EDINBURGH, Scotland (Reuters) - Holding court in Edinburgh castle surrounded by sabers and armor from centuries-old battles with the English, Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond sets out his plans to fight for freedom by the ballot box rather than the sword.
Peppering his arguments with references to Scotland’s 18th century national poet Robert Burns, on whose birthday this week he
launched his referendum bid, Salmond portrayed the end of Scotland’s 300-year union with a dominant England as inevitable, and the idea of a United Kingdom as anachronistic.
Having stolen a march on a complacent British political establishment last year by winning an overall majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Salmond wants a referendum in 2014 that would allow a historic breakaway for the nation of 5.2 million.
The British government opposes the move and wants to force a swift vote before the canny Salmond can build momentum for change.
Salmond, a 57-year-old former oil industry economist, has a keen sense of history and symbolism.
He chose Edinburgh castle, a fortress that dominates the Scottish capital’s skyline from its rocky perch on an extinct volcano, to sell his case to the international press.
“It was in this venue, Edinburgh castle, that the first ... old Scots parliament was held almost 900 years ago,” Salmond said. The castle was also the site of numerous bloody battles between Scots and the English.
“It does stress the continuity of Scotland as a Scottish nation stretching back over 1,000 years of independence before the Acts of Union of 1707,” he added, painting Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom as a historic aberration.
Still, with support for outright independence running at 30 to 40 percent he has a tough battle ahead to convince skeptical Scots, of whom some have almost as many misgivings about Salmond as they do about independence.
The British government says only it has the right to give Salmond the power to hold a binding referendum, and then only with conditions, including on the questions asked. Government officials are due to meet Salmond to try to reach a compromise.
At stake are British oil reserves in the North Sea to which Edinburgh is a gateway. Salmond claims Scotland is entitled to 90 percent of them.
Debates over how Britain would divide up its debt and its military and what it would do with its nuclear weapons, currently based in Scotland but which the SNP vows would have no place there after independence, are already bitter and fraught.
Britain also faces a loss of political and economic clout, while the loss of Scotland would redraw the political map, ironically to the advantage of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, who are almost extinct north of the border but oppose independence.
Other European countries with separatist movements, such as Spain, are watching Scotland’s progress closely.
For Salmond and the SNP, independence is about equality and fulfilling Scotland’s potential. Scotland deserves to have equal status among world nations, and while doing well economically now, it would do much better alone, the SNP says.
A separate Scotland would have more power to improve its economy and would be able to better argue its case in the European Union. It would control where it sends soldiers to fight, say party officials who consider the Iraq war illegal.
“We will be able to make Scotland the country we all know it can be -- a wealthier, fairer nation,” Salmond said on Wednesday.
He quoted Burns’ famous poem on equality, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, to mock members of the British parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, for, as he saw it, bossing Scotland about.
“The man of independent mind, he looks and laughs at a‘that,” he told Scotland’s parliament on Wednesday.
Salmond wants a ballot in late 2014, when he would be able to ride a wave of nationalist sentiment on the 700th anniversary of the historic Battle of Bannockburn, a victory over the English, and the more modern feel-good factor of hosting the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup sporting events.
The SNP leader has accused Cameron and other London-based parties of trying to “bully and intimidate” the Scots into an early vote, playing into a long-standing sense of Scottish irritation with their larger English neighbor.
“I‘m leaning more towards independence mainly because of the actions of the Conservative government in Westminster,” said Malcolm Jones, 47, an Edinburgh IT manager.
So far, unionist politicians appear uncoordinated and have done little to check Salmond’s momentum. No unionist spokesperson has emerged among the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats, Britain’s main political parties.
The SNP has portrayed their attempts to highlight the risks and disadvantages of Scottish independence as scaremongering and proof England thinks Scots are “too poor, too stupid, too peripheral” to stand alone, the SNP’s campaign manager said.
Unionist politicians are now trying a different tack.
“What we have to do is make a positive case for Britain. I‘m very clear that Scotland is better off in one of the most enduring and successful unions across the world,” Scottish Conservative party leader Ruth Davidson told Reuters.
“We have to show that we walk taller, shout louder, stand firmer for being part of the United Kingdom .... most of Scotland agrees with me,” she added, before going on to list Anglo-Scots military, scientific and cultural achievements.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont wants to ensure Salmond, who led the SNP to a landslide election victory last May, does not assume the mantle of spokesman for Scotland.
