| Scottish independence is an
ambition of numerous political parties,
pressure groups and individuals within Scotland. The issue of Scottish
independence, or sovereignty, has been the single most dominant issue
within the politics of Scotland for the best part of thirty years.
The Kingdom of Scotland was an independent state from 843 until 1707, when the Acts of Union were agreed to with the neighbouring Kingdom of England. The acts provided for the merging of the two nations by means of dissolution of the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England. In their place the new Parliament of Great Britain was created, however many of Scotland's institutions remained separate and the Scottish national identity remained strong and distinct.
At the time of the union of the parliaments, the measure was deeply unpopular in both Scotland and England. Indeed, the Scottish signatories to the treaty were forced to sign the documents in secrecy due to mass rioting and unrest in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. Since then the restoration of Scotland's independence has been the continuing aim of many within Scotland.
Those who oppose Scottish independence and endorse the continuation of the union claim that cultural, political and economic benefits enjoyed by Scotland as part of a larger state outweigh the loss of statehood. Supporters of Scottish independence argue that the loss of a truly Scottish voice in the world damages the prospects of the nation, and that the British government acts primarily in the interest of the entire United Kingdom, often to the direct detriment of Scotland and its people.
Plans for Scottish Referendum on Independence
2007 08 14
SNP unveils Scotland independence plan
The SNP's constitutional white paper (732 KB PDF file)
Salmond's long march
If PM doesn't fly Union flag, the separatists win
Empire Strikes Back but force is with Salmond
The Scottish National Party has promised "a new chapter in Scottish politics" by unveiling plans for a referendum on independence.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister and SNP leader, today launched draft legislation which, if passed, could see the break-up of the 300-year-old union of England and Scotland.
The far-reaching constitutional white paper includes the draft wording of a ballot paper for a referendum. It asks voters whether they agree or disagree "that the Scottish government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of a United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state". Launching the white paper in Edinburgh today, Mr Salmond claimed it was the "settled will" of the Scottish people for their parliament to grow in influence and authority. "This debate - one focused on the question of the next stage of self government - demands the attention of every Scot," Mr Salmond said. "It does so not because Scotland is entirely united on the best option for further constitutional change, rather because we are now united in the belief that no change is no longer an option."
The white paper sets out three main "realistic" choices for Scots: the present devolved set-up, extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament in specific areas, or full independence. But Mr Salmond said the "national conversation" which would result from the white paper could result in other options being put on the ballot paper as well. "The opportunity now presents itself for those who want another option in a referendum to define that option and present the case to the government for inclusion on the ballot paper," he said.
The proposals come in the wake of this May's victory by the SNP which seized power in the Edinburgh Parliament on a manifesto promise of holding a referendum on independence by 2010. But the white paper has already come under fire from the leaders of Scotland's main opposition parties.
In an unprecedented cross-party alliance, Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats combined to accuse the SNP of wasting taxpayers' money on a "narrow and failed agenda" which would damage the country.
Jack McConnell, the Scottish Labour leader, joined with Annabel Goldie, the Tory leader in Scotland, and Lib Dem counterpart Nicol Stephen, to warn that the SNP agenda would only create "division and uncertainty".
Today's statement by Mr Salmond also comes in the wake of a YouGov opinion poll showing a significant drop in public backing in Scotland for independence. Paradoxically, the same survey showed growing support for the party led by Mr Salmond whose political honeymoon north of the border has mirrored Gordon Brown's across Britain as a whole.
Mr Salmond has also been helped by signs of disarray within the Scottish Labour Party
Yesterday's joint statement from the leaders of the three main opposition parties in Scotland was an unprecedented event. For Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to combine in a united front against the separatist intentions of the minority Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh is a reminder of the threat to the United Kingdom posed by Alex Salmond.
After picking up less than one third of the votes in the May elections to the Holyrood Parliament, the nationalist leader has not only become First Minister, but has also ridden a wave of voter relief at the demise of the tired Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.
However, the joint statement issued by Jack McConnell, Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen seeks to pull Mr Salmond up short in advance of the publication today of his White Paper on independence.
As the three party leaders make clear, this is not the exercise in public consultation - or "A Conversation with Scotland" - that Mr Salmond pretends. Instead, it is an expensive public relations exercise, paid for by the taxpayer and for which Mr Salmond has no mandate whatsoever.
