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Opinion | For Scotland, Independence Will Always Be an Option

In 1469, Margaret, the daughter of the king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, married King James III of Scotland. Her father could not afford to pay the dowry in cash and so pledged his island archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland as security. Three years later the dowry was still unpaid, and James III called in the debt.

The islands, about 30 miles north of the Scottish mainland, have been part of Scotland ever since. Part of it, but distinct: Both Orkney and Shetland have long considered the government in Edinburgh almost as remote as that in London.

So it wasn’t a complete shock here when, this summer, the Orkney Islands local authority approved a motion to explore “options for greater subsidiarity and autonomy” and “Nordic connections.” Reporters breathlessly pondered the possibility that the islands would soon swap rule from Edinburgh and London for Oslo.

In reality, no such constitutional rearrangement is likely, or even really desired. Orkney’s oblique overtures to Norway are, as odd as it sounds, further evidence that the United Kingdom’s integrity is more secure than it has been in a long time.

The bloom is truly off the Scottish National Party, which has continued to dominate political life here in the almost decade since it lost the independence referendum. The party has held majorities in the devolved Parliament and in the Scottish seats at Westminster, and a volley of opinion polls, routinely reporting that Scots under the age of 49 favor independence, bolstered the sense that Scottish independence was a historical inevitability. Time, the nationalists argued, was on their side.

The last year has been a chastening experience.

In February, Nicola Sturgeon, first minister since 2014, unexpectedly announced her resignation and was almost immediately embroiled in a scandal over the party’s financial affairs. In June, she was arrested and released without charge pending further investigation. But news reports continue to suggest that she and her husband, the party’s former chief executive, might be charged. Ms. Sturgeon insists that she is innocent of any wrongdoing.

But even before the allegations, Ms. Sturgeon’s plans for independence had run out of steam. The first minister had wanted to hold a second referendum but did not have the British government’s approval, and Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in November that the Scottish Parliament could not hold a referendum unilaterally. At first, Ms. Sturgeon argued that the next general election, expected next year, would instead serve as a de facto referendum — if her party won a majority of votes cast in Scotland, it would start negotiating Scotland’s way out of the United Kingdom.

The plan was unworkable. Even if the Scottish National Party won more than 50 percent of the vote it still had no legal mechanism to require the British government to accept its interpretation of the result. And if it failed, it would have had its second referendum, and lost.

The energy and momentum that had sustained the party’s remarkable decade started to drain away. Support for the nationalists has dropped by around 10 points since December, and recent polls suggest that the party, which won 48 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies at the last general election, could lose as many as 20 to a resurgent Labour Party at the next one. (Ms. Sturgeon’s lackluster successor, Humza Yousaf, has not revitalized the movement.)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Scotland voted against Brexit in 2016 while Britain — chiefly England — opted to leave. Ms. Sturgeon convincingly argued in the aftermath that Scotland was a hostage in an unequal union from which it was denied any means of escape.

But Brexit has proved a cautionary misadventure. If exiting the European Union has been more complicated than its supporters advertised, then unraveling the more than 300-year-old Act of Union would be fiendishly difficult. If Brexit proved a glide path to relative national impoverishment, Scottish independence might also — at least in the short to medium term — deliver much less than its boosters promise. And if Britain erecting trade barriers with its largest market, the European Union, was an act of economic self-harm, then how can anyone argue that raising them between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is otherwise?

In short, Brexit simplified the political argument for independence, but complicated its practical delivery. Scottish nationalism is a matter of utility; it must deliver a better, more prosperous future. “Freedom” will not suffice.

It’s also worth noting that a decade of constitutional drama has left people exhausted. Polling confirms that Scots accept a second independence referendum as an abstract matter for some undetermined date, but recoil from a referendum soon.

A battle postponed, then, but not conceded. The idea of Scottish independence will always have an emotional resonance and, if all other matters were equal, re-establishing a distinct Scottish state might enjoy majority support. On occasions it has done so, and even recently around 40 percent of Scots still supported independence, at least as a notional proposition. As the novelist John Buchan once put it, “I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist.”

But as Buchan, a unionist, also knew, it’s possible to be a Scottish nationalist without embracing independence. Scottish nationalism lies on a spectrum and even unionist politicians and voters often consider themselves guardians of the Scottish interest, albeit within the United Kingdom.

For the moment at least, Orkney — and the rest of Scotland — will remain in Britain but not altogether of Britain: Scottish but with no urgent need for the accouterments and unknowable complications of an independent state. The settled will of the Scottish people is to remain a profoundly unsettled people.

Alex Massie is a columnist for The Times of London.



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