Last week, the Scottish National Party became the largest party—by one seat—in the Scottish Parliamentary election.
Credit for this development belongs, in no small part, to Mel Gibson—and to Braveheart.
Twelve years ago, when the epic adventure movie was first released, Scotland was a nation in name only. It was part of Great Britain, governed from London, with a London-based member of Parliament as secretary of state for Scotland. (He was booed at the premiere of the film.)
Since then, the Scots have established their own Parliament through devolution, giving them local control over disbursement of public money for things like health care, police and economic development.
Braveheart—a rollicking film that is the most prominent specimen in a genre in which Mr. Gibson covers himself in the blood of Englishmen—has helped take this a step further, transferring a calibrated campaign for local control of some spending to a cry for actual independence.
The Gibson-directed epic, released in 1995, was a creative reimagining of the story of William Wallace, the Scots warrior who, seven centuries ago, led his bedraggled army of rebel Highlanders to victory over the better-armed forces of the English king.
For many of today’s Scots, Mr. Gibson’s movie has become the definitive reading of their history.
“For many [Scots], their only concept of Scottish history is that face-painted Aussie charging down hillsides shouting ‘Freedom!’” said Callum Laidlaw, a Scottish public-relations executive who lives and works in London.
The S.N.P., a party whose most famous supporter is Sean Connery—who lives in the Bahamas, but who said earlier this year, “I look forward to coming home to an independent Scotland”—has taken full advantage, exhorting supporters on its Web site to “Fly the Flag for Wallace.”
“William Wallace has triumphed in the minds of the common people,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the S.N.P., at a meeting of the William Wallace Free Colliers in 2005.
Although the party’s recent gains had as much to do with anger at the leadership of the majority Labor Party, the victorious nationalists seemed prepared, following their electoral triumph, to give credit where credit was due.
“I think the legend of William Wallace is very powerful, because against all adversity he was successful,” said Sandra White, a Scottish Nationalist member of Parliament and longtime Wallace devotee.
“He had a cause, and his cause was the freedom of the Scottish people,” she said. “He was seen as a people’s person.” (Wallace was a feudal knight.)
“It certainly did reawaken the pride we have in being Scottish,” she said. “I’m glad Mel Gibson decided to do that.”
Scotland, it should be said, is hardly the subjugated land it was in Wallace’s time. England subsidizes Scotland to the tune of, by most estimates, several billion pounds a year. Although Scotland has its own Parliament to decide how its money gets spent locally, Scotland also has members of Parliament who sit in London and vote on foreign spending. England, by contrast, has only members for a British Parliament.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair—the son of a Glaswegian who was educated in Edinburgh—is about to be succeeded as leader of the majority Labor Party by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, a Scot. Home Secretary John Reid is also Scottish.
George Galloway, a controversial Scottish left-winger who is an M.P. for Bethnal Green in London, doesn’t think much of the Braveheart effect.
“If it’s being done out of some concept of blood spilt or shed some 700 years ago, then, frankly, that’s laughable,” said Mr. Galloway, a former member of the Labor Party who broke away to form his own Respect Party.
“The idea of singing about a king who sent another king home ‘to think again,’” he said, referring to “Flower of Scotland,” an anthem sung at Scottish rugby matches, “is, frankly, absurd.”
Mel Gibson, one supposes, would beg to differ, although he has yet to weigh in on the recent developments that have Scotland closer to independence than at any time in centuries.