Stop eating junk food. Start exercising regularly. Most people have
hopelessly boring 2014 New Year's resolutions. But not the nationalists of Scotland.
In just nine months' time, Scots will vote on whether to become
an independent country. For Scottish nationalists, it's the culmination of a
centuries-long struggle for independence. (Think Braveheart with fewer beheadings
and more sober white papers on the material benefits of secession.) For
unionists, the referendum risks forfeiting the many perks of London's tutelage.
Beyond Scotland, the vote has wide implications for peaceful secessionist
movements in multiethnic nation-states from Canada to Spain to the Balkans --
putting all the more pressure on Scottish partisans to fulfill their 2014 New
Year's resolution: win over undecided voters.
"This issue of the referendum is whether Scotland is better off
without the United Kingdom," David Mundell, the under secretary of Scotland,
told Foreign Policy.
"Obviously, we make the case that it's better as part of the United Kingdom."
Mundell has become London's poster child for keeping the United
Kingdom united, and has spent part of
December carrying that message to Washington in meetings at think tanks and
influential congressional offices. A lifelong Scotsman, Mundell is the only
Conservative MP who represents a Scottish constituency, making him an ideal courier for David Cameron's anti-independence message.
"He's a rare bird," said the Brookings Institution's Fiona
Hill, "And perhaps more effective than having some British official who doesn't
have the same cachet."
Sitting down with FP at
the British Embassy in Washington, Mundell's message was simple: Scotland
doesn't realize how much it has to lose as a tiny independent state of 5
million people. "I would rather be part
of a Scotland that has an influence in the world than be part of a Scotland [with]
absolutely no influence," he said.
As a part of the U.K., Scotland enjoys the benefits of London's
longstanding clout in an array of international institutions from the United
Nations, where it holds a seat at the Security Council, to NATO, to the European
Union to the G8 and the G20. In a chaotic global economy, it also helps to
belong to a country with a substantial credit line. In 2008, the British
government bailed out two of Scotland's biggest banks, the Royal Bank of
Scotland and HBOS. "If it hadn't been for the wide resources of the United
Kingdom, Scotland would've been like Iceland where effectively the country went
bankrupt," said Mundell.
Mundell was gearing up for a talk at the Brookings Institution
the next day, where his intellectual rival, First Minister of Scotland Alex
Salmond, spoke earlier in the year. Both men make compelling points, but there's
a sense that they're speaking past each other. While Mundell talks economies of
scale and the pragmatic downsides to independence, Salmond drapes his appeal in
the universalist rhetoric of self-determination.
In his April address at Brookings, Salmond summoned the memory
of President John F. Kennedy. "I think there is a universal truth that people
who take the best decisions about a nation's future are the people who live and
work in that nation," he told the audience after an introduction by
the influential Middle East peace negotiator Martin Indyk. "No other
country is going to make better decisions about Scotland than the Scots will."
Salmond envisions a nuclear-free Scotland with an expanded
social safety net and a Scandinavian-style foreign policy that emphasizes benevolent
global citizenship rather than hard power realpolitik. It's clear his message
has found an audience. On a secessionist platform, Salmond's nationalists won their first
election in 2007 and won a majority in 2011. According to recent polling, the nationalists
have an uphill battle ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum, but have swayed
enough Scots to keep London worried.
In a December poll taken after the Scottish government released
its white paper on a succession plan, 27 percent of those surveyed said they'd
vote "yes" for independence while 41 percent planned to vote "no." Since last
September, the anti-independence movement's lead has shrunk from 19 percent to
"The odds are against independence, but as we know from many
previous instances of polling and elections, there's always a chance for a
surprise outcome due to external events," said Hill. "The Scottish government just
released the white papers on independence so they're now in full-court press
In recent days, senior Tory leaders have expressed concern that Scottish nationalists are gaining ground in the debate and have called on Cameron to reinvigorate his anti-independence campaign. Speaking to the Spectator, Cameron said he wasn't losing sight of the issue. "We cannot in any way let this argument go the wrong way," he said. "We've got to fight every day. It's one of the biggest issues of next year, if not the biggest."
Beyond Scotland's boundaries, the independence movement is a
source of anxiety for multi-ethnic countries and a source of hope for the
Catalans and the Quebecois in their own bids for nationhood.
In a shot across the bow, Spanish Prime Minister
Mariano Rajoy warned in November that Scotland would be kicked out of the European Union if
it voted for independence from Britain. "It is clear to me that a region which
asks for independence from a state within the European Union, will be left
outside the EU," he told reporters. Given Spain's staunch
opposition to independence for Catalonia, an autonomous community in Eastern
Spain, Rajoy does not want to set a new precedent for breaking up sovereign
states. Spain's opposition is a headache for Salmond, who has pledged that EU
membership would be a priority for independent Scotland.
Meanwhile, Scottish independence has caused excitement in
Quebec, where premier Pauline Marois has offered to share notes with
Salmond given her experience with pro-independence bids in Canada in recent
decades. Salmond, however, has avoided comparisons to other independence
movements. "Scotland isn't Catalonia. We're not Denmark. We're not Ireland.
We're not Quebec," he said in April. "Scotland is Scotland." This detachment
came to a head in January when Salmond appeared to snub an effort by Marois to
offer him independence guidance in a public meeting. At the time, the CBC speculated that "he may not have been eager to be seen in
public with the leader of a party that had lost its own independence votes,
twice, in 1980 and 1995." Burn!
pro-independence leaders aren't the only ones who'd like to avoid the Quebec
experience. The political and economic uncertainty caused by the
French-speaking province's repeated independence efforts over the last three
decades concern Mundell, who wants the Scottish referendum to settle the matter
regardless of the outcome. "I hope we have a decisive result that puts it to
bed for at least a generation," he said. "It actually does become very damaging
in terms of creating uncertainty and instability. ... Constitutional debate
doesn't grow the economy, it doesn't help children's education or get people
better medical care."