Scotland gaining enthusiasm for independence
STIRLING, Scotland—In this green swath of Scotland, you can stay at the King Robert Hotel, eat at Bruce's Bistro and drink in the William Wallace pub -- all named for leaders who fought the English here 700 years ago.
For centuries Scotland was an independent kingdom, warding off English invaders in a series of bloody battles, but in 1707 the two united in a single country -- Great Britain -- that shares a monarch, a currency, and a London-based government.
Now a more peaceful, modern movement thinks its goal of regaining Scotland's independence is finally in sight.
This week Scottish authorities announced they will hold a referendum on independence in 2014, firing the starting pistol on a contest that could end with the breakup of Britain.
Many people around here can't wait.
"This is a wonderful time, an exciting time," said Gillian Leathley-Gibb, who runs a gift shop selling scarves, shawls and all things tartan in Stirling, a sturdy little city dominated by a castle that was repeatedly fought over by Scottish and English armies. "We went into a marriage with them over the border. Now it's time for a divorce."
Scotland's history has been entwined with that of its more populous southern neighbor for millennia, with Scots often bridling at London's central role in their affairs.
Scots like to see themselves as independent, strong-willed underdogs who fought for centuries against English oppression, and as passionate Celts pitted against stiff-necked Anglo-Saxon neighbors.
Though the two countries have shared a government for more than 300 years -- and the last two British prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were Scots -- centuries-old tales of English brutality and Scottish resistance still have strong emotional resonance. Every Scottish schoolchild learns about Bannockburn, a couple of miles (kilometers) from Stirling, where Scottish King Robert the Bruce defeated an invading English army in 1314, winning Scotland its temporary independence.
Scots gained significant autonomy in 1997 following a vote to set up an Edinburgh-based legislature with substantial powers.
Last year, the separatist Scottish National Party won a majority in the assembly, with the promise of a referendum on full independence at an unspecified date.
This week British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the stakes, declaring that only the British government in London had the power to grant a legally binding vote.
He said he was willing to do so, as long as the ballot met certain conditions, including a simple yes-or-no question and an early voting date to end the uncertainty over the country's future.
Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, responded by saying Scotland would make its own decisions, accusing Cameron of trying to "trample over Scotland with his size 10 boots." And he set a date for the referendum: the fall of 2014.
He made clear that London's interference would not be tolerated, promising "a referendum organized in Scotland, built in Scotland for the Scottish people, discussed with civic Scotland and brought to the people in 2014 for a historic decision on the future of this nation."
It's a decision many in Stirling, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Edinburgh, are eager to take.
"I'd have a brick wall across the border," said resident Janice Black. "They make all the rules down in London and haven't got a clue what goes on up here."
Black works at one of Stirling's main attractions -- a 220-foot (67 meter) Victorian Gothic tower perched high on a crag that honors William "Braveheart" Wallace, a warrior who routed the invading English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
Wallace's other, even better-known, memorial is the 1995 Mel Gibson film "Braveheart," a testament to the Scottish spirit which told the story in heroic Hollywood style.
Even after its union with England in 1707, Scotland retained distinct educational, religious and legal systems, and a vibrant intellectual culture that produced Enlightenment thinkers including economist Adam Smith and philosopher David Hume.
For most of that time, said University of Edinburgh history professor Tom Devine, "Scotland has had a kind of dual identity -- a mix of Scottishness and Britishness," and there was little demand for independence.
The modern independence movement took off after the 1980s, a decade of industrial decline for which many Scots blamed the London-based government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The campaign owes much of its political success to Scottish National Party leader Salmond, a canny 57-year-old who likes soccer and horse racing and paints himself as a genial Scottish everyman.
Under him, the party has promoted a brand of "aspirational nationalism" open to Scots of all races and creeds, arguing that an independent Scotland's resourcefulness and North Sea oil revenues will create a dynamic economy and a cozy social safety net.
Despite Salmond's popularity, it seems most Scots do not, yet, want outright independence. Opinion polls since the 1990s have found support for it hovering at between 30 and 35 percent.
Knowing this, Scottish authorities want to put on the ballot a third choice -- known as maximum devolution or "devo max"-- which would stop short of full independence but give Scotland autonomy in all areas except foreign affairs and defense.
The British government favors a straight "in or out" question, because it thinks the pro-independence side would lose.
Many observers believe that given the choice Scottish voters would opt for greater autonomy, not independence.
"The Scots are not daft, and traditionally they have also been fairly cautious," said Devine.
But, the history professor added, this is unknown territory.
No part of Britain has ever held a secession referendum -- John Curtice, professor of politics at Scotland's Strathclyde University, calls it a "constitutional hornet's nest."
The other volatile variable is Europe's staggering economy, which may give some Scottish voters cold feet about leaving Britain and striking out on their own.
Salmond once spoke of Scotland joining a northern "arc of prosperity" with Iceland and Ireland -- two formerly high-flying countries whose economies crashed during the credit crunch. He also used to advocate joining the euro single currency. Now Salmond says independent Scotland would stick with pounds sterling for the foreseeable future.
Anti-independence politicians also ask how Scotland alone -- with a population of 5 million, one-tenth of England's -- could have withstood the near-collapse of two gigantic banks based in Edinburgh, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, which were bailed out with billions from the British government following the 2008 credit crisis.
An independence vote would also bring wrangling over who gets the country's resources -- and its debt.
The SNP says independent Scotland would be entitled to 90 percent of Britain's oil wealth -- currently revenue from oil and gas in North Sea waters off the Scottish coast goes to British coffers -- but only liable for 8 percent of its almost 1 trillion pound ($1.5 trillion) national debt, based on Scotland's share of the U.K. population.
The British government is sure to dispute this, pointing out that Scotland has higher per capita public-sector spending than England and so is more indebted.
U.K. Treasury chief George Osborne warned Thursday that "the people of Scotland would lose out in terms of the Scottish economy" if they left Britain.
That fear is keeping some Scots from embracing independence, even here at the site of some of the country's most glorious military victories.
"It's beautiful," said Elizabeth Breakenridge, a tourist from the Glasgow area, as she stood at Stirling Castle looking out over the Forth River valley toward the Wallace Monument. "But it's not a part of your everyday life. It doesn't put money in the bank or food on the table."