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Scotland's independence leader on how Margaret Thatcher helped Scottish nationalism

Scotland is currently gearing up for an independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, 2014. If it passes, independence advocates hope the country could become the world's newest nation as soon as 2016.

First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, is in Washington this week both to celebrate Scotland Week and to share his vision of what an independent Scotland would look like with American audiences -- including on Capitol Hill.

Of course, the timing of his visit also coincided with the death of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies -- notably the flat-rate "poll tax" passed in 1988 -- were particularly unpopular in Scotland. Salmond was a member of the U.K. Parliament at the time, and in a speech at the Brookings Institution today he discussed the unintended galvanizing effect Thatcher had on the movement that led to the convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as well as next year's referendum:  

As an unintended consequence of some of her policies, she accelerated a move toward a Scottish Parliament. She managed to alienate a full spectrum of Scottish society.

A very interesting thing happened one weekend back in '88, when Prime Minister Thatcher went to the Scottish Cup final between Dundee United and Celtic -- or Celtic and Dundee United depending on your point of view -- but the point about it is that both sides' fans held up red cards as Prime Minister Thatcher presented the cup. Football fans are not always known for joining together, so it was a very effective demonstration.

The same weekend, the prime minister went to deliver a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on The Mound -- it became known as the Sermon on The Mound -- and she argued that Christianity should be about individual redemption and not at all about social progress or social campaigns. This came as something of a surprise to the elders of the Church of Scotland who were engaged in debating exactly such social campaigns and then presented the prime minister with the reports on poverty and housing which they just passed.

The following Tuesday, as a young impudent whippersnapper member of parliament in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions, I asked the prime minister to remind the House of the captain of Celtic's name, to whom she had presented the cup, and the name of the moderator of the General Assembly. She didn't think that was a very good question.

The point is, that was a huge sway for Scottish society. I opposed Margaret Thatcher's economic policies, I thought they were mistaken. But I've always held the belief that the reason Margaret Thatcher had the political effect she did in Scotland was about the social direction of her policies. [It was] exemplified in the poll tax but also in a range of other statements such as, "There's no such thing as society. There are only individuals," which ran counter to a collective consciousness of Scotland. What is that collective consciousness if it's not a national consciousness?...

It was indeed an unintentional effect. I think it genuinely puzzled her. I suspect what she was running across was a different national consciousness. The poll tax wasn't just unpopular in Scotland, but it didn't have the same political effect because in Scotland it represented a wider social agenda that people found impossible to accept. Therefore, I quite freely say that she did accelerate the move toward a Scottish parliament because people no longer saw the parliament as a nice idea. They saw it as something essential to protect the social fabric of the country.

In his speech, Salmond discussed the role he foresees an independent Scotland playing in the international system. The SNP's position is that Scotland would continue to be an EU member upon independence -- the EU is a bit more ambivalent on this point -- but would likely continue to use the pound. Salmond also believes his country should join NATO, though he would like to see the U.K.'s Trident Nuclear System removed from its current location on the west coast of Scotland.

The nuclear issue has loomed large in the independence debate, with Prime Minister David Cameron -- who opposes independence -- visiting Scotland last week to tour a nuclear submarine, touting Trident's importance as a deterrent to North Korea and Iran.

Salmond dismissed the idea that nukes in Scotland have any impact on North Korea, and in a brief interview with me after the speech, lamented Cameron's refusal to debate him face to face:

The case of the Union should be presented in its full honest face. That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom whose policy framework determines what happens over many key areas of Scottlish life. He is the face of the bedroom tax. He is the face of social inequality. He is the face of the lack of success, of frustrating Scotland's economic potential. He is the face of the Union and therefore should be prepared to debate openly with me on television in the run-up to this referendum.

That's the debate the country wants to see. It's one thing to sail up the River Clyde in a nuclear submarine. It's another thing to walk into a television studio and debate with the leader of the independence movement why he doesn't think Scotland should be an independent country. I'll tell him the reasons why it should. Then people can decide which face they like better....

He has chosen to sail in, nuclear-clad, to tell us why should remain under London control. So he has abandoned his high ground of disinterest and decided to get in there swinging. Once you've done that you can't avoid a debate. He's going to get dragged kicking and screaming into a television studio where we can have this out.

