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Al Jazeera Correspondent

Scotland's quiet revolution

As Scotland braces for its independence referendum, Julie MacDonald asks if a 300-year-old union is at breaking point.

Last updated: 15 Dec 2013 10:39
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Will next year's referendum on Scottish independence signal the end of a 300-year-old marriage? [GALLO/GETTY]

As I wrote my pitch for an episode of Al Jazeera Correspondent about the bid for Scottish independence, the Arab Spring was unfolding. Revolutions were taking place before our eyes in the most bloody and terrifying of ways. In Syria more than 60,000 people had lost their lives in the battle for change; in Egypt, a democratically-elected government would be thrust aside and many would risk their lives on Cairo's streets to have their say in the struggle for power. 

I found myself drawn to the story of my own nation and its search for a new identity. But in Scotland, there are no violent protests, no thousand-strong marches on parliament.

There are, however, jubilant parades full of Scottish flags and faces painted blue and white. There are thousands of volunteers knocking on doors asking people to vote 'yes' in order to give Scotland a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to choose a different path to its neighbours. They may not be lining up outside the Scottish parliament, at the risk of getting shot, but for those who believe in a stand-alone Scotland, this is a profound moment in the country's story and they see themselves very much as 'fighting for change'.

But the opposition is fierce, and, according to polls, most people want to stay in the union, while there are many more again who are indifferent to the question or undecided. The 'no' campaign has been accused of dumping scare stories in the press suggesting that life will become more expensive and the economy will suffer. But, just as the hopes of those who want independence are real, so, too, are the fears of those who do not want change.

For my friends and colleagues from Egypt, Libya and Syria, the bid for independence is perplexing. They ask me why it is such a quiet revolution and why Scots do not fight for what they want.

But what do Scots want?

Well, this is where it gets tricky.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) won by a landslide in the last election. But a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence.

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, explained to me that his party's recent success can be attributed to it focusing on being the party of good governance. Many of the Scots who voted for them wanted good governance, not an independent nation.

Nonetheless, the first minister made a promise that he would raise the question of independence and now, whether Scots like it or not, they will have to nail their colours to the mast.

A marriage of convenience

If Scotland gains independence, new legislation will have to pass to state who owns the North Sea oil [GALLO/GETTY]

Scotland and England have been locked in a marriage of convenience for more than 300 years. It is, in the words of historian Tom Devine, a mutable "stretch to fit" union. Over the years it has moulded and changed according to the needs of each nation.

But, as I embarked upon my journey across the land where I was born, I wanted to know if that union had now reached breaking point and, if so, why?

At the start of this process I was unsure where I stood on the matter. But as I heard from all sides of the debate, it became clear just how many challenges breaking up a nation poses. There are the not inconsiderable matters of arming the country, divvying up the national debt, choosing a currency and, of course, building a thriving economy.

This is a debate that cannot be summed up in sound bites. There is no guidebook to conducting a national divorce.

If Scotland does choose to go its own way, there will undoubtedly be a mass of practicalities to handle. Just deciding how to divide the licensing of the North Sea oil could require the invention of a whole new strand of law. Are the politicians who could be responsible for shaping a brave new Scotland really up to the task?

Well Scotland has been here before, like in 1979 when Scots voted in favour of having a devolved government only for Westminster to deny them their wish by declaring that at least 40 percent of the total electorate had to vote in favour for it to pass. And with the uncast votes of the deceased who had not been removed from the electoral roll and others unable to vote counted as a 'no', political trickery had its way.

Then in 1997, another referendum beckoned Scots to the polls. I was a trainee journalist at the time and, unimpressed by the seemingly boorish bunch of Scottish politicians I was interviewing, voted no. Luckily for Scotland, my vote was in the minority and a Scottish parliament was born - in charge at last of healthcare, economic development and education.

Scotland the Brave - Extra

Consequently, as I discovered while travelling home this summer, a much more self-confident nation has emerged. With it, one Scottish politician in particular has put the question of independence firmly back on the table.

