On September 18, Scotland’s citizens will go to the polls to answer a really big question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
This question, of course, raises lots of other questions about what a yes vote might mean for the future of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom. Here are some basic answers to some basic questions about the upcoming vote.
Haven’t we been through this before?
Well, yes. Sort of. In 1979, there was a referendum for “Scottish devolution,” which would have meant shifting some major governing powers from London to Scotland. For example, the vote would have given Scotland the power to set tuition costs at public universities along with the income tax rate. But to pass, it required a yes vote from at least 40 percent of Scotland’s entire population, and while it received a majority among voters, it fell short of that threshold.
In 1997, the Labour party reclaimed power, and another referendum for devolution was held. The Scottish Parliament was then established, and some powers, including the income tax rate, were transferred to Edinburgh, Scotland and away from the UK Parliament at Westminster.
Why do so many Scots want independence from the United Kingdom?
A quick reminder: The United Kingdom Parliament is made up of members from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They vote on certain laws that govern the entire United Kingdom. Then there’s the Scottish Parliament, which exercises some governing powers over Scotland alone.
The majority in the UK Parliament is held by the Conservative Party and led by British Prime Minister David Cameron. However, only one of the 50 members of that Parliament representing Scotland belong to the Conservative party. (The rest are from the Labour party, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrat party.) Because of this, many Scots feel that decisions made in London are too far removed from the public opinion of the Scottish voters. The term often used to describe this disconnect is “democratic deficit.”
Plus, some believe Scotland is already well on its way to independence. The country has its own legal, education and health-care system, said Angus Miller of Yes Scotland, the national campaign for independence:
“There are a number of ways Scotland has been effectively self-governing, and having political responsibility in the Scottish Parliament has been great to show the difference in political outlook and economic needs and interests in Scotland versus the rest of the UK.”
Who supports Scottish independence?
Men are far more likely than women to vote for independence, according to the Scottish Centre for Social Research. In August, that organization’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that 39 percent of men supported an independent Scotland compared to 27 percent of women. Another recent survey by the video platform TubeMogul, showed that among young voters, age 19 to 45, about 56 percent supported independence, while among older voters, age 46 and over, 57 percent backed the union and only 43 percent supported independence. The same survey found that the farther you are from the Scotland-England border, the more likely you are to support independence.
The Scottish National Party, which holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament, has championed the independence movement for decades. Alex Salmond heads the party and is first minister of Scotland. He also leads Yes Scotland.
Who wants to keep the UK together?
All other major political parties support Scotland remaining in the union. Prime Minister David Cameron has made emotional public pleas for Scotland to stay with the UK.
“Centuries of history hang in the balance,” Cameron said in February during a campaign speech in London’s Olympic Park. “If people vote yes in September then Scotland will become an independent country. There will be no going back, and as I’ve made clear, this is a decision for solely those in Scotland to make. But let the message ring out from Manchester to Motherwell, from Pembrokeshire to Perth, from us to the people of Scotland — let the message be this: We want you to stay.”
One difficulty, according to the Better Together, the leading campaign to maintain the union, is that those voting against independence have to check “no,” and some voters have said they’re uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting Scotland.
Better Together has addressed this as part of their campaign. Signs and bumper stickers read “I love Scotland. I’m saying ‘No, Thanks’.”
David Whitton is a spokesperson for Better Together and former member of Parliament with the Labour Party.
“Just because you’re voting no doesn’t mean you’re not just as passionate about the future of Scotland as those who are voting yes,” Whitton said.
A slew of celebrities have supported both sides, but a notable contribution for the Better Together campaign came from J.K Rowling. In an open letter on her website she wrote, “I’d prefer to stay and contribute to a country that has given me more than I can easily express. It is because I love this country that I want it to thrive.”
What are the chances the referendum will pass?
No voters are ahead, according to recent polls, but the gap is shrinking. According to ScotCen Social Research, an independent research institute in Edinburgh, the average of the most recent polls show about 42 percent voting yes to 48 percent no. Nearly 11 percent say they are undecided. A simple majority is needed for the referendum to pass.
On September 2, YouGov conducted a poll for the Sun newspaper that found the yes voters just 6 points behind the union supporters. That’s down from a 14-point split in late-August. The consensus is that the yes campaign is gaining votes, but not necessarily enough to win the election.
If it does pass, where does it leave Scotland? Would the country need an army? A new currency?
Scotland does not have an army, and some analysts say that no Navy would leave Scottish waters vulnerable. But independence supporters say Scotland has not favored military action in the past and an independent Scotland could continue to play a peaceful role.
“The UK is currently an important player in international affairs, but it’s not always speaking with Scottish voices,” said Yes Scotland’s Miller. “Going into Iraq was overwhelmingly rejected by the Scottish public. We would look to Norway and Denmark as small countries to model our foreign policy after. They are members of NATO, have small militaries, but there is really great potential for Scotland to be a leader and diplomat for peace.”
The currency Scotland would use is hotly debated. Alex Salmond of Yes Scotland assured yes voters that Scotland will enter into a currency union with the rest of the UK (like the Euro, but on a smaller scale) and maintain the pound Sterling, which it currently uses. During the first televised debate in August, Salmond was pressed on a back-up plan in case the UK did not want to enter into a currency union, but he did not offer one.