I also asked Salmond why, when the open borders and common market of the European Union would seem to diminish the importance of nationalism, secessionist movements appear to be stronger than ever, in Catalonia and Belgium as well as in Scotland:

The problems that small countries used to face in the world used to be two things: your territory under threat from aggression and secondly, access to international marketplaces. Both of these tended to push people toward larger countries or larger trading blocs. Both of these in the Western world have gone.... The disadvantages of smallness have disappeared.

ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

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Syrian Alawites in their own words

Most Western coverage of Syria understandably focuses on places and people journalists can access. There have been many articles from opposition-held areas, interviews with rebel fighters and anti-regime activists, and reports on the humanitarian crisis across the country. But getting Syria's Alawite community, to which President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle belong, to speak candidly about their perception of the two year-old revolt has been another matter entirely.

That's why Syrian researcher Aziz Nakkash's recent report, "The Alawite Dilemma in Homs," is so valuable. Nakkash spent the summer of 2012 speaking with members of the Alawite minority in the city of Homs, getting their perspective on their communities' relationship with the regime and their opinion of the uprising. He found that the Alawite community was far from monolithic: The Alawites from the Sunni-majority regions of Homs and Hama felt excluded from the centers of power, which were in the hands of well-connected officials from the Alawite-majority coastal region. At the same time, Nakkash found that the Assad regime had been successful in militarizing the Alawite community -- Alawites, he wrote, don't see themselves as fighting for the survival of the regime, but as supporting close family members and friends in the security services.

You should read the whole report, but here is how some Alawites described their view of the revolt to Nakkash.

Ghandi, an agricultural engineering student at Homs's Baath University: "Sunnis want to drive us out to the coast, which is historically where Alawites have always been chased," he says. "[Sunnis] already hated us before [the uprising]...not all Sunnis, just the Muslim Brotherhood because they want to create an Islamic religious state."

Ghandi volunteered to become a shabiha, an armed pro-regime civilian under the supervision of Assad's intelligence services. He was assigned to the restive Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh. "I didn't go for Bashar [al-Assad], I went for my brothers who are working in the army and are currently fighting in Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus."

Sheikh Mahmoud, who has four sons fighting in the army:  "We are modest people here, and we struggle to survive economically. This is why the young enlist in the army and secret service, so as to be able to eat, not in order to gain power."

Sheikh Mahmoud laments the looting of Sunni homes, but justifies it by pointing to his own community's poverty. "Yes, it's a sin, but what can we do when our people have so little?" he says. "It's a sin for Sunnis and Alawites to be fighting each other."

He sees the revolt as an extension of sectarian tensions that he said began with the rise of the current regime. "It started when Hafez [al-Assad] came to power, it intensified in the eighties at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood [uprising] and has continued to this day," he says. "If Bashar weren't Alawite, there wouldn't be a war." Nevertheless, he sees the current conflict as "necessary."

Fadi, a young man in his 30s who works in sales: "I use[d] to like Sunnis more than Alawites...When the revolution started, I was really excited."

However, as sectarian violence became more common in Homs, Fadi's opinions changed. "Suddenly I became scared and I changed my mind, as I realized that what was happening was no longer a revolution," he says. "I don't support Bashar, but I cannot actively oppose him, because I'm scared for my brother who works in the army, and also for myself. And in the end, I want to be able to live, and to provide a good life to my daughter."

Kamel, a taxi driver living in a mixed Alawite-Sunni neighborhood: "Salvation will come from Qardaha [the ancestral village of the Assad clan]."

Kamel's mother is Sunni, and he used to maintain good relations with other Sunnis - including his brother-in-law. But now he considers all Sunnis as "terrorists." He adds, "I hate Sunnis, and I told my brother-in-law to stop coming into our neighborhood."

Abu Ahmed, a father of eight in his 60s: "In the Secret Service, most of the officers are from the coast. We all grew up in Homs and did not think in sectarian terms, we all used to get along. But after they came, they began saying ‘you are Alawite' and ‘he is Sunni'. In the current crisis, the mukhabarat are playing the sectarian card...I hate people from the coast, because they see everything in sectarian terms."

Abu Ahmad still keeps in touch with his Sunni friends -- but he doesn't tell his Alawite neighbors, "because I'm afraid they'll think I'm a traitor." Despite his contempt for sectarian divisions, he is contemplating moving to the Alawite majority city of Tartous. "Even though I know nobody there, I need to find a safe place for my family to live," he says. "I've spent all my life in Homs and if it were up to me, I would never leave, but nothing is more important than the security of my family."

Sean Gallup/Getty Images