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Scotland may go its own way

Times Staff Writer

It was on the low cliffs looming over the white-capped Firth of Forth here that Alexander III, the last of Scotland’s Celtic kings, plunged from his horse to his death one inky night 721 years ago.

England backed a successor, and ultimately invaded, touching off the wars of Scottish independence that inspired medieval verses about refusing to submit to “the bonds of slavery entwined” and opulently tragic films such as “Braveheart.”

These days, Scotland’s independence movement is still playing out on the Kinghorn uplands. Here George Kay is making his way, house by house, to a succession of doors ringed by pansy pots and “no milk today” signs. Kay is running on the Scottish National Party ticket in elections Thursday that could set Scotland on a course to break away from Britain.

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“I was just wonderin’ if you were considerin’ castin’ your vote for the SNP,” Kay says diffidently, and he often elicits a stern nod in the affirmative. “Give us the next three, four years to show we can run things. And then people may have the confidence to go forward with independence.”

This week, Scotland and England celebrate the 300th anniversary of their union under the treaty that ultimately created the United Kingdom. But the SNP, capitalizing on widespread dissatisfaction with the 10-year-old Labor government in London and overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq, is vowing to try to end the union if it wins, pledging to seek a referendum on independence by 2010.

Party leaders are waving the prospect of seizing billions of dollars of North Sea oil revenue and turning this hilly region of 5 million people into a prosperous and independent northern European state, like Norway and Finland, with England as a neighbor within the European Union.

Enough Scots are buying it -- recent polls show the SNP ahead -- that leaders of both the Labor and Conservative parties are pulling out the stops and combing Scotland to convince voters that they are citizens of Britain first.

Unionists and nationalists

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has called the election “a defining moment for Scotland,” just made his fifth trip to the north during the campaign. (The Scotsman newspaper said the prime minister “sounded like an ailing emperor paying a last visit to one of his satrapies.”)

Blair’s likely successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who grew up a few miles from here, has been warning fellow Scots of dire economic consequences if they listen to the siren songs of the SNP, hailing his own Britishness, and cheering for the English football team.

Unionists argue that the 300-year-old marriage has been a resounding success not just for Britain, but also for Scotland. The region’s employment rate and wages have been above the British average for most of the last four years; it has a booming financial services industry, joined at the hip with England.

“Nationalists conveniently forget that in 10 out of the 11 Scottish industry sectors, trade with the rest of the U.K. is a bigger market than all our trade with the rest of the world combined,” Brown told business leaders last week in Edinburgh, the regional capital.

SNP leaders say it’s time for a divorce.

“I say to my students, think of it as a marriage of convenience,” said David McCrone, a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. “In 1707, Scotland entered this marriage and got a lot out of it. It got access to the empire.... But of course, by the middle of the 20th century, there was no empire. The bargain disappeared.”

Many Scots drew a blank last year when Brown, the chancellor, proposed turning Remembrance Day, the equivalent of Memorial Day, into a new national day of patriotism to celebrate British history, “an expression of British ideas of standing firm for the world in the name of liberty.”

But is that what it really means to be British?

These days, many on both sides of the border have a hard time defining what “British” means. Does it mean you are able to use the National Health Service? That you get misty when they play “Rule Britannia?”

Many Scots have the impression that the English seem to have co-opted Britishness.

“I’ll tell you something that gets up the noses of Scots,” said Ross Vettraino, a local council candidate for the SNP in Glenrothes, not far from Kinghorn. “If you say to the typical English person, ‘What does the English flag look like?’ They’ll say, ‘It’s the Union Jack.’ Well the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland.

“If you ask them what the English national anthem is, they’ll say it’s ‘God Save the Queen.’ Well, it isn’t. They’re so bloody arrogant. The English think they are the United Kingdom.”

Alex Salmond, the urbane, combative leader of the SNP whose leadership team bears no resemblance to the kilts-and-whiskey set of the nationalist past, argues that Labor is defending a union in terms that are no longer relevant at a time when countries such as Latvia and Bulgaria are entering the European Union.

“Their vision of Britishness is narrow, bland and boring,” Salmond told supporters at his party’s conference in the fall.

At party headquarters last week, a buzzing warren of offices on a side street in Edinburgh, SNP leaders were soothing worried voters with the message that an independence referendum is years down the road; even a positive vote for independence would merely open the door to years of negotiations, and possibly arbitration, SNP officials acknowledge.

Now, they said, is the time for ousting the Labor-led government in Edinburgh, elected as part of the limited autonomy given Scotland under its “devolved” government since 1999.

Scotland’s proportional election laws make it nearly impossible for any party to grab a strong majority. More likely, the winning party will have to govern in coalition with another. The SNP promises that it will, if given the chance, seek more control over taxes and services for the Scottish Parliament, and will ask for a review of the billions of dollars in North Sea oil revenue that flows out of Scotland into the British treasury.

“The problem in Scotland is not how bad things are. It’s how much better they should be,” said Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s justice spokesman. “We want to be represented ourselves in the U.N. Fundamentally, we want to decide if our young men will die in a war.”

Salmond likes to remind the English that they will be gaining a “good neighbor” if Scotland departs, even as they lose “a surly lodger.”

English enthusiastic

Many of the English, it seems, are ready to be persuaded, fed up with perceived subsidies pouring from the Westminster treasury into Scotland and increasingly suspicious of the substantial number of Scots in the Cabinet, including Blair and Brown. Londoners periodically grumble that they don’t want to be “ruled by Scots.” Indeed, in some polls, England is more enthusiastic about Scottish independence than Scotland.

The SNP, which has 25 seats in the Scottish Parliament to Labor’s 50 -- the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats each have 17 -- has picked up seat after seat on local councils across Scotland in by-elections since 2005. Kay, the nationalists’ candidate here in Kinghorn, took a seat that year that with a brief hiatus had been held by a Laborite for more than 20 years. Now, he’s running for a full term.

“We’re a small branch of the party. We have only 22 members in this constituency. And in the last two months, we’ve gained five new members, and that has never happened in a campaign before,” said Kay, 62, who once worked as a manager at the local clothing manufacturing plant.

Plying a windy neighborhood of neat homes on the edge of a luminous yellow field of rapeseed, Kay got two welcome expressions of support for every door shut politely in his face.

“The only way we’re going to make a change is to get Labor out,” Kenneth Gilroy, a 37-year-old explosives engineer in the nearby quarry, told Kay. “We’ve got a number of very depressing social problems. There’s growing poverty in Scotland, and diminishing opportunities for a lot of people, particularly young people. The Labor Party’s had 10 years to make a difference, and they’ve done nothing. The SNP seems to have some kind of vision for the future.”

Down the road in Glenrothes, SNP candidate Vettraino said he was amazed by the support he was finding in local canvassing.

“Fife has been Labor-controlled for almost 40 years, and they think they can do anything and get reelected. Well, they’ve got a surprise coming,” Vettraino said.

He tells residents they aren’t casting a vote for independence by supporting the SNP. They’re giving the party a chance to run things better, he says, and, in a few years, letting themselves vote on independence.

“Labor, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all saying to Scotland, ‘You’re not getting independence. It’s not good for you,’ ” he said. “Well, the Scottish people will decide what’s good for them.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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