After 2000 - The March to Independence
When historians look back on the beginning of the 21st century and study Scotland, the subject will surely be the question of independence. This article explores how Scotland changed after 1997 as it moved from being seemingly a firm advocate of the union towards an increasingly excitement and enthusiasm for greater independence.
Since the year 2000, Scotland has grown increasingly dominated by one large question: should Scotland be an independent sovereign nation state. Although the Scottish electorate decided in 2014 to remain a part of the United Kingdom by 55% to 45%, that same referendum had the effect of transforming both Scottish politics as well as Scotland's own sense of its identity and its place in the world.
You can trace the march towards independence back to the early 20th century, but the pivotal change was the establishment of a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh after 1997. This had a number of effects: it gave Scotland a taste of political independence and arguably a taste for political independence, it began to introduce the tools and levers of power to Scotland's politicians and perhaps most importantly it brought those politicians to the wider notice of the Scottish electorate. For so long Scottish people had been told that they were too small to be an independent state and it could be argued that Scottish people did not trust themselves with such a responsibility. There are two more important reasons why it took such a long time before there was a constitutional referendum: the dominant political party in Scotland, the Labour Party had always clung to an internationalist outlook which saw the struggle as being not a domestic question but part of the wider experience of the United Kingdom. In that sense the Scottish Labour Party was first and foremost the Labour Party and then only second hourly Scottish. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the SNP, the Scottish Nationalist party had always felt that devolution was an unnecessary stepping stone towards wider independence and therefore they had always refused to support calls for a devolutionary settlement. Their decision in 1997 to support the foundation of a Scottish parliament marked a change in their strategy.
Politics in Scotland has been marked by a slow but steady erosion in support for the Scottish Labour Party and growing support and indeed excitement for the SNP. In 1997, the largest party in the Scottish Parliament was the Labour Party. The 2007 Scottish Parliament election changed the balance of power, making the SNP the largest single party in the Parliament, although they did not hold an overall majority and were required to form a coalition with other parties including the Scottish Conservative party. In the 2007 SNP manifesto there was a commitment to holding a referendum on independence before 2010. However none of their coalition partners in the Parliament were prepared to support and independence bill and therefore they were unable to pass it during that session.
The 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election gave the SNP and overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the leader of the Scottish Nationalist party, Alex Salmond announced a desire to hold a referendum in the second half of the Parliament. The 2014 referendum drew global attention to Scotland with many commenting on the passionate advocacy of the independent lobby and their successful use of social media and community-based organisation. All the main United Kingdom political parties opposed independence but as it would transpire, a coalition of the Labour and Tory party was to have a devastating impact on the Scottish Labour Party. For many Scots, the Conservative party remained a daemon held responsible for the demolition of Scotland's economy in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. It seemed impossible that the Labour Party could share a platform with the hated Tories.
The Scottish electorate may have voted no in the referendum but it has become apparent that there was still a ground swell of support for meaningful change and the sense that Scotland is distinctive and different was clearly expressed in the United Kingdom general election of May 2015 when the SNP 156 of the 59 constituencies in the Westminster Parliament. Those victories demonstrated that the slow collapse of Scottish Labour over the course of 15 years had reached a dramatic tipping point with the Labour Party losing a remarkable 40 of their seats in Scotland
At the time of the referendum the leader of the Scottish Nationalist party had stated that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, the extraordinary up swell in support for the SNP could well lead to new demands for a second independence referendum in the next few years.