London: Scotland and the British government are locked in a high stakes game that could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), wants to hold an independence referendum, a move which has led to what The Guardian said is “arguably be the UK's most serious constitutional crisis since the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which led to the departure of the 26 counties of southern Ireland from the UK."
The SNP roared to victory in the last election, and it always promised a referendum on Scottish independence. Salmond says that his party is simply keeping a campaign promise in putting the question of Scottish independence to a vote.
In recent days, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Salmond have been locked in a public battle over the timing of the referendum and also what question the referendum will ask. Cameron has been reportedly pushing for a ballot measure in the next 18 months, a tactical move designed to rob the SNP of time to campaign for independence.
Holding the vote in 2014 is not just about giving the SNP time to make their case. The British press also takes pain to note that holding the referendum in 2014 also has emotional and historical significance for Scots. The year will be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Scottish hero Robert the Bruce defeated the army of Edward II. In politics, emotive symbols like this count.
Cameron also has been pushing the SNP for a straight yes or no vote, while the SNP also wants to include an option called 'devo max' or maximum devolution, which would give Scotland fiscal autonomy but politically still keep it in the United Kingdom. The British government is worried that the third option could splinter pro-unionist voters.
There is also a question of whether the Scottish Parliament has the legal right to hold a referendum. Salmond and the SNP says yes, and the British government says no. From a legal standpoint, the Scottish government has the right to hold an advisory referendum, "effectively an opinion poll", as the BBC says, but not a binding vote.
Losing the political battle
However, as political blogger and head of the political participation NGO Democracy Society Anthony Zacharzewski says, this is really an issue of the law versus politics.
In terms of the political battle, Salmond is running rings around Cameron. Legally, Cameron is right. The Scottish Parliament doesn't have the powers to hold a binding referendum, but Cameron thus far has been clumsily making his case and also painting Scotland as weak economically outside of the United Kingdom. He might be right, but he's being politically tone deaf.
The newspapers on the left in the UK accuse David Cameron of playing a dangerous game. The Independent said that while the PM appears to be trying to seize the initiative and trying to appear bold, the paper adds, "The very real danger is that Mr Cameron pushes wavering Scots towards the separatist arguments.
Current polls show that independence is still a minority position. The Guardian reports that the most Scottish Social Attitudes survey showed support for independence at just 32%. However, as the Independent notes, the Conservative Party is now so unpopular in Scotland that it doesn't have a single MP there, and the party's austerity programme isn't helping it win back voters there.
Salmond is playing on Scottish antipathy towards Conservatives by branding Cameron's moves as “Thatcher-esque”. If you ever want to stoke the ire of anti-Conservatives in the UK, you only have to invoke the name of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.
“The United Kingdom is in grave danger,” crows Tim Luckhurst in the Daily Mail, under a predictably provocative headline — "A nation that stood firm against Hitler could soon cease to exist if the SNP has its way."
Get past the Mail's bombast, and Luckhurst's point is that England has as much to lose from Scottish independence as Scotland might lose if it decides for full independence. England might be the senior partner in the United Kingdom and has been since the 18th Century, but England does benefit from the Union, not just the junior nations.
As the Independent says, Cameron needs to make the pro-union case and not be seen as dictating terms to the Scots.
Cameron needs to show more political sophistication than he has up until now. As 2012 starts, we see yet again that the ties that have bound Europe together are starting to fray, and Europe's politicians seem to be losing the case to stay together.