“The economic arguments are key and it is the weakness of the yes campaign that they cannot say what currency they will be using,” Whitton said. “They say there will be a currency union with England, but the chancellor has said there won’t be, because it’s not in the interest of the rest of the UK. If you don’t know what currency you’ll have, that leaves a huge question mark for businesses and the financial market.”
Many large businesses have come together and signed an open letter urging people to vote no for this reason.
Would an independent Scotland be economically stronger?
This is probably the biggest point of contention for both campaigns. Voters have received conflicting answers to this important question. Those who are pro-independence hail the existence of a vast reservoir of offshore oil in the North Sea, to which Scotland has a claim. Supporters of Scottish independence also point to economic potential in their wind and tidal energy farms. But no voters say that without the infrastructure and tax breaks England provides, Scotland won’t be able to retrieve the oil or have the ability to capture wind and tidal energy. In May, the Scottish and UK governments released separate economic outlooks for an independent Scotland, and not surprisingly came to different conclusions.
The Scottish Government wrote, “Scotland would begin as an independent country with a sustainable fiscal position in 2016-17. Key fiscal aggregates would be similar to, or stronger than, both the UK and the G7 group of industrialised countries as a whole.”
The UK Government, on the other hand, wrote, “The projections show that, in the years ahead, an independent Scottish state would face a substantially greater fiscal challenge than if Scotland remains part of the UK.”
John McLaren, an economics professor at Glasgow University, and his think tank, Fiscal Affairs, published its own report last month, which showed that as an independent country, Scotland likely would be worse off — at first.
“Our paper looked at two different time periods, two different angles,” McLaren said. “It looked at the point of devolution, which will be 2016/2017. At that point we looked at the narrower range of likely outcomes. We found Scotland would be worse off than the UK in annual deficit,” McLaren told the NewsHour.
But beyond that, McLaren said Scotland’s economic status would depend on the price of oil.
“The longer-term analysis didn’t draw any conclusions without being able to predict the price of oil,” he said. “There are too many uncertainties for either campaign to really be able to give a specific number as to how much better or worse off Scotland will be.”
Would an independent Scotland be part of the EU?
Another point of contention is fueled by the UK possibly having its own referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. Public opinion in Scotland strongly favors being in the EU, but the UK as a whole would likely vote to leave.
Whether the existing legal framework means Scotland would have to reapply to become part of the EU or would have automatic membership is the central issue. The European Policy Center laid out the legalities of each side.
The yes campaign assures voters there would be no break in membership.
“The great majority of legal and political opinion say Scotland’s EU membership would be uninterrupted,” Miller said. “It’s in Europe’s interest for Scotland to be in the EU. We have 25 percent of the EU’s offshore wind and tidal energy potential, we have 60 percent of the EU’s oil reserves, we have a fifth of the EU’s fishing catch, and we’re a net contributor to the EU. The idea that the EU would want to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of rejecting Scotland to simply let us back in a couple of years later just didn’t stack up.”
The no campaign, however, is quick to point out that Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, said no new states would be admitted to the EU for the next five years, shortly before he took office in July. He said the EU would “mark a pause” in its growing membership to “consolidate” with the current 28 member states.
If the yesses win, what happens next?
Scotland wouldn’t be independent just yet. The Scottish government led by Alex Salmond would enter negotiations with the UK government led by David Cameron. They would have 18 months to negotiate issues such as who takes what portion of the national debt, a possible currency union, and a trade agreement. An independent Scotland would likely emerge sometime around the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.
Would a no vote mean everything stays the same?
Probably not. In May 2015, the UK holds a general election. Politicians are campaigning now and many are making promises to encourage Scotland to remain in the UK. Cameron and the leaders of the two other main political parties, for example, have pledged that if there is a no vote, Scotland will gain additional tax and legal powers.
“Better Together is a union of three political parties,” Whitton said. “We disagree on everything, but the one thing we agree on is to keep Scotland part of the union. There will be further powers given to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution is a process, not an event.”
The yes campaign, however, is not convinced that anything would change in Scotland’s favor.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen if there is a “no” vote,” Miller said. “Politics and economics are not static. If we vote no everything won’t stay exactly as it is. There may be further austerity cuts. There will be more economic decisions made in the interest of London. You can say there might be consequences to a ‘yes’ vote, but it’s important to remember that there are severe, guaranteed consequences with a no vote.”
If it’s no this time, will Scotland vote on independence again?
Both campaigns agree there won’t be another vote for independence in the near future.
Better Together points out that the power to have a vote at all was transferred to Scotland from Westminster, and there is almost no chance that whoever is in power in London would grant another vote.
The yes campaign says another vote is unlikely as well.
“This force for change, this passion to do something better, to create a better society — that will exist regardless of whether there is a yes or no vote. If there is a no vote, then people will work to get the best outcome for people and families in Scotland,” Miller said, but then added, with bravado, “But that’s hypothetical because we’re going to win anyways.”
Where can I go for updates?
Here’s a list of some organizations and reporters to follow on Twitter:
- Yes Scotland (@YesScotland), a campaign for an independent Scotland
- Better Together (@UK_Together), the all-party & non-party campaign for Scotland in the UK
- Guardian Scotland (@GdnScotland), The Guardian and Observer Scotland branch
- The Scotsman (@theScotsman), Scotland’s national paper
- Simon Johnson (@simon_telegraph), Scottish Political Editor for The Daily Telegraph
- Severin Carrell (@severincarrell), The Guardian’s Scotland Correspondent