If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. This might be the motto of Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party, which since 1934 has been advocating the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, governed not from London but from Edinburgh and able to make its own policy decisions about defense, immigration, taxation, and spending. On September 18, Scots will finally face a referendum about their future. Do they wish to continue to be part of the United Kingdom or to go it alone under their own flag—the blue and white saltire—into a new Caledonian era? The timing of the vote is itself highly political. This year is the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn (1314), a battle at which the Scots famously won a victory over the English. It serves as a reminder of history, and that throughout the period when Scotland and England have had a united government—1707 to the present—there have been those who felt nostalgic for Scotland’s previous 800 years of sovereignty and viewed the union as a shotgun marriage, an uneasy and unequal yoking of nations whose interests and whose cultural and political values are not identical. Now Alex Salmond wants a divorce.
It is not clear whether he will get one. All surveys to date have suggested that the majority of Scottish residents intend to vote against independence; but the numbers are sufficiently close to create uncertainty. In a recent opinion poll, 51 percent of those questioned said they would vote No, 38 percent said they would vote Yes, and 11 percent remained undecided. The fence on which this last group sits is heavily patrolled, and as the referendum approaches, the rhetoric on both sides is becoming louder and more defiant. I will be voting myself in September, and since I have not yet made up my own mind, now seems a good moment to weigh the arguments on both sides.
The major political parties in Westminster have backed a “Better Together” campaign, calling for Scotland to retain membership in a United Kingdom that is greater than the sum of its parts. Their chief arguments are economic and pragmatic. They invoke the realpolitik of Britain’s position and influence as a global power. They cite statistics showing that Scots gain under the present U.K. formula for allocation of public expenditure, with spending of $20,440 per person, distinctly above the U.K. average of $18,288. Scotland’s relatively remote Highland regions, which require public services but have a low population paying taxes, might justify such higher expenditures, but pro-unionists warn that an independent Scotland, severed from the financial power of London, would have to dig deep into its sporran to obtain the revenue to cover such largesse.
Scotland’s population is an aging one—more so than that of southern regions that are more attractive to new immigrants—and proportionally more Scots are in public sector jobs than their English counterparts. How, ask the anti-independence forces, would a country disproportionately dependent for its income on North Sea oil manage as those oilfields decline and eventually cease production over the next 30 to 40 years? They point also to the high costs of setting up separate, new administrative structures and warn that England would refuse to maintain a currency union with its neighbor. Do Scots really want to lose the pound sterling, the Bank of England as lender of last resort, and the U.K. Treasury to draw on should their big banks fail, as happened to the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Halifax Bank of Scotland in the 2008 financial crash? Ireland, once cited as an example of Celtic Tiger economic growth, suffered so harshly in the wake of the banking crisis—when the European Commission pressed it to guarantee liability for all the bonds it had issued, an obligation it could not afford—that the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.