The deal agreeing on the terms of a Scottish referendum, to be held by fall 2014, comes at a time when independence movements are rapidly gaining strength in Spain and Belgium amid Europe’s brutal debt crisis. But the vote on independence for Scotland sets up the possibility that Washington’s closest strategic ally could be torn asunder.
“This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland's story and allows the real debate to begin,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said after signing the deal with Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, the National Party leader. “It paves the way so that the biggest question of all can be settled: a separate Scotland or a United Kingdom? I will be making a very positive argument for our United Kingdom.”
After centuries of bloody battles with the English, Scotland signed away its sovereignty in the early 1700s. By the late 1990s, however, it had won the right to a “devolved” Parliament, and it now has sweeping powers over its judicial system and public spending.
Full independence would give the ruling National Party the authority to fulfill a host of pledges, including the expulsion of the British nuclear fleet from Scottish waters, withdrawal from NATO and the removal of Scottish regiments from Britain’s military forces overseas. It would also give politicians in Edinburgh the freedom to vote separately from — and perhaps counter to — Britain in world bodies such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
The deal signed Monday means the Scots will be able to stage their 2014 referendum amid the emotional 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which Robert the Bruce led Scottish troops to victory over the English invaders.
Recent polls have shown Scottish support for independence — which has hovered around a third to a quarter of the population — waning a bit since late last year. A solid majority of 55 percent are opposed to breaking away. But Salmond remains wildly popular in Scotland, and analysts say it would be wrong to discount his ability to mobilize a successful yes vote.
“At the moment, it appears a yes vote will be difficult, but you would be unwise to bet against Alex Salmond,” said Ben Page, chief executive of the London-based Ipsos MORI polling firm. “He will be thinking about the symbolism of the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and looking to a Scottish generation that came of age with [the movie] ‘Braveheart.’ ”
A move toward independence would also lock Edinburgh and London in fierce negotiations over the cash cow that is North Sea oil — control of which is seen as essential to National Party dreams of Scotland emerging as a wealthy and progressive nation, mirroring energy-rich Norway. Independence for Scotland could rob the British state of a massive source of revenue, draining the coffers of a nation undergoing painful waves of austerity to cut its deficit and bring down the national debt.