Scotland votes on independence

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"Should Scotland be an independent country?" This question will be put to the people of Scotland in a referendum September 18. With just over a month to go, the "No" side campaigning as Better Together, has the lead over Yes Scotland, polling above 55 per cent.

A simple majority vote will decide the outcome.

The Scottish National Party, founded in 1934, promotes the independence option along with the Scottish Green Party and the Socialist Party of Scotland. The Labour Party, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats are opposed.

Were the "Yes" vote to triumph, it would be a further step in the dismantling of the British Empire: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the U.K. or simply Britain) would have one less component.

The crowns of Scotland and England were joined in 1707. Scotland has maintained its own legal system based on Roman law, operates its municipal governments, and runs its own educational system. Prior to the Acts of Union, Scotland had been independent for some 800 years, but few believe a romantic desire to restore Scottish independence is enough to carry a "Yes" vote.

The main U.K. institutions are English. Following Walter Bagehot, the constitution is called the English constitution, the central bank is the Bank of England, the British Monarch is understood to be the Queen of England, and English is the U.K. language.

Until the creation of Welsh, Scottish, and (restored) Northern Ireland parliaments by the Blair Labour government, the U.K. was a legislative union.

The U.K. remains a unitary state, despite the existence of three regional parliaments. The English have no regional parliament. The U.K. parliament at Westminster serves as the English parliament (Scotland has one out of 10 seats). A Secretary of State for Scotland serves in the cabinet.

Prior to the limited devolution of powers that accompanied the creation of the Scottish parliament, the Scotland office in Edinburgh and London served as the main administrative arm of the U.K government, much as the U.K. once had an India Office, and indeed a colonial office that ruled Canada.

The Yes Scotland campaign offers a strong incentive to voters, arguing that Scottish oil revenues are being wasted on prestige projects in England and costly defence undertakings. An independent Scotland would be nuclear-free; nuclear-tipped Trident missiles would be removed from Scotland.

The Scottish Nationalists point out that seven out of 10 of the wealthiest OECD nations are European countries with populations of less than 10 million, which shows the benefits of local control over industrial policy. Scottish nationalists argue that on environmental policy, social programs, and sport, Scottish priorities are not reflected in U.K. policy.

The referendum debate has been focused by the "No" side on: "what happens after independence?" What currency would an independent Scotland use? The "Yes" side replies it would use the British pound; the "No" side denies this possibility.

The "Yes" side is attached to more than the pound note (which currently bears a Scottish imprint when issued in Scotland). An independent Scotland would keep the monarchy: Elizabeth II would remain Queen of Scotland. 

Opponents say by leaving the U.K., Scotland would also lose its membership (as part of the U.K.) in the EU. The Scottish Nationalists reply they would remain members, or simply apply and be admitted. Ironically the governing Conservatives pledge to hold a U.K.-wide referendum on continued EU membership, and public opinion shows English voters leaning to leave, while Scottish voters want to remain in the EU.

Highly placed EU officials at its Brussels headquarters have contested the idea of Scottish EU membership. Other EU members have breakaway national movements. Spain (which has a federal not a unitary structure) has the province of Catalonia trying to hold a referendum to change its status. Referendums on independence are not popular among EU members, many of which are home to national minority populations.

Referendums on the "national question" are divisive. Debates are heated and nasty as Quebecers can attest, with families and friendships strained and broken.

Trying to achieve independence is one thing, making it work another. A strong majority vote makes the outcome more acceptable. A narrowly divided electorate makes it difficult for the winners to declare victory. The losers want another chance ... and another chance. 

The Scottish independence referendum is unlikely to settle the question of how should the nations of Great Britain govern themselves. A "No" victory is likely to accelerate devolution of powers, however. A U.K. referendum on EU membership could provoke more ammunition to the Scottish independence movement should the English vote to leave and the Scots to stay.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: greensambaman/flickr

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