Stoking the fires of nationalism in Scotland

Scottish Nationalist Party gears up in its push for independence

Some nations are forged from bloody struggle. Others are born in popular uprisings. But those who dream of Scottish independence are counting on the magic of golf, whiskey, and poetry.

This weekend’s Robbie Burns Nights—the annual bacchanalia of drink, haggis, and ancient, hard-to-understand odes—marks the official kick-off of Homecoming Scotland 2009, a 10-month celebration that aims not only to draw in tourists from abroad, but stoke the fires of nationalism at home. It’s part of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP) soft-sell run-up to a promised 2010 referendum on independence, or at the very least, a further devolution of powers from the British government. “Scotland is becoming more confident in itself,” says Kenny MacAskill, cabinet secretary of justice in the Scottish parliament, who was in Toronto Friday for a dinner honouring the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. “What we seek now, is to be equal.”

The leap from rugby tournaments, ceilidhs, and commercials featuring Sean Connery, a noted SNP supporter, singing “Caledonia” in front of Edinburgh Castle, to nationhood seems rather large, but MacAskill says getting Scots to embrace their cultural identity is a key part of the journey. “In a global world, where there are Starbucks on the street corners in Glasgow and Toronto, and the same shows on TV, people want to be somebody.”

It’s all part of a slow build to what the SNP hopes will be a decisive vote next year. After winning a one-seat minority in the spring of 2007, party leader and first minister Alex Salmond launched a “National Conversation” about Scotland’s political future. But whether it will lead to his preferred option of a binding referendum on independence remains to be seen. In a surprise about-face this past summer, the opposition Scottish Labour Party dropped its opposition to such a vote, but the faltering global economy has blunted momentum. And while the SNP says it still intends to keep its promise and bring a bill forward, getting it through the five-party, mixed-member proportional representation legislature will be another matter entirely. Polls suggest support for blowing up a 300-year political union with England hovers somewhere around the 30 per cent mark. And in the end, voters may be presented with several options that fall far short of independence.

Whatever the options, MacAskill says the “idiocies” of the existing 1999 devolution agreement need to be addressed. As examples he cites the Scottish parliament’s authority over physicians and health care, but not vets and animals. Or his inability as justice minister to set a drunk-driving blood alcohol limit, or tighten gun or drug laws (although he is currently under fire in the Scottish press for skipping a conference on knife violence to attend to his Burns supper duties in Canada). But most importantly, says MacAskill, the Scottish government needs authority to tackle bigger issues like the current economic crisis. “We don’t have the levers of power and in many cases we’re not even at the minor tables of influence.” In an increasingly globalized, interdependent world, the Scots can’t afford to let others speak for them, he argues. “There are 27 nations in the EU that get a say on Scotland’s destiny, yet some of them like Luxemburg and Malta aren’t even as big as some of our cities.”
By inviting the diaspora (a loose grouping that is easily many times bigger than Scotland’s population of five million) home for a tipple and a day on the links, the SNP is looking to boost the economy and national confidence. “We can bask in their reflected glory,” says MacAskill. “And look forward to the day when Scotland is not worried about being North Britain.”

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