- - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND For Ben Judge, Scottish independence is about something more than tartan, bagpipes or any other symbol of Scotland’s misty past.

“Independence, to me, isn’t about petty flag-waving,” the 25-year-old law student said. “It’s not about tartan or shortbread or William Wallace or anything like that. It’s about democracy. It’s about a nation wanting full control over its own future.”

Mr. Judge was just 12 in 1999, when Scotland gained a large measure of self-rule within Britain. He soon may have the chance to vote to sever ties with London in a referendum on Scottish independence.

For centuries, many Scots have dreamed of a divorce from England. Now, momentum is growing for a breakup. Nearly 230 years after the United States secured its independence from Britain, Scotland is considering making the break with ballots, not bullets.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond on Wednesday announced plans for a referendum on independence by the fall of 2014. He also called for Scotland to lower the voting age to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots on the referendum.

“If a 16-year-old in Scotland can register to join the army, get married and pay taxes, surely he or she should be able to have a say in this country’s constitutional future,” he said.

He told the Scottish Parliament that the question on the ballot would ask: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Mr. Salmond added that the referendum also would have an option for increasing home rule while Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.

Last year, Mr. Salmond’s separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) won the majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament for the first time since 1999, when the legislature reconvened after 292 years.

The British government has insisted that Scotland’s powers do not extend to constitutional issues and that any referendum on independence would be illegal.

Regardless of the legality, a Scottish vote for independence would put pressure on the British government in London to reach some sort of accommodation with the Scots, said Struan Stevenson, a Scottish Conservative whose party opposes independence.


“[Mr. Salmond] says there is no [British] government that could possibly deny the people of Scotland independence if the majority voted … for independence,” noted Mr. Stevenson, a member of the European Parliament. “It will have no legal status … but it will carry hugely powerful weight.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Scotland to hold a referendum soon because uncertainty over the question of independence is hurting Scottish business.

The SNP insists that more time is needed for the Scots to consider their future.

This month, Mr. Cameron told the British Broadcasting Corp. that “we owe the Scottish people something that is fair, legal and decisive, so in the coming days we will be setting out clearly what the legal situation is.”

The British government is said to favor a simple choice between independence and union with Britain. The SNP wants a third option on the ballot: a “devolution-max” - something less than full independence - that would let Scotland assume responsibility for everything except defense and foreign policy.

“There is a huge movement for change, whether that’s more powers within the U.K. or as an independent country,” said Joan McAlpine, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament. “We feel people do want change. It’s just a matter of time before we win.”

An opinion poll last week indicated that 61 percent of Scots oppose full independence, but 58 percent would vote for the “devolution-max” option.

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the 1707 Act of the Union joined the Scottish and English parliaments into one national legislature seated in London.

For centuries, English kings coveted Scotland and often launched brutal invasions that laid waste to entire towns. The 1995 film “Braveheart” depicted the struggle between England’s King Edward I and the Scottish hero William Wallace.

Ironically, a Scottish king, James VI, inherited the English throne in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth I, a distant cousin.

Yet the two countries remained independent until Scotland nearly went broke in the 1690s in a scheme to establish a trading colony in Panama. The English took advantage of the financial disaster and bribed many leading Scottish noblemen and businessmen to support the union.

Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote that Scotland was “bought and sold for English gold.”

Oil-rich but poor

Even if the Scots choose independence from England, they could remain part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state. Those nations include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and many Caribbean countries.

The motivations behind the Scottish independence movement are diverse, but nationalist sentiment has risen since the 1970s, when high-grade oil was discovered off Scotland’s east coast.

Unlike Norway, just across the North Sea, where oil wealth has contributed to building one of the world’s richest economies, Scotland has remained relatively poor as billions of dollars in oil revenue have gone straight into the coffers of the government in London. Many impoverished areas of Scotland suffer from high unemployment and low life expectancy compared with other Western European countries.

An independent Scotland would have a border running northeast from Berwick-upon-Tweed near the English city of Newcastle, giving the country a significant slice of an oil field that last year brought in $21 billion, according to the British Office of Budget Responsibility. Nationalists say that could significantly improve the lives of ordinary Scots.

A further devolution of powers to Scotland is already on the table. The Scotland Bill, which the British government says will be passed into law in coming months, includes measures to extend the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary powers by giving it control over income tax and borrowing in exchange for a cut in funding from the British government. It has met strong resistance from the SNP.

Meanwhile, the question many are considering is how Scottish independence might affect the cohesion of the rest of the United Kingdom, namely Wales and Northern Ireland.

“There would be a huge opportunity for Wales to renegotiate our settlement within the U.K.,” said Jonathan Edwards of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, who holds a Welsh seat in the British Parliament.

“If Scotland becomes independent, the whole thing changes. Everything’s up for grabs.”

• Louise Osborne reported from Berlin.

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