Depending on who you talk to, Alex Salmond is either the villain or hero in Scotland's current political narrative. He made a promise to the Scottish people when they elected his SNP to power that he would bring about a referendum. And he has, albeit with one major glitch: the SNP was forced to agree to a straight 'yes-no' question on the ballot paper, ruling out a third, and to many more preferable, option on increased powers for Edinburgh.

Depending on your political affiliation, Salmond has either set himself and the quest for a 'new Scotland' up for a humiliating defeat next September or is playing a political long game that will ultimately deliver independence. As with all things political, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Those who support him paint a picture of an astute politician. They say that by demanding an option he knew would be unacceptable to the Unionists, he has painted Scottish Labour, his only real Scottish rivals, as anti-devolution. And, having spent a morning with him back in July, I would be inclined to agree. This is, after all, a man who lost a good few elections before he hit on the Scottish sweet spot - that the best people to make decisions for Scotland are the people who live there. This one simple phrase changed the direction of the SNP and its fortunes. Realising that they could never reach the average Scot with talk of independence alone, the SNP sought to show the broader electorate that it could deliver good governance. Independence could come later.

They think it's all over ...

The SNP's Alex Salmond has form in making the impossible happen, but can he do the same in next year's referendum? [EPA]

So, if the vote matters so much, why aren't Scots engaged?

The newspapers say it matters, and the British and international media is fascinated. But as we travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, the word 'independence' was met with a collective groan.

Partly it is because breaking up a union, although not unprecedented, is complicated, and many Scots have put their hands firmly over their ears. They are sceptical about the political grandstanding or are searching for simpler answers to these big questions.

For some, though, Scotland, which has grown in confidence culturally and politically over the past 30 years, is already a separate nation, and they don't see the need for more power and responsibility. I came to understand that the question of whether Scotland should be an independent nation is largely academic - it already is.

Socially and culturally it has always been separate from the rest of the UK. And, quietly and consistently since the Scottish parliament was re-convened in 1999, it has grown apart from its neighbours. So at the heart of this vote is a search for a new political direction, one that more closely matches the beliefs of the Scottish people. Even if Scots vote 'no', the centre-right approach of the politicians in Westminster will continue to force Scots to question their marriage with the UK.

Whether or not we like it, Scotland is growing out of the Union, and it would be dangerous for politicians north or south of the border not to give considerable thought to an eventual break-up. But, worryingly, this is a shift the Unionists seem not to have grasped as they prematurely congratulate themselves on a victory in next year's referendum.

Unionist confidence has been shored up by US statistician and election forecaster Nate Silver, who is famed for correctly predicting the results of past US elections and told an audience in Edinburgh that the 'yes' vote could not win. But even before his speech, Unionist malaise was evident as we tried to track down members of the 'no' campaign to participate in our film. Many of them simply told us 'no' - it was too inconvenient, they were on holiday, the party line had not been firmed up; the excuses came thick and fast.

Eventually, Alastair Darling, the former chancellor of the exchequer, agreed to a 10 minute interview on the lawn of the Scottish parliament. When I asked him why the 'no' campaign were so difficult to get hold of, while the 'yes' campaign fell over themselves to participate in the film, he mused "they've got more work to do perhaps".

But those who do not want independence are worried by the minimal visibility of the 'no' campaign in comparison with that of the 'yes', who have been canvassing and door knocking with enthusiasm, holding rallies full of flag-waving supporters and have even opened a walk-in office on the purposefully chosen Hope Street.

The 'no' campaign would be wise not to underestimate their opponents, and here's why: In 2011, at this point in the parliamentary elections, the SNP was more than 10 points behind. But Salmond went on to win by a landslide. He, and his party, have form in making the impossible happen.

Follow Julie MacDonald on Twitter: @juliemarionmac or visit her website: juliemac.co.uk 

Al Jazeera Correspondent can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2000; Friday: 1200; Saturday: 0100; Sunday: 0600; Monday: 2000; Tuesday: 1130; Wednesday: 0100; Thursday: 0600.

Watch more Al Jazeera Correspondent 

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