GLASGOW, Scotland — This isn’t exactly the solid, stable old Britain that Americans love.
After throwing a scare into the country’s political elite, Scots voted in September against independence. So a political union that predates the American revolution will stay in place — at least a while longer.
But by seriously considering breaking up the country, Scotland has helped launch a debate that may fundamentally change how America’s closest ally functions.
Think of the issue as a British version of the U.S. struggle to define where Washington’s power ends and state authority takes over. Or as an illustration of how the desire to express a national character and exert local control doesn’t go away — even absent the poverty and repression that encourages so many independence movements around the world. The debate here will gain focus in coming months as Britain prepares for parliamentary elections in May, but events in the past couple of weeks are already setting the stage.
Many Scots have felt increasingly at odds with the UK’s national government for decades. While “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher was popular enough to become Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, her policies were widely detested in Scotland. And Scots see little more than a continuation of them in the quarter of a century since she left office.
In the meantime, though, Scotland also gained its own parliament. The Scottish National Party, with First Minister Alex Salmond leading the charge, won the right to hold a referendum on full independence. Support for ending the 1707 Acts of Union that created Great Britain has historically been a minority view, and polls in the weeks before the vote predicted a very tight vote. With turnout around 85 percent, Scots voted in favor of preserving the union by a margin of 55-45 percent.
In the wake of the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a commission to draft recommendations for giving Scotland more autonomy, and promised that the principle would be applied across the country. He declared the issue of Scottish independence settled.
The debate isn’t close to coming to an end, however. A poll that came out a little more than six weeks after the referendum found a slight majority of Scots now favoring independence. Pro-independence “Yes” stickers are still displayed in windows around Glasgow, and pro-independence groups are reorganizing their efforts. The country has a new newspaper, The National which bills itself ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland.’
In late November, the so-called Smith Commission return its report on Scottish autonomy. Among its recommendations: that Scots be given the power to set income tax rates and retain the money raised by it; that they be able to decide whether to extend the right to vote to 16-year-olds; and that the Scottish parliament be free to create new benefits.
Cameron said he was “delighted” with it. The Scottish National Party was disappointed, saying that the authority over the vast majority of revenue and spending would remain in London. Others were predictably harsh, including one commentator in the Guardian who dismissed the report as a “sophisticated and multilayered deception” that might well push Scots toward a second vote on independence.
And under the headline, “Why change in Scotland will change the whole UK,” BBC political editor Nick Robinson said that the release of the report probably would be only the start of an intense campaign encompassing England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well.
“If you think today’s constitutional changes are only about Scotland, think again,” he said. “If you think they will end the debate about Scottish independence, think again. If you think they mark the end of a process of change, think again.”
Now, mayors of major cities across England said they should be given the same powers as the Scots. Cameron’s Conservatives have promised a vote before Christmas on legislation on whether only members of parliament from England should vote on laws that affect England.
Salmond, widely recognized as one of Britain’s wiliest politicians, resigned as the head of Scotland’s government after the September referendum. But he hasn’t left the scene. He stirred the pot on Sunday by announcing that he would run for a seat in parliament in London.
With his party gaining in the polls, Salmond is setting himself up to be a national power broker. Cameron’s foes in the Labor Party can’t beat him outright without a strong showing in Scotland. The Scottish National Party says it will never support the Conservatives. But it might be willing to back a Labor government, for a price. And that price would be likely to take Britain back to the future — an intensified debate over autonomy (for Scots and others, as well) and possibly another vote on Scottish independence.