LONDON — "Stands Scotland where it did?" This is the question, asked by Macduff in Shakespeare's Macbeth that now concentrates minds in Edinburgh and London alike. The battle for Scotland is also a battle for Britain in which the stakes could scarcely be higher. In two years' time, Scots will vote in a referendum to decide the future course of their country. The future of Great Britain (established in 1707 by the union between Scotland and England, each previously independent countries and awkward, frequently warring neighbors) is at stake. The choice is stark: reconfirming the country's commitment to the United Kingdom or setting out on a new course as Europe's newest independent country.
For Alex Salmond, the 57-year old leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), these are giddy times, pregnant with promise and possibility. This is the moment -- the chance for which he has been campaigning his entire political life. It has been a long journey to reach this day.
Last week, Salmond, the leader of Scotland's devolved government, welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron to Edinburgh, where, after months of public squabbling and quiet backstage negotiation, the pair signed an agreement setting the terms and conditions for Scotland's referendum. The plebiscite will be held in 2014 and will -- though the precise wording of the question has yet to be determined -- ask a simple query: Should Scotland be an independent country?
The details of the negotiations mattered somewhat less than the optics and the mood music of the occasion. Here was Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, meeting Salmond on almost equal terms. As the pair signed and exchanged documents in the manner of two powers agreeing to a treaty, a first-time visitor to Scotland could have been forgiven for thinking Cameron was already visiting a foreign country -- not just the northern part of his own country.
In that sense, Scotland is already, if you will, a semidetached part of the United Kingdom. This despite the fact that the devolved Scottish Parliament was only established in 1999 and, in many respects, Salmond enjoys fewer powers than those available to the governor of any U.S. state. (Scotland has responsibility for health care and education for instance, but only limited powers to raise revenues. Instead, it relies on a block grant set by London that Scottish ministers may then spend at their discretion.)
Speaking at the SNP's annual conference on Oct. 20, Salmond, who has led the party for nearly two decades, declared that "Scotland is not in a mood to take no for an answer" and that "Westminster [i.e., London] has had its chance, and Westminster has fallen short." Again, the impression was of a party and a nation on the move, marching to the sound of its own drum. Or pipes, rather.
"Within the limits of devolution," Salmond said, "there is only so much we can achieve." Contrasting his social democratic government with the austerity-driven Conservative-led coalition at Westminster, Salmond portrayed independence as a means by which Scotland could be protected from a London government that is, he claims, out of touch with or inherently hostile to Scottish interests or preferences. London rule was, he said, a "nonsense." (London, it might be noted, has tried to buy off the nationalists: The Tories and Labour Party have etched promises to look at the question of devolving more powers to Edinburgh should Scots vote to preserve the union.)
Yet one of the striking aspects of this battle for the future of Britain -- indeed for Britain's survival as a nation-state as we have known it -- is how it lacks many of the features that ordinarily spark or define great nationalist awakenings. There is no grievous injustice that must be corrected, no sense in which Scotland is a victim persecuted by a hostile, foreign overlord. Scotland is not a colony. Nor do Scots, many of whom are comfortable with their dual identities (Scottish and British) consider it such. Indeed, Scottish nationalism is about as peaceful, respectable, mild-mannered a cause as it is possible to imagine. Notably, it is not a cause for which anyone is prepared to die or kill. This is commendable, of course, and much to be welcomed. It is also unusual.
Scottish nationalists dislike talk of "divorce," but in a real sense, that's what is at stake. The marriage between England and Scotland has sometimes been an unequal one in which the smaller partner has struggled to make her voice heard, but she has, at all times, kept the prerogative of leaving the relationship. But until recently (that is, until the SNP became something more than a noisy pressure group) that prerogative was always considered a more notional proposition than a practical possibility. The union offered security and opportunity, and the question of independence rarely arose. Times change, however -- and for many Scots, Britain no longer offers the opportunities it once did.
So, in a sense, even asking the question formally counts as a victory for Salmond and the nationalists. How did it come to this? Salmond's ascent owes something to his own political skills as well as to his patience, but it is also predicated upon historical forces that have loosened the ties that bind the Scots and English together and that have contributed to a nationalist awakening in Scotland.