On a bright Monday morning, the debating chamber of the Scottish parliament building at Holyrood is bathed in honey-coloured light, a modernist ship in calm seas—especially today, when parliament is not in session. A triumph of contemporary design, it also represents the greatest Scottish building fiasco in modern history. Three years late and more than 10 times over budget, the parliament building is a touchy subject among Scots (there was a major public inquiry into the mishandling of the project), and many of the politicians and journalists who work here find it difficult to admire as a result. As Colin Mackay, the affable (on air) political reporter for Scotland’s Radio Forth, explains during my tour, most people here in Holyrood “are just now starting to warm to the place.”
The building might be a sore point but most Scots are proud of its purpose. It houses a free-standing parliament—one that’s now dominated by the Scottish National Party’s government, and run by a popular and charismatic leader, Alex Salmond, who is determined to lead his country to independence with a referendum in 2014.
Mackay remembers his parents campaigning for devolution in the run-up to the last (unsuccessful) referendum in 1979, and has keenly watched the evolution of an increasingly independent Scotland ever since. Like many of his countrymen, he seems to have little sentimental attachment to the United Kingdom. “English social democrats mainly seem to want to keep Scotland for the Labour votes,” he tells me. (Scotland has only one Conservative MP in Westminster, compared to 41 Labour.) Mackay explains the gradualist approach to independence. “You just go incrementally, step by little step, until you get there and no one’s actually noticed.” He ushers me through a corridor lined with flagstone, granite and glass, and pauses to gaze out at a neglected courtyard that offers the building’s least spectacular view: a scraggy sapling growing forlorn in the mud. “That’s the tree the Queen planted when she came up to open parliament. It looks a bit like a republican plot.” He says this with a chuckle, but fails to add the obvious: it isn’t dead yet.
Early last May, the SNP achieved what many believed was an impossible victory: an overwhelming majority. It left all of Britain—including Scotland itself—pretty much flabbergasted. Simon Pia, a former strategist who helped run the opposing campaign for the Scottish Labour Party’s then-leader Iain Gray, told me over coffee on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile that he made the initial 5 a.m. call to Salmond so Gray could officially concede defeat. “Salmond was just as surprised by his victory as everybody else,” Pia recalls. The upshot, in his view, is that Salmond is now scrambling to maintain his party’s political credibility in the lead-up to a referendum the SNP always maintained it wanted, but did not expect to be held any time soon. “Salmond’s a strong leader and he’s great with the media, but if you ask me, the emperor has no clothes,” Pia says. “They ran a great campaign but ultimately it was an emotional appeal, independence was barely on the agenda—what they won on was not a plan for independence, it was a marketing ploy.”
Indeed, in early January, British Prime Minister David Cameron essentially called Salmond’s bluff when he announced during an interview that the uncertainty surrounding the referendum was “unfair on the Scottish people,” and that his government would insist on a vote that was “fair, legal and decisive.” Like many unionists, Cameron would like the vote to be called sooner (ideally in September of next year) rather than later. Since then, another contentious issue has emerged, specifically whether the referendum ballot will consist of a simple “yes/no” choice (which the unionists think they can easily win), or contain an additional question on further devolution of powers (which the nationalists see as a slam dunk).
“Devo max,” as it’s been dubbed, is a plan also being pushed by the SNP that would allow Scotland more fiscal control, likely over taxation, while remaining part of Britain. The 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that while only 32 per cent of Scots favoured full independence, the majority supported increased devolution. Most Scots would also like to keep the Queen as monarch—an idea to which Salmond is committed.
It’s this same general conservatism I hear from ordinary Scots on my visit to Edinburgh, and one echoed by Nosheena Mobarik, chairwoman of the Scottish arm of the Confederation of British Industry, one of the nation’s most powerful business lobby groups. Foreign investors, she says, are holding off on Scotland because of the growing uncertainty. And while sooner would be better than later for a referendum, a host of complicated questions on what independence would look like need to be addressed. “Questions of currency, membership of EU, what would be the cost of having full statehood?” Mobarik says. “How are we going to create all kinds of government departments like treasuries, a central bank, foreign embassies, our own revenue authority, armed forces, border agencies and customs? Big and small businesses understandably want all of these questions answered.”
Salmond, however, is sticking to his guns on 2014, and for good reason. In two years Scots are expected to be riding a wave of nationalist fervour as they host the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, celebrate a year-long cultural festival and most importantly, commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which Robert the Bruce’s forces defeated the army of England’s King Edward II. But will long-standing Scottish resentment toward England translate into a wish to officially cut ties with the rest of Britain? Scots have been British since the beginning of the union with England, which they voluntarily joined in 1707—though as SNP members like to point out, that was before the invention of modern democracy, and people rioted in the streets of Edinburgh. While nationalists like to cast back to a time when Scotland was pure and free, today many Scots can claim an English grandparent or cousin, and recognize their national capital, London, as one of the world’s great cultural hubs.
Unlike Quebec, Scotland doesn’t have a language card to play, nor can it hope for a Velvet Revolution to spur it to action like the former Czechoslovakia. Aside from the cold, sopping weather, life here is actually pretty good. The economy is cruising along, and many social services are free, such as care for the elderly. The golf courses are excellent and the food is improving. And while Scots drink a lot (a staggering 25 per cent more on average than their England and Welsh brethren), they seem to have a fine time doing it. Pubs were heaving with stylish young professionals on a recent stroll down the Royal Mile, even though it was only Monday afternoon.
Of course it’s exactly this cultural buoyancy and relative fiscal stability that the SNP is holding up as the strongest argument in favour of an independent Scotland. Talk to any SNP minister and they will list off the country’s sparkling attributes, including the outstanding higher education system, research facilities and large North Sea energy reserves. What avowed nationalists will also tell you is that independence would be not so much about change as reversion to type. “I think for the country as a whole it means a return to normality,” Michael Russell, the SNP cabinet secretary for education, said over the phone from his constituency office in the Highlands. “The normal state for a country is independence. In Scotland, we’ve been living with abnormality for a couple of hundred years.”
Those unionists who think full independence is unlikely to happen would be wise to listen to Salmond’s tough talk. His reputation for being a gradualist was belied by his recent party conference speech, in which he stressed that Scots face a stark choice between their Tory overlords or full home rule. There was little mention of devo max or deal-making, just a rallying battle cry. “With the people of Scotland in charge, speaking with our own voice, reflecting our own values and priorities, we will make our country better,” Salmond boomed, adding that he had “a message for Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: the days of politicians in London telling Scotland what to do and what to think are over.”
The Scottish people seem to agree in principle, but the question is, to precisely what end? Time to hitch up your kilt and gird your bagpipes, Braveheart, it’s sure to be a long and bloody battle ahead.