Scots will vote in a national referendum Sept. 18 to decide if Scotland should become an independent country or remain a member of the United Kingdom. The pro-independence Yes campaign and the pro-Union Better Together campaign have campaigned over the last year, and until August, the No camp held a steady lead. However, the Yes campaign has closed a 22-point gap in the last month, and the latest poll placed Yes in a 51-49 lead.
Scotland and England have had a turbulent relationship since the 1707 formation of the U.K. Scottish independence has been a fringe issue since the 19th century, but it has grown popular over the last 50 years as the nations’ political divisions have become sharper. Daniel Clinkman, an American living in Scotland, has observed these differences.
“The majority of Scots want something different from the majority of English … A majority of Scots want to live in a center-left society, while a majority of English want to live in a center-right society,” Clinkman writes in The Atlantic.
Scotland had a devolution referendum in 1979. If it had passed, the central British government would have transferred some political powers to a Scottish Parliament. The measure failed, and for the next 20 years a conservative majority outnumbered the liberal-leaning Scots in the British Parliament and implemented policies that were unpopular in Scotland. A successful second referendum in 1997 created a Scottish Parliament, but the Yes campaign wants full independence.
Simply put, the leaders of the Yes campaign believe that Scotland can do a better job of ruling itself than the U.K. can. The country has extensive oil reserves, and instead of oil revenue going to the U.K., the Yes campaign plans for an independent Scotland to keep the profits. Scots would have full control over tax rates and welfare distribution. Pro-independence leaders also want Scotland to continue to use the British pound and to join the EU.
The Better Together campaign emphasizes the security and international status that comes from being in the Union. Leaders point out that the London government has promised more political control to Scotland in the event of a “no” victory. They note that the Yes camp’s budget projections rely heavily on oil revenue, even though independent analysts claim Yes leaders have overestimated the amount of oil left in the North Sea. The Yes campaign also insists that an independent Scotland will use the British pound, and it has dismissed alternatives such as the euro. The British government has said it will refuse to enter a currency union, and Paul Krugman describes the dangers of such a union in The New York Times.
“Canada has its own currency, which means that its government can’t run out of money, that it can bail out its own banks if necessary, and more. An independent Scotland wouldn’t. And that makes a huge difference … Everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous,” Krugman writes.
Better Together supporters have also questioned the claim that Scotland would be able to join the EU, which would require unanimous support from EU members. However, other countries with separatist movements — including Spain, Belgium and Italy — may hesitate to support Scotland.
Tensions are rightly high in Scotland. If the Yes campaign wins, the country will likely not be able to return to the U.K. J.K. Rowling, a resident of Scotland and Better Together supporter, describes the challenges of this separation.
“There will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbors. I doubt that an independent Scotland will be able to bank on its ex-partners’ fond memories of the old relationship once we’ve left,” Rowling writes on her website.
I studied in Scotland last semester, and I understand the case for independence, but I would vote no. In my opinion, the Yes campaign has appealed to nationalist sentimentality and has not addressed key questions. Most of the Scots I know support Better Together and maximum devolution. One of my Scottish friends identifies herself as British when she travels abroad. If Scotland separates from the U.K., is she still British? Separating these integrated countries after 300 years will be awkward and convoluted.
No matter the outcome, the winning side will have to appease a divided electorate. If Yes wins, the Yes campaign will have to find a way to follow through on the promises they’ve made to voters. If No wins, the British government will have to transfer more powers to the Scottish Parliament to satisfy the demands of the Yes supporters. Either way, this referendum is a major turning point in Scotland’s history.
Commentary by Maria Cleary