He's played James Bond and a posse of other toughs. But for real conviction try Sean Connery in his role as diehard Scottish nationalist. No heroics, just a 68-year-old in an ill-fitting tweed jacket, beating the Braveheart drum in front of a few hundred invited sympathizers. "My position on Scotland has never changed in 30-odd years," the former Edinburgh milkman declared to a rally in the city last week. "Scotland should be nothing less than equal with the other nations of the world." In plain terms: the Scots deserve independence from their fellow Brits.
If so, this is their best chance in centuries to start unshackling. Elections to Scotland's first national Parliament in nearly 300 years are due this week. And the separatist Scottish National Party--with some financial backing from Connery--looks set to capture more than 30 percent of the vote. Granted, that's a long way short of total victory. But party leader Alex Salmond is convinced that the real prize will one day be his: "The destination of Scotland is already settled: an independent country within the European context. The argument in this election is really about the time scale."
Chest-beating election talk? Maybe, but the United Kingdom is fragmenting fast. Voters in Wales also go to the polls this week to elect their own assembly. To the Labour strategists who promised home rule at the last election, the pledge meant no more than a limited transfer of power to satisfy the yearnings of their own supporters, especially in Scotland. But to plenty of Scots the election is just one more step in an inexorable progress. "The big change in the last few years is that independence is now a serious policy option," says John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Glasgow. "The debate is not about how Scotland can re-create itself as a 19th-century nation-state but how it can position itself against the world."
Salmond can take much of the credit. Since becoming leader of his party in 1990, the 44-year-old economist has worked hard to recast its image. Forget the Celts-in-kilts stuff. The SNP is now a "social democrat party that wants Scotland to join the community of nations... as an economically enterprising independent state."
Yet the SNP has botched its campaign. Last year the "Nats" were running neck-and-neck with Labour, their only serious rivals north of the border. That was before the party pledged to scrap tax cuts offered by the government and spend the cash on public service. Then Salmond denounced the NATO war on Yugoslavia as "an act of unpardonable folly." Perhaps as a result, ratings sagged. In today's Britain, there are few votes in tax hikes or softness on Serbia. The smart money now predicts that the Parliament and new executive will be controlled by a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
To an extent, that would be a reversion to type. Scotland has traditionally shown a deep red on the political map. And two years into its term, the Labour government's popularity has shown no sign of flagging. True, the drift toward the center of Tony Blair's party and its slick London habits has tested some Scottish loyalties. But old instincts die hard. Canvassing a longshot inner-city constituency on a damp evening, Tory candidate Michael Fry admits the problem. "You can argue and argue for hours. In the end they will agree with your arguments on the doorstep--and then vote Labour."
But a vote for Labour isn't necessarily a vote against eventual independence. Polls suggest that up to half the electorate is happy with the idea. Says Edinburgh pensioner Bill Jikes, watching work on the new Parliament building, a futuristic, boat-shaped structure under construction opposite Holyroodhouse, the royal palace: "I'm not against independence: we consider ourselves Scottish not British. But now I'd rather have Labour in charge." Much will depend on the performance of the new Parliament, whose 129 members will have powers over health, education and housing, together with some limited ability to levy taxes. But responsibility for defense, foreign affairs and macroeconomic policy will stay in London. Labour insists that's quite enough: Nationalists reckon the new powers will just whet the appetite for more.
Can Scotland really go it alone? It looks a stronger candidate than many other would-be independent nations. It never lost such badges of statehood as its own education and judicial systems. More important, it's no economic slouch. The Nats like to claim that an independent Scotland would rank as the world's seventh-richest country. In the postindustrial age, a place on Europe's outer rim is no bar to prosperity; look at Ireland. Clusters of high-tech incomers are dotted across "Silicon Glen"--a coast-to-coast strip of central Scotland--replacing some of the jobs lost through the death of the old metal-bashing industries. The 18th- century squares and terraces of Edinburgh house one of Europe's largest financial-service industries, and the North Sea oil fields have plenty more to yield. Hardheaded Scots are unconvinced. Labour's loud warnings that radical change would scare away business has hit home, says Simon Braunholtz of opinion pollsters MORI Scotland. Voters may like to flirt with the idea of independence but turn nervous when the chance to vote is offered.
Still, the union has already lost much of its old charm. The Scots--or at least, a parcel of rogues among them--may have been bamboozled into the 1707 pact by generous bribes from London. But in the glory days of empire, the union made rough sense. Scots troops manned the frontier; Scots bankers funded the plantations; flinty, Presbyterian Scots merchants enjoyed the empire's markets. ("They kept the Sabbath--and anything else they could lay their hands on," as old Asia hands said of the Scots.)
But with the end of empire the old marriage of convenience lost some of its charm. Especially when Scots found that they were married to Margaret Thatcher. Sink-or-swim economics offered little to a country then burdened with plenty of no-hope heavy industries. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP candidate in the old shipbuilding redoubt of Govan, joined the party at age 16, midway through the Thatcher years. "The one thing that all Scots agree on is that Thatcher--and all she brought with her--must never be allowed to happen again."
The Thatcher years also fed an ancient undercurrent of Anglophobia. Mostly, it's "90-minute nationalism" that surfaces only during football or rugby matches. But one in six Scots admits to disliking the English. An iconic poster from the mid '90s shows a shaggy, broadsword-toting Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," the Hollywood take on the story of William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish freedom fighter. Life can be especially tough on kids of settlers from the South who keep an English accent. "I have to sit in class and listen to my so-called friends state very clearly how much they hate the English," says Edinburgh teenager Louise Reynolds, describing an antiracism class.
It's an animosity that baffles the English. With the typical blindness of the big neighbor they can't quite see the trouble. After all, Scots run the Labour government. The difficulty, perhaps, is that the English have never understood how the Scots see themselves. Says Mark Jones, an Englishman who runs the new Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh: "The Scots don't think they are basically English. But in the past the English have often seen the Scots as a funny kind of English people."
The irony, of course, is that the English, thoroughly mongrelized as they are, have not a clue what their own national identity might be. Last month the Sun urged its English readers to celebrate St. George's Day, and to mark the occasion published 100 reasons "why it's great to be English." Topping the list was the Queen Mother. She's a Scot.