EDINBURGH, Scotland – At the entrance to Stirling Castle, close to the field of Bannockburn where the Scots under Robert the Bruce crushed the English in 1314, an old man shouts at the guards about the British flag flying overhead. Anger contorts his face. He is, as we say in Britain, "effing and blinding" -- using swear words beginning with "f" and "b." They are laughing at him. "It is an English flag. It is disgusting," he says, before storming out of the gate.
I ask the local guards if this happens often, especially as Stirling is the heartland of Scottish nationalism. One replies that it doesn't, but that in summer American tourists ask about the flag. "We say it is the British flag, and as long as we are in Britain we will fly it." But how long will that be? If the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) -- which leads the autonomous government here -- has its way, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence towards the end of 2014. That could lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom in 2015.
So be prepared for some more effing and blinding. FUK, joke academics, stands for Former United Kingdom, a la FSU for Former Soviet Union. Then there is the milder RUK, already used to refer to the "rest" of the U.K. but which can now mean the "remainder" of the U.K. when discussing Scottish independence. For every Union Jack flying across Scotland, there are probably at least ten Saltires, the blue and white Scottish flag. The British flag symbolizes the 1707 union of England and Scotland, but its original version predates it by more than a century. With the 1707 union of the two countries, the Scottish parliament was abolished but Scotland kept its own distinctiveness with, for example, its own legal and education systems.
In 1999, the Scottish Parliament reopened and powers were "devolved" to it and what is now called the Scottish Government. They deal with day to day affairs, including education and health, but foreign affairs and defense remain the prerogative of the British government. In the 1997 referendum that led to the reopening, 74.3 percent of voters were in favor of a Scottish parliament; 63.5 percent were in favor of giving it tax-varying powers. Today, although opinion polls show that only one-third of people living in Scotland support independence, many desire more autonomy. But as foreign affairs and defense become issues, a lot could change in two years.
Consider this possible scenario: Britain now bases its entire Trident-missile carrying nuclear submarine fleet in Faslane Naval Base, Scotland. But in the run up to independence, the four subs and the missiles are removed. Meanwhile, switching to its own currency, Scotland faces financial meltdown. Russia launches a plot, called Operation Braveheart (referring to the inaccurate but rousing historical movie starring Mel Gibson), where it promises to support Scotland in exchange for moving its own nuclear missiles into the now vacant Faslane. The closeted gay Republican U.S. president who succeeds Barack Obama plans a coup in Scotland in tandem with unionist militias.
This scenario is described in the novel Rogue Nation, a thriller published in 2009 by television producer and grandee of the Scottish establishment Alan Clements. Clements seems to have done quite a lot of thinking about the issue of foreign and defense policy for an independent Scotland. That may be because, until the January announcement of the referendum, the SNP -- led by Alex Salmond, Scotland's wily first minister (as the Scottish prime minister is called) -- never actually had to.
Jim Wyllie, a reader in international relations at Aberdeen University who is against independence sees the SNP's position as "logically inconsistent" because the party deplores defense cuts, which hurt job prospects, though in an independent Scotland the British military would presumably leave. Angus Robertson, the SNP's defense and foreign affairs spokesman, calls arguments like this "nonsense," because Scotland would have its own defense forces based on existing Scottish units, filling the gap of the withdrawing British forces and which would keep a negotiated chunk of military hardware. Subject to agreement he says, some RUK forces could also remain in certain places in Scotland.