The news has flown a bit under the radar here in the United States, for understandable reasons; but the results earlier this week of the Scottish parliament elections are historic. Whether this is good or bad history, of course, remains to be seen. For the first time, and much against the odds and recent opinion polls, Alex Salmond's Scottish Nationalist Party has won an absolute majority in the Edinburgh parliament--something that the Hollyrood system was designed to prevent, and which now puts the future of the United Kingdom itself in jeopardy. Let me explain.
The Scottish Nationalist Party is, ostensibly, committed to independence for Scotland. But because the SNP has never had an absolute majority in parliament--something which might conceivably lead to independence--Salmond's party has had the luxury of appealing to nationalist (and/or anti-English) sentiment without worrying very much about specific policies, or actually governing a Scottish republic. That must now change. Salmond and the SNP are committed to a referendum on detaching Scotland from the United Kingdom, and Prime Minister David Cameron is equally committed to opposing any such referendum. The battle lines are drawn.
The significance of this week's vote, in the short term, is that Labour, which had dominated Scottish politics since the Thatcher era, has been devastated: Most of its leadership in Scotland lost their seats, the total Labour vote was significantly reduced, and Labour's new leader, Ed Miliband, has suffered a stinging rebuke. Social Democratic voters seem to have transferred, en masse, to the SNP while Scottish Conservatives, who have no seats in Whitehall, did manage to stave off further losses.
So the question, for the long term, must now be answered by Salmond: Are he and his senior SNP colleagues serious about breaking up the United Kingdom--which, in opinion polls, is opposed by a substantial majority of Scots--or is the appeal of the SNP exclusively as a protest vote against the major parties, or against the status quo, and a thumb in the English eye? Moreover, if Salmond manages to get a referendum--which will be difficult under the terms of Scottish devolution--his own prestige will ride on a (comparatively) unpopular issue. If, however, a referendum should pass, the United Kingdom would be facing its most consequential constitutional crisis of modern times.
At the moment, the odds appear to be against the Scottish Nationalists ultimately forcing independence for Scotland. The SNP is an orthodox socialist party, and the Scots may well decide, in due course, that they prefer to gripe about the English than endure a homegrown hard-left regime. For that matter, Scotland without England would be at a substantial economic disadvantage, and the cultural and political ties that bind England and Scotland are numerous and longstanding. Even in Quebec, where separatist sentiment yielded terrorist violence, the voters ultimately shrank from the prospect of breaking up the Canadian federation.
But who would have thought that the SNP would win an absolute majority this time around? Nationalist sentiment has a way of overriding enlightened self-interest, and speaking as one (50%) myself, the Scots can be a cantankerous lot.