EDINBURGH, Scotland — After centuries of war with England, politicians in this stately city signed away Scotland’s sovereignty in the early 1700s for the promise of riches and the glory of empire. Three hundred years later, resurgent nationalists here are plotting a new rebellion to win it back.
Appealing to the force of tartan pride, the Scottish National Party won surprise control of the regional Parliament last year, which thrust the separatist fantasy of hearing “Scots Wha Hae” on the bagpipes as the national anthem into the realm of distinct possibility. The British government, boxed into a precarious corner, has opened formal negotiations with the Scots to set a date for an independence referendum.
Timeline: A less-United Kingdom — 300 years of political history in the British Isles
Scotland’s independence crusade is emerging as the greatest threat to the cohesion of the United Kingdom since Ireland achieved independence — a three-decade process that culminated in 1949, when Ireland left the Commonwealth.
Scotland won the right to a “devolved” Parliament in the late 1990s and has sweeping powers over, for example, its judicial system and government spending. But full independence would give the SNP the authority to fulfill a wide array of pledges, including expelling the British nuclear fleet from Scottish waters, withdrawing from NATO and unwinding 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.
As in any divorce, a break with Britain could also set up an economic scuffle — particularly over the lucrative rights to North Sea oil, seen as key to the prosperity of the Scots on their own.
The push here is being watched with nervous eyes across Europe, particularly in countries that have long struggled with powerful separatist movements, such as Spain and Belgium. At the same time, the prospect of an independent Scotland is sending shockwaves through Westminster, the seat of the British government in London.
Fearing a diminished voice in global affairs and an irreparable split in modern Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron this month launched his own battle to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. “I believe that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are stronger together than they would ever be apart,” Cameron declared here this month in a landmark speech for British unity. “Something very special is in danger. The danger comes from the determination of the Scottish National Party to remove Scotland from our shared home.”
His fiercest foe: Alex Salmond, Scotland’s deft political Braveheart and chief of the SNP. The party’s impressive track record in government and its efforts to protect the Gaelic language and teach the battles of Scottish history in schools have touched a nerve in a voting base physically distant and culturally apart from London, the British capital that sits geographically closer to Amsterdam and Brussels than Edinburgh.