Tomorrow, Thursday September 18th, voters in Scotland will be asked in a referendum to vote on whether their nation should be an independent country, breaking away from the rest of the United Kingdom. A yes vote would establish a separate Scottish state for the first time since 1707, when a need for economic security resulted in union with England, and the subsequent formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Despite periods of backlash against the ideology of Britishness, particularly at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that Scottish nationalism was revived as a serious political movement. After the famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech by UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan signified the start of decolonization in Africa and the end of the British Empire, many in Scotland began to question the ultimate purpose of the United Kingdom.
Throughout the early part of the following decade, the 1970s, the discovery of North Sea Oil increased the momentum and support for nationalism and devolution – the process designed to decentralize government through the granting of powers at a regional or state level. The Scottish National Party (or SNP), which by now could make a strong case for independence – organized a highly successful campaign with the tag line “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, disseminating the idea that Scotland would not significantly benefit from the oil revenue while it remained part of the UK.
In the late 1990s, the UK government began to devolve powers from the parliament in London to assemblies in Cardiff (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), and the newly minted Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. By 2011, a landslide victory by the SNP in Scottish parliamentary elections ensured that the party had secured the required seats to advance a referendum on secession – the act of formally withdrawing from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state. Although polls at the time indicated that Scots disapproved of independence by a two-to-one margin, SNP leader Alex Salmond remained steadfast in his conviction to hold the vote – and thus, by agreement with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain’s political and economic landscape could change forever if a majority of balloters vote ‘yes’ tomorrow.
And so, the long history of Scottish skepticism towards union with England, plus relatively recent political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, have meant that a decades-long push for political autonomy has led to an independence referendum.
At this point I’d like to look at the arguments on both sides of the issue – so let’s begin with examining the case for Scottish independence.
Firstly, there is the matter of Scottish pride and cultural identity. Polls consistently reflect the fact that the majority of Scots regard themselves as being Scottish first and foremost, as opposed to British. On a related note, Scottish culture is highly distinctive and well-recognized the world over.
But according to former human rights lawyer Amanda Taub, happy coexistence with the rest of the UK may have continued were it not for political divisions between the decidedly more liberal Scotland, and the lead party in the U.K.’s current coalition government, David Cameron’s conservative party. Cameron himself is a particularly unpopular figure in Scotland, with his posh boy image completely at odds with the way many Scots see themselves. While this political divide has existed, as Professor Dauvit Brown of the University of Glasgow points out, since the time of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, Cameron’s involvement in the ‘no’ campaign has arguably weakened and undermined its message.
Writing for the Huffington Post, Sarah Moyes, a Scot, provided some insight into the mindset of the pro-independence argument. “My decision to vote Yes,” she wrote, “is not one I’m taking lightly, yet it’s one that feels completely natural. I haven’t had to do months of soul searching to come to this conclusion. It just feels right for me and the country I live in. After all, why wouldn’t we want to live in a country that makes its own decisions? At the moment, we’re living with a London based parliament making our decisions for us. Of course, Scotland has the right to make some of the choices, but a lot of the decisions which affect us are still being decided by people in London. Can they really have our best interests at heart? And more importantly, can they even understand our needs?”
In essence, the ‘Yes’ campaign argues that in 2014, Scotland shouldn’t have to be dependent on the rest of the U.K. Some estimates have suggested that 90 percent of the revenues from North Sea oil would cause the per-capita GDP of the “new Scotland” to be higher than that of Italy, in spite of concerns that the wells may be starting to run dry.
Other reasons that have been cited in favor of independence include nuclear disarmament, as control over defense and foreign policy would result in the potential removal of nuclear weapons; renewable energy, with Salmond himself suggesting a focus in this area could lead to the ‘re-industrialization’ of Scotland; and the idea that a new “cultural awakening” would unleash a fresh wave of cultural ideas and expression.
Switching over to the anti-independence side of the coin, the obvious counter-point is that changing the political structure of the UK would be too risky for Scotland. The “Better Together” campaign, an organization made up of the parties, organizations and individuals supporting a ‘no’ vote, argues that separation would leave Scotland’s economy weak, and that its proposed exploitation of North Sea Oil is not a long-term strategy for economic prosperity.
Aside from discussion of potential economic issues, those on the side of the “No” campaign have looked to take advantage of the shared history and ties of the union with various attempts to tug at voter’s heartstrings. These attempts to appeal to hearts and minds have not occurred without several missteps along the way however, notably, the decision to utilize the slogan “no thanks” – not to mention the release of a patronizing video aiming to make the issue crystal clear to undecided female voters.
The Better Together campaign’s most famous supporter is Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who donated £1 million to the cause and said the following in an open letter warning against the apparent end of the Union:
If we leave…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 neighbours. 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. The rest of the UK will have had no say in the biggest change to the Union in centuries, but will suffer the economic consequences.
Currency has also been another huge area of disagreement. Under independence, the Scottish government wants to keep the pound as part of a formal currency union with the rest of the UK. The three main parties in Westminster however — David Cameron’s Conservatives, their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, and Labour — have all said that this simply will not be an option. Therefore, Scotland may have to eventually turn to the unstable Euro, which based on recent history could be disastrous. It’s also unclear what would happen to Scotland’s share of UK debt if the nation does go it alone.
If Scotland votes to separate, it will take 18 months of negotiations before independence is officially declared. The repercussions of a yes vote would be significant for the rest of the U.K., with speculation that Britain might leave the European Union and even find itself deserted by Wall Street banks. The queen herself emerged to give her first comments on the issue this week, cryptically urging voters to “think very carefully about the future.”
As has been widely reported, the polls have the race neck-and-neck as both sides gear up for a monumental last day of campaigning.