On Thursday, September 18, 2014, the United Kingdom faces one of the most significant potential changes to its structure in centuries. If the majority decide, Scotland will gain its independence from the United Kingdom. But what exactly does this mean?
What is the Scottish Referendum all about?
To understand the implications and motivations which have led to this impending event, it is necessary to create a simplified overview of the key players, as well as a breakdown of the referendum and its central ultimatum. A majority ‘Yes’ vote (led by the Yes Scotland campaign) will initiate measures to establish an independent Scotland. A resounding vote for the ‘No’ campaign (also known as Better Together) will mean that Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. There are no other options on offer as part of this referendum. It’s that simple. Well, not quite that simple.
With a plethora of economic, social, and commercial ties already in place, Scotland’s departure from the sovereign state would neither be a quick nor easy process. The whole debacle has been described as everything from a “messy divorce” to Scotland simply choosing to “unfriend and unfollow” England; with the truth lying somewhere in between. The question remains: With a global economic period of instability taking place, however, is it the best time for a nation to be starting out alone?
It seems entirely possible that Scotland are prepared to do just that and, with a majority vote teetering towards the “Yes” campaign within the last few weeks (a YouGov poll published on Sep 6 placed the “Yes” vote demographic at 51%), a flurry of impassioned pleas are being issued from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster as a result.
Who are the key players and what do they want?
The “Yes” campaign is being led by the First Minister of Scotland; Alex Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, both of whom are members of the SNP (Scottish National Party). Salmon assumed office in 2007 and led the SNP to their first overwhelming victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.
The opposing faction is led by Alistair Darling, a member of parliament (MP) whose campaign is backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury chief) George Osborne. For months, the media has been publishing material reflecting both sides of the argument, however, in recent weeks, Salmond has accused the government and the media of trying to sway a “No”vote by unnecessary scaremongering. He was particularly damning of BBC political editor Nick Robinson at a recent debate, in which he called for an investigation into the release of certain alleged financial information used in news stories, which cast a very negative outlook upon the economic prospect of a new independent Scotland. Salmond’s dissatisfaction stems from reports that many of the major banks will withdraw central offices and associated business from Scotland should a “Yes” vote win out, which he claims is a misrepresentation of the truth.
What are the key issues being debated?
The financial implications which arise in the wake of a fledging nation are a huge issue, and it is here that some of the major complications within the independence proposal arise. Factors such as currency, trade, and taxation are inextricably linked with the desired establishment of Scotland as a European country and, as a result, tend to be the most commonly addressed topics when debate arises.
As far back as 2000, Matthew Happold wrote an extensive document in The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, which outlined the issues surrounding an independent Scotland and its subsequent standing within the European Union, as well as contemplating the effects that would have on the United Kingdom.
Happold explains why smaller states find it desirable to maintain independence, but operate within the European Union, insomuch as they can maintain what he calls a “disproportionate influence within the EU.” He puts this down to the fact that nations with small populations (Scotland currently has a population of 5.3 million) have as much sway as those with significantly larger populations. Scotland is a country with a similar population to Ireland (4.5 million), which has itself had a long and turbulent history with the United Kingdom.
Graham Walker’s 2001 essay A Sectarian Scotland? examines the growing fears of sectarianism within the Scottish community, as well as making comparisons and connections with similar troubles in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, the Referendum debates have, so far been peaceful ones; free of the bloodshed which has tainted the Irish situation for decades.
Would an independent Scotland seek to join the European Union?
An independent Scotland would seek to become part of the European Union, but they do not wish to take on the Euro currency (which is in a state of perpetual tumult), and alternatively wish to keep using the Pound Sterling; their current form of currency. This is something that Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and George Osborne have told them is not possible. Last week’s rise in a “Yes” majority even affected the markets, resulting in a fall in value to the Pound.
Financial Times editor Lionel Barber noted recently that one of the key failures in the whole campaign so far (which has, incidentally, been ongoing since 2012) is that “the business community hasn’t spoken out, voicing its concerns about the uncertainty relating to independence.” The economics of the issue only seem to have been addressed recently. According to Barber, a great deal of what has taken place up until recently has been largely driven by a peculiar mix of nationalism and sensation.
Is there anyone that I’ve actually heard of involved in the debate?
High profile individuals will always assist any political endeavour and this Referendum has been no different. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling made a donation of $1.6m to the “No” campaign. Virgin Media tycoon Richard Branson has also publicly voiced his concern regarding a split within the UK. Other recognisable names adding support to the Better Together campaign include David Beckham, Mick Jagger and Patrick Stewart.
The majority of “Yes” Scotland’s finances were, strangely enough, donated by lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir. The celebrity supporters of the “Yes” campaign include Vivienne Westwood, Gerard Butler and, most notably, The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie.
But if Scotland has their own Parliament, does that not make them independent?
