Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom for over 300 years. By the end of the year, that could drastically change. A week from today, all Scots over the age of 16 will have a chance to vote on a very simple question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" What does this mean? Allow us to explain.
You're probably thinking that the United Kingdom should stay united because its whole thing is that it's united. Imagine if the United States were just "States." Hey, come visit our country . . . States!
But the U.K. is a little more complicated.
What is Scotland?
Scotland is a country on the island of Great Britain, located directly to the north of England, above which it sits, like a hat or a wig. Though it's a constituent member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (...for now), it has its own distinct language, culture, history, and fried foods.
Though Scotland is currently one of the four countries to make up the United Kingdom—the other three are England, Wales, and Northern Ireland—it hasn't always been that way. For hundreds of years after the Romans left Great Britain, Scotland was an independent kingdom with an often contentious relationship with its neighbors to the south, who invaded and conquered much territory in the middle ages. By the 14th century, Scotland had won its independence (you may have seen the movie), a state that lasted four hundred years until the Act of Union in 1707 united Scotland and England under a single monarch. Many Scots have been trying ever since to regain independence, with varying levels of violence, commitment, and interest.
What's happening now?
In 1999, Scotland was granted its first independent parliament. Though not fully autonomous, the parliament was the first crack in an opening door to independence—thanks in a large part to one of its popular political parties, the SNP. For years, the Scottish National Party has sought to sever ties from the United Kingdom. In 2011, the SNP campaigned heavily on an independence statute and won the parliamentary election by a landslide. This granted them the legal right to put independence to a vote. The vote has been scheduled for September 18, 2014 wherein voters will be asked: Should Scotland be an independent country?
Check this box: [y] or [n].
But what's the big deal? England doesn't seem so bad. They have Flake Bars there.
But imagine what Scotland could be like on its own. They could thrive in culture, international positioning, and cashflow. As SNP leader Alex Salmond has put it, independence could free Scotland from the "shackles" of a London-based parliament.
But, uh, why? Scotland and England seem pretty tight. Aren't they basically the same thing?
Wow, okay, we've got a lot of work to do here. Yes, there are many citizens of both Scotland and England who are asking why this is necessary, especially if Scotland has been sitting pretty above England for over three hundred years. But there are principles, money, oil, and pride all at stake. Scotland, as we went over, has a long cultural tradition of which it's justifiably proud—think bagpipes, shinty, Robert Burns, haggis, and the Bay City Rollers. Scottish nationalists like the Telegraph's Alan Massie, for example, are eager to push back at what they see as English assimilation:
Assimilation is evident in other visible ways. Shopping centres in Scotland are just like shopping centres in England; the same may be said of what is left of our high streets. We mostly watch the same television programmes, see the same movies, and respond to the same popular music. Football is Scotland's national game, but Scottish newspapers give far more coverage to English football than they used to, and if a boy is not wearing a Rangers or Celtic replica shirt, he is more likely to wear a Manchester United one than that of another Scottish club. Our postman was early one Saturday. When I asked why, he said he had arranged his shift to get to Old Trafford.
Didn't you say something about oil?
Ah, yes, oil: The U.K. currently extracts an enormous amount of oil and gas from below the North Sea, in areas that would likely be claimed by an independent Scotland. There's a lot of money there, for whichever state ends up with that territory; consequently, most of Britain's biggest energy companies, like BP, oppose Scottish independence. One unanswered question is just how much oil there actually is in the North Sea reserves—enough to make an independent Scotland as prosperous and stable as Norway? Or...not enough?
What would Scotland do for money, anyway? Stay on the pound?
This is another stumbling block. Scotland could, theoretically, start printing its own currency. But the independence movement, trying not to scare anyone off, has assured its supporters that an independent Scotland would stay on the pound—which, as Paul Krugman points out, is a potential problem down the road:
In short, everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area. And an independent Scotland using Britain's pound would be in even worse shape than euro countries, which at least have some say in how the European Central Bank is run.
Give it to me straight—what are the other potential repercussions of Scotland gaining independence?
- British Prime Minister David Cameron might have to resign. No one wants to be the guy who broke up the United Kingdom, and no one will really want him in power. A lax politician who couldn't keep his kiddies in check. He has said, however, as strong as a mouse, that he will not resign if the time comes.
- London's status as a financial powerhouse could be placed in jeopardy. Already, before the vote has even been made, the pound has sunk to a ten-month low since the Yes campaign began to lead in the polls. There is still no certainty over what currency Scotland will use and how the new country would take responsibility for the UK's debt. Additionally, oil reserves off the coast of Scotland would put the country on a potential path toward wealth. As the BBC notes, the oil money could end up "creating a £30bn sovereign wealth pot over a generation," which the rest of the UK would no longer be entitled to.
- Being separate would be weird. There are almost 500,000 English people who live in Scotland and if you consider that the UK is so deeply rooted in its past that it still maintains a stagnant, ill-managed monarchy, then think about how shook-up it will be when an entire country jumps ship. Not gonna feel good or easy for anyone.
So who are the two groups called who are rallying for and against the vote?
Better Together and Yes Scotland.
Who's gonna win?
And why should this matter to me, an American?
Well, President Obama has come out and said that he encourages Scotland to stay together with the United Kingdom: "We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner," but he stands by Scotland's right to make the decision for independence on their own. One of the biggest concerns for the United States is that Scotland's independence will have an impact on a nuclear weapon that the UK is leasing from the US and whose home is in Scotland. Scotland no longer wants to keep it since they are anti-nuclear weapons.
First among these is the fate of the 58 Trident II D5 missiles leased from the US by the British government that have served as the UK's primary deterrent against nuclear attack since 1990, and the four Vanguard-class submarines which carry them. There are other important questions too, ones about maintaining the balance of power in Nato; the relationship between the UK and the European Union, which could be jeopardised; and the larger foreign policy effect of a weakened United Kingdom.
So what does England think about all this? They must be buck angry.
Angry, maybe not. Politely peeved, sure. Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that "there is no going back" once Scotland votes for independence, and has traveled with two other of his political partners to Scotland to personally campaign against the vote.
"The Sovereign's constitutional impartiality is an established principle of our democracy and one which the Queen has demonstrated throughout her reign. As such the Monarch is above politics and those in political office have a duty to ensure that this remains the case. Any suggestion that the Queen should wish to influence the outcome of the current referendum campaign is categorically wrong. This is a matter for the people of Scotland."
What are famous citizens of the UK saying about this shit?
Leading public figures such as the actors Sir Sean Connery, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, and Elaine C Smith; the writers Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson, and Liz Lochhead; musicians the Proclaimers, Midge Ure, and Pat Kane; and film director Ken Loach.
- J.K. Rowling: "The simple truth is that Scotland is subject to the same 21st Century pressures as the rest of the world. It must compete in the same global markets, defend itself from the same threats and navigate what still feels like a fragile economic recovery."
- David Bowie: "Scotland stay with us."
- Susan Boyle: "I am a proud, patriotic Scot, passionate about my heritage and my country. But I am not a nationalist."
- Emma Thompson: "Why insist on building a new border between human beings in an ever-shrinking world where we are still struggling to live alongside each other?"
- Shrek: "Shrek wants what the will of the Scottish people want."
What is the most English thing about the whole referendum?
Every debate against separation has been prefaced by "I believe that Scotland should feel comfortable doing what they'd like and I apologize in advance for expressing my opinion and please don't judge me for it because I love Scotland and want them to be happy, but..."
[Image by Jim Cooke]