The Savvy Scot Trying to Start a (Very Polite) Civil War

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Civil War is a strong term to describe Alex Salmond's campaign to bring the question of Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom to a vote, but it does describe the pro-independence politician's seriousness in defying London. Salmond, a rotund man with  grandfatherly eyebrows and a tendency to wear blue ties, serves as Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). And lately, he's also the one going nose-to-nose with British Prime Minister David Cameron for intervening in the debate over of a referendum on independence for Scotland that Salmond has proposed be held in fall 2014. "I thought his intervention at the weekend was almost Thatcher-esque in its nature," Salmond told the BBC on Wednesday, qualifying the comparison as "the idea that London knows best and it is operating in our best interests but wanting to set the ground rules for our referendum despite the fact it has got no mandate whatsoever for doing so."

Thatcher reference aside, Salmond is taking a potentially divisive stand on an already divisive issue. The latest polls suggest that the majority of Scots (54 percent) would like to remain part of the United Kingdom while only 27 percent wish to declare independence. Nevertheless, Salmond's being pretty savvy in giving the issue nearly three years to marinate, and British pundits believe that he might just be the Scotsman with just the right political positioning to sway his people. One indication of his smart thinking: choosing fall of 2014 as the timeframe is packed with meaning. Not only does it offer a good slogan -- The Scotsman ran with the headline "1000 days to decide our future" on the front page of Tuesday's paper -- 2014 will also be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Banuckburg, when Robert Bruce led the Scots to a decisive victory in the First War of Scottish Independence. And while our readers have astutely pointed out that not a single journalist seems capable of writing a piece about this issue without making a Braveheart reference, we must point out that Robert Bruce is the conflicted character with a beard, and the army that Bruce led to victory is the one that William Wallace once commanded.

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We'll stop short of comparing Salmond to Wallace -- we might even have to write a Cliché Watch feature about the references -- but he is perceived as being quite an inspiring patriot. Ed McRandel, a "former staffer for a senior cabinet minister," described Salmond in a recent Huffington Post column:

Like it or loathe it, in the modern political age, personality matters. For a high profile campaign to succeed you need easily identifiable spokespeople with whom the public associates. To illustrate this, you only have to look as far as Alex Salmond, who has successfully cast himself as 'Mr Scotland' (see this canny political broadcast to see why) and delivered where previous SNP leaders have failed - securing a historic vote on independence. The worry for Unionists is that there is not an obvious Scottish candidate with whom the public could identify as fighting for a United Kingdom.

Having heard Salmond's interview on the BBC, The Guardian's Michael White similarly commented how "Salmond is a tremendous wriggler, currently the best in the political business in this country, I'd say, though I sometimes find that praising the first minister's deft tactical skills seems to annoy SNP voters who prefer to see the party leader as a cross between Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa."

Much to Salmond's pleasure and perhaps Cameron's chagrin, time will tell whether the Scottish independence movement will push forward and perhaps gain the support of the Scots. However, Salmond continues to establish himself as a politically fascinating character, photographed sometimes drinking scotch and often wearing those Scot-blue ties. We're curious to see how this revolution-in-the-making takes shape, if at all. Either way, we suddenly want to take a vacation to the Highlands.

Footnote: We've included a couple of semi-related YouTube videos for context. First, that last scene from Braveheart with Robert Bruce:

And second, the original trailer to that other great movie about Scotland's best warriors:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.