Mel Gibson’s infamous quote from the film Braveheart, which resonated across the globe over a decade ago, has once more echoed in Scotland. Again the trumpets of Scottish Independence have been sounded and the banners unfurled as the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been emboldened to pursue their lifelong goal of separating from the Union. Although Scotland’s quest for independence dates back to the death of Alexander III in 1286 and has involved religion, royalty, and marriage, the newest row has concerned parliamentary procedure and legality. The SNP, formed in 1934, recently gained a tremendous electoral victory in 2011 after running on a mandate to introduce a referendum on Scottish devolution in 2013. Following these elections, the SNP came away with a comfortable majority in Holyrood (Scotland’s Parliament), obtaining 69 of a possible 129 seats, while the previous administration of Labor fell drastically to 37 seats.
Under the Scotland Act of 1998, Westminster established the government of Scotland. Section 24 of the Act sates that “the union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England will remain a matter reserved for Westminster.” For Holyrood to undertake a legally binding referendum in regard to the Union, both Holyrood and Westminster must pass the bill for it to come into effect. The exception to this rule is Section 30, which allows the British government to grant Holyrood the legal authority to hold a binding referendum on its own.
In a high stakes political gamble, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has authorized section 30 on behalf of the SNP to hold a legally binding referendum on Scottish Independence. However the prime minister has done so in an attempt to outmaneuver the SNP by introducing conditions to his authorization of the section. Cameron has mandated that any referendum must be held within the next 18 months and must be limited to a yes-no question.
The rationale behind these prerequisites is twofold. As the polls stand currently, around 32 percent of Scots support complete succession from Great Britain, a six-year high on the issue. Consequently Cameron has calculated that if he is able to press the issue before the SNP has time to further cultivate support, he can in turn preserve the Union while still adhering to demands by the SNP for a referendum. However, Cameron has argued that the need for a referendum in such a short time is related to economic insecurity, the driving away of investment during the uncertain period while a solution is formulated and agreed to. He also argues that the SNP merely enjoys discussing the issue without taking any tangible steps, seeking instead what he has labeled “a never-endum.”
Cameron has also sought to implement a two-question referendum under the guise of needing a “decisive” result on the issue. This tactic effectively eliminates a third option known as “devo max.”, which would grant Scotland the ability to raise its own taxes and end the fiscal relationship between Great Britain and Scotland. This third option falls just short of complete autonomy.
Alex Salmond, head of the SNP, has since voiced his fierce opposition to the demands of Cameron, citing them as unwanted and unwarranted interference by Westminster into the political affairs of Scotland. As Salmond recently stated, “This has to be a referendum which is built in Scotland, which is made in Scotland and goes through the Scottish Parliament.” Additionally Salmond had envisioned the referendum not as a legally binding act but as an advisory vote that would in effect authorize Holyrood to enter into negotiations with Westminster to dissolve the Union. By doing so Salmond has hoped to circumvent Section 30, though even non-binding referendums discussing the Union could be subject to it.
In response to Cameron’s public statements demanding an 18-month deadline and two-question limit, Salmond unveiled a plan to hold the referendum in the autumn of 2014 during the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. During this battle Robert the Bruce secured de facto independence for Scotland after defeating the forces of Edward II. This in turn led to the Declaration of Arborath in 1320 by Pope John XXII, overturning the excommunication of the Bruce and all previous acts of submission by Scottish nobles to England.
Pro-union parties in Scotland, consisting of Labor, the Liberal Democrats, and the Tories party, have become somewhat hostile to Cameron’s posturing, viewing it as fodder for the SNP to garner more support to their cause. In the meantime, Salmond and Cameron are set to discuss the issue in person, and both sides await the verdict. If trends continue and the people of Scotland rally around the magnetic personality of Salmond, 2014 could prove to be a moral, if not legal, victory for the Scottish national movement, one which Westminster would have difficulty overlooking.
Derek Bolton is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.