“This is not a country oppressed by the English, seeking liberation, with Alex Salmond the man to do it,” she said, speaking at the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, which faces Holyrood Palace, the British Queen’s residence in Scotland.
The crowns of Scotland and England were unified in 1603 by a Scottish king, James VI, upon his accession to England’s throne. The two countries’ parliaments were unified about a century later by the Acts of Union in 1707.
Some consider Salmond one of Britain’s most talented politicians and Scotland’s best advocate.
Others brand him a slippery demagogue set on exploiting old grievances between Scotland and England.
Even in Salmond’s home town of Linlithgow in central Scotland, supporters of Salmond’s cause are hard to find.
“I don’t want independence. I don’t like the SNP and I don’t like Salmond. He’s arrogant and smug,” said retiree Fred Orr, 77, the first person interviewed by this reporter in Linlithgow, but voicing what were to become familiar misgivings.
“They say they got in with a big majority, but a big majority never voted. They’re a flash in the pan,” he added, speaking on a chilly day round the corner from ornate Linlithgow palace, birthplace of 16th century ruler Mary Queen of Scots.
Many Scots struggle to see how they are at a disadvantage within the United Kingdom.
Britain’s previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown is Scottish, as is former finance minister Alistair Darling, while Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair was born in Scotland and educated there. Current leader Cameron also has Scottish ancestry.
Scots, who represent about eight percent of Britain’s population of 62 million, currently hold several key posts in the UK government and at many other British institutions, while the BBC has a dedicated Scottish Gaelic channel, BBC Alba, for the small minority of Scots who speak the language.
“Why should we be independent, apart from the Braveheart reason?,” said Glasgow student Mungo Hay, 20, referring to a 1995 film about a 13th century warrior who fought for Scottish independence, stirring renewed interest in Scotland’s history.
Some Scots feel they are getting a good deal out of a devolution arrangement that set up a Scottish parliament in 1999.
Scotland has its own legal system, and the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh has the power to legislate on a range of issues, including health, education and law and order.
In some areas, Scots fare better than other Britons, such as free university tuition for Scots at Scottish universities. Medical prescriptions are also free in Scotland, unlike England.
Salmond plans to continue to use Britain’s sterling currency, but expects Scotland to control all decisions about debt and spending, raising the specter of a mismatch between fiscal and currency union that has contributed to the eurozone crisis.
Salmond also expects the Bank of England to remain Scotland’s lender of last resort, bailing out Scottish banks if they hit trouble.
The problem for the SNP is that the British government, also citing experts, disputes almost every one of Salmond’s claims, and much of the public is not convinced either.
“We find ourselves in a position where we have to balance up assertions from one group of politicians against those of another group of politicians,” said Owen Kelly head of Scottish Financial Enterprise financial services industry body.
The SNP’s push for independence has stirred misgivings among some who view the party as monopolizing Scottish identity.
Howie Nicholsby, an Edinburgh kiltmaker who has dressed stars including Robbie Williams and Lenny Kravitz, worries that the SNP’s brand of nationalism may turn Scotland’s welcoming, international outlook into a jingoistic, inward-looking one.
“There’s plenty of room in the union to be a Scottish Brit. Or a British Scot. However you want it,” he told Reuters at his 21st Century Kilts shop in central Edinburgh, speaking in front of a photo of his designs by fashion photographer Mario Testino.
Others, seeing the SNP plans to hold the referendum in the anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn, fear the SNP may be exploiting historical grievances with the English.
“I‘m a bit worried by a split with England becoming inflammatory. I wouldn’t like to see us becoming a nation of English haters,” said Dumfries newsagent Steven Moodycliffe, 48.
Asked by Reuters whether Burns would have supported Scottish independence, Salmond said he thought the poet would have liked the idea of the referendum plan being launched on his birthday.
At the house in Dumfries in which Burns died and where he wrote some of his most memorable poetry, the museum attendant was not sure what Burns would have thought about independence.
“He was certainly a nationalist, but whether he wanted to be completely free I don’t know,” said Donald MacLachlan, who has worked at Dumfries museums for 25 years. “It all depends on the circumstances. Maybe Scotland couldn’t have gone it alone in those days? Perhaps these days we can’t either?”
When pressed, MacLachlan said that Burns probably would have backed the SNP’s cause, unlike himself.
“The idea of independence is nice, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to split one big country into lots of smaller ones. From a nationalistic point of view it’s good, but we all need a little help,” he said.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas.