and leisure complex north of the city of Aberdeen was fast-tracked through its various planning stages in 2008. But the relationship has since soured due to Salmond's determination to extract energy from thousands of wind turbines. Several of these turbines will be placed near Trump's Scottish resort, and in February he wrote to Salmond accusing him of being "hell bent on destroying Scotland's coastline and therefore Scotland itself." Polls show most Scots unhappy with this heavily subsidised and only intermittent source of energy that causes huge damage to the environment. And Trump has since placed himself at the head of a campaign meant to compel the first minister of Scotland to scale back the building of wind factories.

A Product of Our Age

If an outspoken U.S. billionaire, himself of part-Scottish ancestry, is Salmond's main foe, than perhaps he has little to be worried about.

A political vacuum has been filled by a policy-lite movement using the latest media techniques to transmit its message. In an economically troubled age, when mainstream politicians are unable to satisfy voter demands, the rise of Alex Salmond shows how the skillful manipulation of identity issues can give a wily and self-confident politician an extended lease on life.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

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Tom Gallagher is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism.

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