As difficult as it may be to imagine the United Kingdom without Scotland, it's equally tough to envisage a Britain without the Scottish independence movement. Since before the ink had even dried on 1707's Act of Union, the clamour for dissolution has been rumbling on in the background. In May 2011, though, the movement's potency went up a notch. In Scotland's general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP), headed by Alex Salmond, won a landslide victory. Claiming 53 per cent of the vote and taking seats from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, the SNP became the first party ever to win a parliamentary majority in the Scottish Parliament. A cornerstone of the SNP's electoral manifesto was a referendum on Scottish independence, and they have until 2016, when the next general election is scheduled to take place, to deliver it.
The central government in London, however, has other ideas. The SNP may have been given a mandate, but they don't have the authority to hold a referendum - it must come from Westminster. A staunch defender of the union of Scotland and England, David Cameron is loath to go down in history as the prime minister who facilitated its abolition. In recent weeks, he has said that if the SNP wishes to hold a referendum, they must do it sooner rather than later - a sentiment that has been supported by both Labour and the Tories' coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has since withdrawn a demand that a referendum be held in the next 18 months, but is determined not to be dictated to from Holyrood. The SNP wants the vote to take place in autumn 2014, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce scored Scotland's greatest ever military victory over the English.
If a referendum was held tomorrow, it would be likely to return a "no" vote by a substantial majority. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI, a market research company, found that just 29 per cent of Scots support full independence. 54 per cent wish to stay in the Union - 6 per cent higher than the equivalent figure for England. By holding a referendum on the anniversary of a day of pride for nationalists, the SNP are hoping to take advantage of Scottish patriotic affection for their nation and its history. Building an entire campaign around it would be dangerous, though. On issues as big as independence, which will severely impact the lives of everyone in Scotland, people are more likely to listen to their heads than their hearts. The SNP needs to start articulating the benefits of living outside the Union to its electorate, otherwise they could face a heavy defeat.
A more popular alternative among Scottish voters is "devo-max". This option would see full fiscal autonomy transferred to Holyrood, enabling the Scottish government to set taxes. A poll conducted by Reform Scotland, a think-tank, found 90 per cent were in favour of this form of extended devolution. In order to make the most of their (probably only) shot at the prize, the SNP must find a way of harnessing this support for semi-independence and stretching it to the max, and they may have to do it sooner than they'd like to.