For the first time since the Act of Union in 1707 the possibility of a pro-independence party gaining power in Scotland has become a viable reality, writes David Sheppard and Henning Gloystein.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), Scotland's left-of-centre pro home-rule party, has emerged as a realistic candidate to become the strongest force in next May's Scottish parliamentary elections, consistently polling ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in past months.
Following a barnstorming party conference in October, and continued electorate disillusionment with the ruling Labour Party / Liberal Democrat coalition, the SNP now has a chance to galvanise support amongst the Scottish electorate – though it remains unclear how many potential SNP-voters actually support their core policy of independence.
According to the latest poll conducted by The Scotsman ICM poll found 51 per cent now favoured full independence with only 39 per cent against - the biggest level of support for separatism for eight years.
Scotland was granted a large degree of autonomy by the passing of the ‘Scotland Act' in 1998 which means that Scotland has a parliament with ‘devolved' powers within the United Kingdom .
Matters like education, health and prisons, which used to be dealt with by the Parliament at Westminster , are now decided in Scotland . Decisions with a UK or international impact, such as defence and the North Sea oil, are dealt with in London .
Unlike the British parliament in Westminster , London , Scotland has a proportional representation system, so it is likely that the SNP would need to form a power-sharing coalition with another party. The Conservative Party (Tories) are staunch unionists, whilst Labour believes in the union both politically and for reasons of expediency, as without the Scottish seats they retain for UK elections, Labour would almost certainly lose political power to the Tories in Westminster.
The only viable coalition party for the SNP are the left leaning Liberal Democrats who have spent the last seven years sharing power with Labour in Scotland . If Labour performs as badly as predicted in next year's elections, the Lib Dems may well be tempted to join forces with the SNP.
Collaboration between these two parties would require an agreement on a possible referendum on Scottish independence – something the Lib Dems are traditionally opposed to.
The SNP, often portrayed as the chip-on-the-shoulder anti-English party, are in favour of strong links with Europe, and economically with England . It has tried desperately to become pro-Scottish, rather than anti-English, in order to attract undecided voters, with one member even going so far as writing opinion pieces encouraging Scots to support England during this year's World Cup in Germany.
Westminster 's SNP party leader Alex Salmond, a jovial economist and former banker with the Royal Bank of Scotland , steered his conference speech away from the nuts and bolts of power-sharing politics, preferring the flighty rhetoric of a man who can see his dream slowly inching towards his grasp.
He said: “ We are not an ordinary political party. Our objective is to break the power of the unionist parties over the Scottish people. Our objective is independence.” He continued: “ We are six months away from a date with destiny and we have a great task in hand.”
Naturally, Westminster opposes Scottish independence and the subject is increasingly on politician's agendas. Gordon Brown, a Scot himself, and the most likely candidate to succeed Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party as Britain 's next Prime Minister, has ramped up his support for the Union . The current Chancellor of the Exchequer said: “Ever-greater connections create a 21st century economic argument for the Union . Connections that if broken could create such uncertainty and instability that they would greatly weaken us.”
Douglas Alexander, Labour's minister for Scotland in London is known to have been the architect of a brilliant and negative campaign against the SNP in 1999 rallying for devolved power in Scotland as part of the UK, saying: "The Government remains as committed now to devolution as it was in 1997.”
Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, created a minor political storm in Scotland by breaking the bank's traditional neutral stance to speak out in favour of British unity: “We have a successful and prosperous Union between our two countries.”
For Salmond, the vocal increase in support from the highest levels of the British political and economic establishment is a sign that the rise of the SNP has them rattled. He said: “It's all hands to the Unionist pump these days, given the popularity of independence.”
In Scotland , the biggest question is how much of the SNP's recent poll success is down to a genuine Scottish desire for a chance of independence. It is likely that the growth in SNP support is down to dissatisfaction with the ruling Labour / Lib Dem coalition in Scotland and widespread Scottish opposition to London 's war efforts in Iraq .
The SNP were vehemently opposed to UK action against Saddam Hussein, and Salmond continues to attack Westminster over its Iraq policy. In his conference speech he said: “We went into Iraq as a political misadventure. We are still in Iraq and people are still dying, to save the faces of Labour and Tory politicians - i t is time to bring our brave troops home. ”
The debate was fuelled by Scotland 's leader of the Roman Catholics who backs independence from the UK , declaring he would be "happy" if Scots wanted separation. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 68, said Ireland benefited from the "prosperity which self-determination can bring.”
Experts in Scotland are predicting one of the most divisive and explosive election campaigns in recent British history. Graeme Downie of Grayling Political Strategy Scotland , said: "This is the first competitive election in the UK since 1992, and there is the real possibility of an SNP / Liberal Democrat coalition in May. This is forcing all political parties to develop more imaginative policies in order to appeal to the electorate, making this one of the most exciting elections in recent times."
Historians may one day look back at the three hundredth anniversary of the Union as a turning point in Britain 's political make-up.
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