EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Supporters of independence for Scotland will launch on Friday what they say is the biggest grassroots campaign in Scottish history, a move that could result in the demise of a 305-year-old union with England and the breakup of Britain.
Seeking to tap into a cocktail of historical rivalry, opposing political tastes, and a perception that the British parliament in London does not nurture Scotland’s national interests, the “Yes Scotland” campaign says it wants to win a referendum on independence in 2014 and for the country to become fully independent by 2016.
“For the first time the issue is real because people are going to have a vote,” a spokesman for the campaign, who said he could not be named in line with protocol, told Reuters.
“People are more open to this than they have ever been before. It is fundamentally better for our future if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care about it the most.”
If successful, such a move could create serious problems for Britain - which comprises England, Scotland and Wales (Britain is in turn part of the United Kingdom which also includes Northern Ireland).
Britain’s Trident nuclear submarine fleet is based in Scotland, revenues from Scottish North Sea oil remain important to its coffers, and analysts say Britain would find it harder to maintain its voice at international bodies such as the U.N. Security Council as well as in European Union decision-making.
“The biggest issue for the UK is defence,” Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde said in a phone interview. “The question would be whether an independent Scotland would allow the UK to maintain its nuclear facilities there.”
Despite its relatively small population of just over five million - compared to England’s population of just over 52 million - a vote for Scottish independence inevitably would diminish Britain’s voice on the world stage, he added.
“The rest of the world would be surprised and shocked that the UK was unable to hold together. It would not be perceived to be as big a player as it is now. Its weight in the world would be diminished.”
Opinion polls show that around 40 percent of Scottish people are sympathetic to independence, with around 10 percent undecided and the remaining 50 percent opposed. South of the border in England, polls show people are largely apathetic.
The independence drive is being led by Alex Salmond, the feisty leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). His party won a majority in Scottish elections last year and under the country’s devolved system of government, it has control over health, education and prisons.
The British government in London controls foreign policy and defence. Yet Scotland has many of the trappings of an independent nation - its own flag, sports teams, culture and a history of achievements in science and literature.
Salmond wants Scotland to have its own armed forces and foreign policy and rejects a nuclear submarine facility based close to Glasgow.
The SNP-backed launch of the Yes Scotland campaign will take place at a conference centre on Friday in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and will be attended by pro-independence celebrities whose names have not been revealed.
One of Scotland’s most high-profile celebrity supporters of independence is Sean Connery, famous for his cinematic depiction of British secret service agent James Bond. The same campaign spokesman declined to confirm whether Connery would attend.
Waiting for a bus on Edinburgh’s George Street, an elegant thoroughfare littered with statues dating back to the heyday of the British Empire, 27-year-old bank worker Gregor Low said he would be voting for independence.
“There has always been a romantic notion of Scotland wanting its independence,” he said. Praising the SNP and deriding the Conservative party which is locked in an increasingly unpopular British coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party, he said Scottish people felt removed from London.
“How can (Prime Minister) David Cameron or (Finance Minister) George Osborne know anything about the realities of life in Scotland?”
Edinburgh reflects the nation’s complex history. It is home to the most tangible symbol of Scotland’s thirst for greater independence: the ultra-modern Scottish parliament building.
But ironically, it is also home to an array of British imperial monuments built to commemorate the significant role Scotland played in the Empire alongside England.
History runs deep in Scotland and, symbolically, the independence referendum will be held on the 700th anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn in which an army commanded by England’s King Edward II was roundly defeated at the hands of a smaller force led by Robert the Bruce, a source of enduring pride for Scottish patriots.
The Yes Scotland campaign says it aims to go door to door in an effort to try to persuade people to sign a “Yes Declaration”.
Harry Reid, an author and journalist who has followed Scottish politics since 1969, said the Labour party, traditionally strong in Scotland, had seen its supporters switch to the SNP in recent years.
That is crucial as Scotland historically is more inclined to vote for the left, whereas English voters have voted in much larger numbers for the right, underscoring a political fault line between north and south.
Furious at what they saw as former prime minister Tony Blair’s support of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Reid said disenchanted Labour voters may yet return to the fold.
If they do - in sufficiently large numbers ahead of a British general election in 2015 - the “yes” campaign would be buried, he said.
“If we’re going to get a decent Labour government back in 2015 people might wonder whether they really need independence.”
Additional reporting by Ian MacKenzie; Editing by Michael Roddy