There was no demand for independence at the polls in May; rather, there was a determination by the electorate to turn out Labour. Mr Salmond has chosen to misrepresent his victory, which was helped by his skilful manipulation of the cock-eyed system of proportional representation, as an endorsement of his principal objective.
However, in saying that they will throw out the White Paper, including its demand for an independence referendum, when it comes before Holyrood, the opposition parties still want more powers to be devolved from Westminster. Mr Salmond will see this as grist to his mill. He is engaged on a long march towards the break-up of the United Kingdom; calling for increased powers for the Edinburgh Parliament takes us further down his preferred route.
What it means to be British will swing centre stage this week, and we may, in hindsight, see this question, in one guise or another, as the big issue that comes to dominate Gordon Brown's premiership.
Alex Salmond is about to publish a White Paper which he rather cheekily refers to A Conversation with Scotland. I say cheekily because devolution for Scotland was meant to put an end to any further discussions on the political shape of the United Kingdom. What Gordon Brown must know is that the debate on Britishness will not end with Mr Salmond's White Paper. The Scottish First Minister has an agenda for independence and, on his performance so far, he also has the political skill to engage with voters well beyond the SNP tribe. He will therefore be highly pragmatic in developing a "softly, softly, catchee monkey" approach. No single action will be seen as extreme, but each action will help push Scotland inexorably towards his desired goal.
Scottish independence is now one of the big questions that the English, who make up more than four fifths of the electorate to Westminster, will have to face. They can only sensibly do so by developing, in response, a clear statement on what it means to be English as distinct from simply British.
The Brown Government therefore must engage with the Scottish question while, at the same time, ceding yet more British sovereignty to the European Union - which will most affect the English. And it is here that the interests of the English and the other nationalities of the United Kingdom divide.
Voters in the past reacted with hostility to each and every government's attempts to bind the country more closely with the EU. And every government has wrongly dismissed this reaction by dubbing it as nothing more than another outbreak of Europhobia. Hostility was not simply a negative reaction to closer union. Integration was opposed for the most fundamental of reasons: voters believed it ran counter to what they saw as their British identity, and it was this identity that they wished to protect.
As with all identities, part of Britain's has been backward-looking, involving how the country had come, over the past century, to define itself as being separate from Europe. And there are good reasons for doing so. Two world wars equated continental Europe with danger in the eyes of most British voters. Forming the Common Market was the response of western European governments to the threat of another great war.
British voters have never denied that such an approach may be the right one for mainland Europe, but what could well be right for mainland Europe was never automatically seen by British voters as right for Britain. They never saw the point of losing their British identity for a European one, as they were never among the agents for war in the first place.
Of course the European Union now tries to define its purpose in other terms. But no compelling European identity has so far arisen, apart from that based on the common experience of the individual nation states being physically overrun by war. That was never Britain's fate. Restating its identity will be especially difficult for the English. How the new European Constitution is viewed will now differ in each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
A realignment will be much easier for voters in Wales and Scotland. Here, a significant proportion of the electorate see their main identity coming from their separate status as countries, and not from being British. Greater integration in Europe is for them the easiest way they can separate themselves from the Union. They wish to become sovereign powers in a greater Europe.
What then will there be left of the Union? For the English, the question of the great institutions that have bound the United Kingdom together, and particularly the monarchy, will be issues they will find hardest to solve. The new EU treaty will put a European President on offer for those parts of the realm wishing to separate themselves from England. As constituent parts of the United Kingdom move to independence, will they want to find a new role for the monarchy in their affairs? If the answer is no, how do the English safeguard an institution that has been so clearly part of their identity?
Immigration will give a further twist to this debate on identity. It has been mainly to England that the great waves of post-war immigration have come. Until recently, British governments of both parties tried to limit the scale of immigration, accepting that there could come a point where the sheer weight of numbers threatens the identity of the host country. Maastricht dismantled these controls, by insisting on the free movement of labour as well as capital. The free movement of labour meant little, initially, as the living standards of countries before the EU enlargement were at least in striking distance of each other.
