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Crowns, Beheadings, Rebellions—Bone Up on the History of Scottish Independence Before Next Week’s Referendum

A vote that could change the direction of Scotland’s future is a little over a week away

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In a little over a week, people living in Scotland will head to the polls to answer a question that will determine the trajectory of their country’s future. A referendum on independence—anticipated for years—is finally happening. Scotland’s residents are aligning themselves into one of two simple camps: "Yes" or "No."

The idea of independence is a heady one, and to understand the push, it makes sense to understand a bit of the history. 

First, take a look at some of the terms used. CGP Grey has this great video explaining the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England. (Watch it to get a full understanding of the geographical nuance.) The basic takeaway is this: Scotland is currently a part of the political entity that is the United Kingdom, and the geographical/political entity that is Great Britain. But it is definitely NOT a part of England. 

There is a long history of enmity between England and Scotland that stretches back centuries. Skipping some of the earliest back-and-forths, begin with this: Starting in the early 1300s, when Robert the Bruce essentially kicked the English out of Scotland, Scotland had been an independent nation. Then, in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died without children, leaving the crown to James VI of Scotland, uniting the crowns of the two countries.

The union of the crowns came after a long period of high tension between England and Scotland. Sixteen years earlier, Elizabeth had ordered the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, who also happened to be James’ mother—and Elizabeth’s cousin.

The rest of the government was united just over a century later in the Act of Union in 1707. Ostensibly, the act combined the parliaments of the two nations, creating the political entity of Great Britain and moving the seat of power to London.

Having power concentrated in a city far from where the Scottish people lived didn’t go over all that well, though, and in 1745, James VI’s exiled great-grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, tried to claim his family's sovereignty over Scotland and England. The rebellion was crushed at the battle of Culloden in 1746. This series of events led to heavy restrictions placed on the Scottish people by the British government. 

And that was that, for about two centuries. But some people in Scotland never quite gave up on having an independent Scotland. In 1934, the Scottish National Party was founded with the goal of making Scotland independent again and, over the next decades, it gradually gained votes and influence. 

In 1997, a referendum took place. Scottish voters voted in favor of a devolution of powers. In practice, that mean that, although it was still part of the United Kingdom, Scotland gained authority over its healthcare, agriculture, tourism, law and order, and many other aspects of governance. It also had own Parliament for the first time since 1707. London kept control of powers including defense, foreign policy, energy, and social security.

That's how the situation stands today. Next week, Scottish voters will decided whether they want complete self-governance. 

The race is close. Poll numbers from last week reflected that 39 percent of voters were in the “No” camp and 38 percent planned on voting "Yes." With such a close race, both sides are issuing heartfelt pleas from politicians, celebrities, and more celebrities. Media campaigns on both sides are in full swing. The Queen has remained decidedly impartial.  

If the "Yes" camp wins next week, Scotland will have full autonomy for the first time since the Kingdoms were united in 1707, and Scottish citizens will have a lot of decisions to make about their future. But no matter what, it looks like historic changes are coming. Even if the "No" camp wins next week, legislators in London have said that even more powers will devolve onto the Scottish Parliament. The U.K. Parliament is even looking into allowing the other nations within the U.K. similar powers to those that Scotland was granted in 1997. 

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