No. Scotland entered an initial state of devolution in 1999, when a new Scottish Parliament was elected in 1999. This means that Scotland manages its own education and legal systems, but certain areas, such as taxation, border control, and defense are all run through Westminster.
Should the “Yes” vote go through, Scotland will begin plans to create a separate, fully autonomous state by March 2016. This would break a 307 year old union with England, resulting in the most significant fracturing of a Western European country for over a century.
Did anyone see this coming?
Most certainly. Liam Kennedy’s 2011 Fortnight article, A really independent Scotland?, seems incredibly prescient when reviewed today. Written in the wake of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, in which the SNP won 69 of 129 seats, it addresses many of the major factors which have been heatedly debated over the last few months, such as the North Sea oil reserves, which Scotland is adamant will assist them in creating a stable economic foundation.
Is this the first time that there has been a struggle for an Independent Scotland?
As with most of England’s immediate neighbours, there is a long, complex and often embittered history at play. Enough brutal battles take place on Scottish soil to inspire a new run of George RR Martin novels, although the complexity and violence which took place in real life would put Game of Thrones to shame.
The First War of Scottish Independence began in 1296 and resulted in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. It was during these years that figures such as William Wallace and Andrew Moray became prominent figures and later icons of Scottish nationalism. Evan M. Barron’s A New View of the War of Independence, published as part of The Scottish Historical Review in 1909 casts an eye over several key battles and campaigns. Further information can also be found in Colm McNamee’s 1997 book, The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England, and Ireland, 1306-1328.
By the end of the The Second War of Independence which took place 1332-1357, Scotland had achieved its independence and held onto it until the creation of a single Kingdom (in the form of Great Britain) was established by means of the Treaty of Union in 1707. Scotland has been part of the UK ever since.
Is America involved in this at all?
With the US reticent to become involved, but hinting at the fact that they would be eager to see Britain remain as a “strong, robust, united and an effective partner”, it is impossible to ignore the nuclear elephant in the room; or in this case, housed off the western coast. There are currently 58 Trident II D-5 missiles housed in submarines at the Faslane naval reserve, which have been leased to Britain by the US government. If Scotland were to attain their independence, they would want rid of them, for they have stated that they are not willing to house nuclear weapons. In a dossier (RELOCATION, RELOCATION, RELOCATION Could the UK’s Nuclear Force be Moved after Scottish Independence?) by Hugh Chalmers and Malcolm Chalmers of the military think tank Royal United Services Institute (R.U.S.I.), it is stated that this process alone would cost billions of dollars, not to mention the difficulty that the UK would have in finding a new home for them. Estimation as to the length of a process such as this, states that the operation would not be completed until 2028.
It is also possible that the United Kingdom could lose its position on the United Nations Security Council following a split. The knock on effect of that would be that they could additionally lose their position as part of the Group of 7 (G7), a body of advanced economic and political powers.
Will Scotland be getting rid of the Monarchy if a ‘Yes’ vote succeeds?
Salmond is proposing that if an independent Scotland is established, they will keep the Queen as a monarch. This is the same arrangement that stands with Canada, who attained independence in 1867, and Australia, who gained theirs in 1901. Queen Elisabeth II has remained largely silent on the matter until recently, when she stated that she hoped “people will think very carefully about the future.”
How does it look like it will all play out?
Increasingly emotive language has been used in this final week, with Cameron referring to a potential “bitter divorce,” should a “Yes” vote go though. Be it scare tactics or genuine representation of sentiment, some commentators feel that Cameron may be part of the problem. The Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker made the acerbic remark that in Scotland, Cameron is “less popular in Scotland than Windows 8”. With Cameron’s Etonian education, and thoroughly upper class breeding, however, he does represent the archetype of Imperialist privilege; something that is about as far removed from Scottish sensibilities as possible. Cameron even acknowledged this factor in a bizarrely personal aside, whilst giving a speech in Aberdeen on September 15; “If you don’t like me, I won’t be here forever.” said Cameron, “I speak for millions of people across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and many in Scotland too, who would be utterly heartbroken by the break-up of our United Kingdom.” Adding; “If Scotland votes “Yes”, the UK will split and we will go our separate ways for ever.”
Basically, if you leave, there’s no coming back. Salmond and his “Yes” campaigners don’t seem too rattled, but with many publications stating that the referendum is currently too close to call, it will certainly be a tense week for all involved after the polls close at 10pm on Thursday.
If Scotland does become an independent nation, it will not happen overnight. Plans are in place to unveil a series of measure which hope to have the country ready for complete autonomy (an Independence Day, if you will) by March 24 2016.
Should a “No” vote be successful, Cameron has stated that he would begin drafting in measures put forward by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to allow for further powers to be granted to the Scottish Parliament, and presented a timetable of how he intended to do this. Too little, too late? All shall become clear within the coming weeks.
NB The Scottish Referendum is being posted about on social media with the hashtag #indyref