That became far from true with the enlargement of the EU eastwards. Living standards, one tenth of ours, have resulted in the largest influx of immigrants into our country in our history, and within the matter of a few years.
Most of these new arrivals share the same understanding that comes from once being part of Christendom. Not so for many of the earlier waves of Commonwealth immigrants who eagerly came to Britain to work and prosper. They were met by a political elite who were too busy or careless to define what it was to be British. A significant proportion of these earlier arrivals were never told how to sign up to be British, let alone what a British identity entails. A nation's identity and citizenship are closely interwoven. It is on this front that the Government must act on how to run being English and British at one and the same time.
There was, ominously, one major item missing from the bevy of announcements that Mr Brown made in his first weeks in office. He seems reluctant to confront this most fundamental of political questions on identity: what basic beliefs do we still hold in common and how should our primary loyalty to the country in which we live be expressed in tangible terms?
The Government can either lead this debate or leave that role to Mr Salmond as he focuses on a separate identity from Britain. On this, as on so many issues, Mr Brown will find there is no third way. Time waits for no man, not even a Prime Minister
• Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead.
By Alan Cochrane 14/08/2007
If "A Conversation with Scotland" is the subtitle for Alex Salmond's White Paper on Independence, due to be unveiled this morning, then "The Empire Strikes Back" will probably do quite well as the nom de guerre for yesterday's joint statement from the leaders of Scotland's Unionist parties.
It was wholly unprecedented for Jack McConnell, Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephens to band together like this but then, with an SNP minority administration in office - and very much looking like it's in power, too - we are in unprecedented times. However, while any combined action to support the maintenance of the United Kingdom is to be welcomed, I'm not at all sure what the three leaders are really declaring, nor what they really intend in their pro-Union declaration of intent.
Yes, they're opposed not only to what they believe will be in today's document but also to its very existence. They insist that since the Nats received less than one-third of the votes in May's election to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Salmond had no right wasting taxpayers' money -variously estimated at £7 million - in having the White Paper drawn up.
And, yes, the unionist parties are opposed to independence; we all know that. Further, after the best part of 100 days having rings ran round them by the ever-smiling, smooth-talking First Minister they at last appeared determined to pull him up short and remind him of a few facts of political life.
The principal feature of the latter is that minorities can only do things by leave of majorities.
Mr Salmond has been strutting around like the cock of the walk since May 3 and it's high time his feathers were ruffled.
Telling him that they're not prepared to engage in his 'conversation', even if it is larded with other things that might appeal to them, is a resolute step for which the three are to be commended. If they can maintain this resolution and dump the White Paper into the parliamentary dustbin at the first opportunity, then so much the better.
Having said all of that, it would appear that Miss Goldie and Messrs McConnell and Stephen are merely postponing the conversation. While saying that the White Paper is dead before it's even born they all, in one form or another, say that they're up for a discussion on possible new powers for the Scottish Parliament once the independence referendum is off the agenda. Now or later, that's right up the First Minister's street.
He will take independence any way he can get it. He'd prefer it in one fell swoop but if it has to come in incremental stages, bit by bit, with a new power here and a new power there, that would do nicely, too. Death by a thousand cuts is still death.
What was most significant yesterday, and the Nats were not slow to point it out, was whereas Labour has appeared most reluctant in recent years to countenance new powers for Holyrood, it now seems ready to at least enter that debate. The Lib Dems have always been keen on more powers and the Tories think there should be a review, which is merely a slippery way of saying the same thing.
Last night it was understood that this was Mr McConnell's farewell gift to the party, the leadership of which he intends to vacate before the end of this month. As such it may well provoke trouble within Scottish Labour's ranks, which contain many MSPs who agree that discussion about new powers aids Mr Salmond. And there is little doubt that the bulk of Labour opinion at Westminster - possibly including Gordon Brown - opposes any change.
The essence of today's presentation, however, which will take place in a university lecture theatre and thus allow the First Minister to again play the learned professor, is that Alex Salmond is in charge of Scotland's political agenda and the others are merely reacting to his moves.
Not only that, but thanks to the rolling process of devolution - or slippery slope as some might term it - everything is being done on his terms.
Growing demand for Scots Independence - from English
Scottish Independence must come
Alex Salmond Q and A
A disunited union
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