The Rapid and Unlikely Rise of Scotland's Independence Movement

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 A society rooted in religious activism and a successful education system has been replaced by a consumer society infused by a cult of celebrity.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.

Presented by

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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