Scottish nationalists have dreamed of independence for centuries, and now, Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond is really trying to pull it off. Salmond has announced plans to hold a referendum in fall 2014 on breaking away from the United Kingdom, setting off a week of friction between Edinburgh and London. Will Scotland and the U.K. really part ways? Here's what you should know:
What exactly is Scotland's relationship to the U.K.?
More than 300 years ago, Scotland and England were joined by the Act of Union that formally created the U.K. (the two nations, though separate, had already been ruled by one king for more than a century). Today, Queen Elizabeth II is still Scotland's head of state. Scotland has a government, legal system, and parliament of its own, in addition to representatives in the U.K. Parliament.
And Scotland wants independence?
Some Scots do. Such talk has been percolating ever since 1707, when the U.K. was formed. But over the centuries, there didn't seem to be much chance that the split would actually happen. Now, says Alex Massie at The Daily Beast, "for the first time since Bonnie Prince Charlie led an army of Highland Scots into England in 1745, the survival of the United Kingdom is in doubt."
What's driving this latest push?
In the 1980s, conservative Tories failed to deliver a promised referendum to establish a Scottish assembly and faced a brutal backlash from voters. The Labor party didn't want to make the same mistake, and in 1997, a referendum passed leading to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. There, resurgent Scottish national sentiment has thrived. One major driver: The common wisdom that unity with its larger neighbor was essential for Scotland's prosperity has eroded over the last few decades, particularly as Scotland's heavy industry declined.
But why now?
Last May, Salmond's Scottish National Party won 69 of Parliament's 129 seats. It was "a thumping, astonishing victory" when you consider there are five parties in the system, Massie says, and the seemingly clear and overwhelming mandate made a referendum on independence "inevitable." Indeed, it makes perfect sense that this would be happening now, says Heather Horn at The Atlantic. Europe is in the grip of a painful economic crisis, and "nationalism surges as economies stagnate."
So is this the end of the union?
Not necessarily. A referendum is bound to be "explosive," says Anna Tomforde at Monsters and Critics. And its success or failure could depend on many variables — such as whether it's a yes-or-no vote on full independence, or a multi-question ballot with a middle-ground option maintaining an element of unity. Despite Salmond's popularity, polls suggest most Scots don't actually support full independence. Thirty-five percent want to be a completely separate nation, while 55 percent remain opposed. So the government in London, which at first insisted that British Parliament would have to OK any vote, is now pushing for a referendum as soon as possible, says Agence France Presse, so Salmond won't have time to win over a majority.