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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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