Scotland claims credit for inventing the telephone, television and penicillin, not to mention modern economics. Its people built ships, bridges and locomotives for the world and, more recently, Grand Theft Auto. Now many Scots say they deserve to break away from the United Kingdom — and the 307-year-old union with England and Wales — to create Europe’s newest sovereign state. On Sept. 18, voters age 16 and over in Scotland will decide in a referendum.
Opinion polls show more Scots want to remain in the U.K. than leave it, though enough are undecided to swing it either way. The secessionist Scottish National Party won a surprise majority in the 2011 regional election as the pain of Britain’s austerity drive kicked in. Its leader, Alex Salmond, says his nation should emulate smaller European countries like Norway and control its own finances. Politicians on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall are mapping out what an independent Scotland would look like. It has 5.3 million people — 8.4 percent of the U.K. total — and an economy underpinned by the North Sea’s oil and gas fields. Scotland’s parliament was restored in 1999, with the U.K. government relinquishing control over education, transportation and health. Now lawmakers want to direct a wider range of policies, from Scotland’s pensions to its passports. They also want to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons. The main U.K. political parties have offered Scotland more financial power, including control over income tax. Celebrities from David Bowie to J.K. Rowling are encouraging Scotland to say “no” to the breakaway, while James Bond star and longtime nationalist Sean Connery says voting for independence is an opportunity not to be wasted.
Scotland will hold the 51st independence referendum worldwide since World War II. The first was Iceland’s break from Danish rule, with the latest creating South Sudan. There was a flurry in the 1990s as countries left the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fragmented. So far, 27 of the votes have been in favor of secession, with 23 against. The French-speaking province of Quebec voted to remain part of Canada in 1980 and 1995, though only by a wafer-thin margin the second time. Independence movements are often about ethnic or linguistic splits, but just as frequently they’re about economics. The U.K. was formed by the Act of Union in 1707, as Scotland faced financial ruin after a failed project in Panama. It covered everything from the exchange of Scottish and English pounds to trade tariffs and movement of livestock. Even after all the years of intertwining, the distinctions between the nations go beyond kilts and bagpipes. The accent changes almost instantly and Scotland has a distinct legal system. While there’s only one currency, Scottish banks issue their own pound notes. There’s a separate soccer league and a Gaelic television channel.
The “Better Together” campaign says Scotland should remain part of a larger country that has a greater say in the world and can better withstand financial shocks. It would also ensure it keeps the British pound after the U.K. government ruled out sharing the currency with an independent Scotland. The U.K.’s rescue of Royal Bank of Scotland ranks among the world’s costliest bailouts. An independent Scotland might need to reapply to stay in the European Union. Meanwhile the British economy is growing again and unemployment is falling, so why change things? Polls show the “yes” campaign needs to win the vote in poorer areas, and among women and older people. It is focusing on the link between North Sea oil and social spending. It’s also tapping emotions by arguing that self-determination would allow Scotland to pursue its own distinct economic and political path without having to pander to a U.K. that is centralized in the southeast of England.
The Reference Shelf
- Scotland outlines its case for independence in a series of government reports.
- The U.K. government’s collection of research papers on Scotland’s independence movement.
- Research on independence referendums from Matt Qvortrup, a researcher at Cranfield University.
- “What Scotland Thinks” blog from John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
- “How Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book by Arthur Herman, a former professor of history at Georgetown University.