Par Doug Saunders
These are heady days on the streets of Edinburgh, where the blue-and-white flags of Scotland seem to adorn every building.
On Tuesday, Scotland marked 300 years of peaceful union with Britain, and Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that he'd be stepping down soon and "a Scot" - Finance Minister Gordon Brown - will become leader of Britain.
Today, Scots vote in an election that could decide whether their country is to launch itself on a path toward secession from Britain. Polls show the contest is down to the wire, both an outpouring of tartan pride and an angry blow aimed at Mr. Blair.
At stake is not just the future of Scotland, but the whole idea of regional semi-autonomy, which for the past decade has been the key tool in Mr. Blair's political arsenal against more extreme forms of nationalism, and a popular idea throughout Europe.
The Scottish National Party, in the lead in the final days of the campaign, has promised to introduce a secession bill within 100 days of taking office and to hold a referendum on sovereignty in 2010.
"The SNP have a crucial investment in success for Scotland, for it is by the SNP demonstrating success in government that the people of Scotland will vote for independence in the referendum that we propose for 2010," SNP leader Alex Salmond, 42, declared in a speech yesterday. Mr. Salmond argues that oil-rich Scotland could rival Norway if only it were cast loose from the chains of Westminster.
Yesterday, dozens of prominent Labour Party ministers came up from London, as they have regularly for the past several months, in a desperate and increasingly frantic-sounding bid to prevent the SNP from winning the largest number of seats - a humiliating final defeat for Mr. Blair in his last weeks of office.
"From day one, an SNP government will be committed to the referendum, or separation from day one, that will be their aim," Mr. Blair told voters at an Edinburgh rally. "That will be what they are working for. From day one, the chaos and instability will start. The truth is that the politics of nationalism is just bad politics, it divides people, it pits people against one another."
But Mr. Blair's unpopularity over the Iraq war, the expansion of Britain's nuclear program and the continuing blight of Scotland's underperforming economy have driven many voters away from Mr. Blair's Labour Party and into the hands of the SNP.
A poll released yesterday by ICM Research showed 34 per cent of Scottish voters supporting the SNP and 32 per cent backing Labour. The centrist Liberal Democrats, who could form a coalition with either party, attracted 16 per cent, while the Conservatives, who would be unlikely to govern alongside either party, got 13 per cent.
While the separatists hold a slim lead, it is less clear that their voters are in favour of Scottish independence. The same poll indicated that only 38 per cent would definitely vote Yes in a referendum for Scottish independence, while 55 per cent would vote No. And 56 per cent said that independence would not make Scotland richer.
Analysts said the vote, in Scotland's proportional-representation system, could take well into tomorrow to be counted and that it could take weeks to negotiate a governing coalition.
A kingdom united no more?
A tense vote begins today, one which could lead to Scotland's separation from Britain
Écosse et indépendance
Par Doug Saunders