'Braveheart" will have his revenge. That's how some fervent Scottish nationalists will portray the announcement last week that the British government has approved a referendum on whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old formal union with England. Meeting in Edinburgh, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Alex Salmond, Scotland's pro-independence first minister, agreed that residents of Scotland -- including 16- and 17-year olds -- would decide the issue in a 2014 plebiscite.
For Americans, schooled by the outcome of our Civil War to consider secession unthinkable, the willingness of the British government to see itself potentially dismembered is remarkable. But there is a precedent: In 1993 Prime Minister John Major declared that Britain would not object if a majority of the people of Northern Ireland someday voted to leave the United Kingdom and unite with the Republic of Ireland. And it was widely recognized that Parliament put the issue of Scottish independence on the table in 1998 when it approved legislation creating a "devolved" Scottish Parliament. (Similar regional legislatures exist in Wales and Northern Ireland.) In 2011 Salmond's Scottish National Party won a majority in that Parliament and has pressed for a referendum on independence.
Current polls suggest that independence would lose if the referendum were held today. But suppose Scots did vote to secede. Would it make a dramatic difference in their daily lives or in Scotland's political and economic relationships? With apologies to William Wallace, the answer is: probably not. (Independence would have a dramatic effect on what was left of the United Kingdom, however, because the departure of Scottish representatives from the Parliament in London would weaken the Labor party.)
Scotland, whose 5.2 million residents account for less than a tenth of Britain's population, already enjoys significant autonomy and was never subjected to the extent of oppression visited upon Ireland. It maintains distinct legal and educational systems as well as its own established (Presbyterian) church. Advocates for independence envision the uninterrupted operation of the Scottish branch of the National Health Service, and they insist that an independent Scotland would recognize the queen of England as its titular head of state, as Canada and Australia do. As one nationalist put it, an independent Scotland would still have "a British dimension as well" -- perhaps including the continued use of the British pound as an alternative to the euro.
And while Scotland would have its own ambassadors, advocates of independence say it would remain part of the European Union, which is increasingly pursuing a common foreign policy. In a dramatic change from its previous policy, the Scottish National Party on Friday agreed that an independent Scotland should be part of the NATO military alliance, though party leaders say membership would be conditioned on the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from a Scottish naval base. (How other members of NATO would react to such a policy is another question.)
Arguably the most important difference would be that an independent Scotland would be master of its own economy and natural resources. Control over revenues from North Sea oil long has been a rallying cry for Scottish nationalists, and some analysts believe that, in the short term, increased oil revenues would compensate for the loss of subsidies from London. As oil supplies are depleted, however, independence could become less of a bargain.
Of course, national identity can't be measured entirely in pounds and pence. The reality is that Scotland already is a society unto itself as well as part of an interdependent Europe in which national independence just isn't what it used to be. Neither state of affairs would be changed by a formal declaration of independence. That may explain why a poll published after last week's announcement showed that 58% of Scots who planned to vote in the referendum supported the union while only 30% favored independence.
The willingness of the British government to allow Scots to decide to leave is a historic development. Even more historic would be a decision by Braveheart's heirs to stay where they are.