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Will Scotland Go It Alone? A Primer On The Independence Referendum


The United Kingdom may soon be losing its kilts, bagpipes, haggis, and the Loch Ness monster. On September 18, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether they want to form their own independent country. Scots only comprise about 5 million of the UK’s population of 60 million. But they’ve punched above their weight in cultural impact.

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707—longer than the United States of America has been a country. So independence would be a pretty big change. Here’s what you need to know:

If Scotland has been part of the UK since 1707, why is a referendum being held in 2014?

“It’s the product of a relatively long historical story,” says Craig Smith, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Glasgow. “There were some people who formed the Scottish National Party (SNP) at the end of the 19th century. It was never very electorally successful but gradually in the twentieth century it got small numbers of members of Parliament.” When Tony Blair became Britain’s prime minister in 1997, he agreed to establishing a Scottish Parliament which would have some powers over domestic affairs. In 2011, the SNP formed a majority government in the Scottish Parliament and demanded the referendum.

Is this all because of the movieBraveheart’? England was really mean to Scotland.

No. The Scottish decision to join the United Kingdom in 1707 was voluntary and peaceful. Since then, there haven’t been any incidents of violence, overt oppression, or prima nocta by English authorities towards the Scots. “The idea that England is a conquering or oppressive force is only found on the extreme wing of the Scottish nationalist movement,” says Smith.

Historically, nationalists have worried about the erosion of Scottish culture. But since the 1970s, many of their arguments have focused on economic issues. Scotland is more economically left-wing than England. Some nationalists try to paint the referendum in terms of Scotland as a socialist utopia versus England as a nasty penny-pincher. Alex Salmond, the head of the SNP and the spokesman for independence, often blames Margaret Thatcher’s policies for problems in Scottish society.

Margaret Thatcher? But she died last year and hasn’t been prime minister since 1990.

In America, it’s unthinkable that we’d have an entire campaign based on demonizing Ronald Reagan. But in Scotland, Thatcher-bashing gets out the vote. “Alex Salmond is trying to get support among the working class, and the working class hates Margaret Thatcher,” says Smith.

Until the 1980s, the Scottish economy was centered on heavy industry. “Thatcher removed subsidies from some industries and closed down unproductive parts of other industries and privatized other major parts,” says Smith. “They think Thatcher destroyed Scottish heavy industry, when the truth is that Scottish heavy industry destroyed itself with restrictive working practices and the trade unions. Other people could make these things cheaper and better than they could.” The impact of economic realignment was traumatic and long-lasting.

“Some people on the Left have personalized that. They say it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Thatcher, and she was personally responsible for some kind of vendetta against the working classes,” Smith says.

What else is at stake?

There are big question marks over which currency an independent Scotland would use. Salmond and the SNP say Scotland should keep the pound sterling and stay in a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. British leaders have unequivocally dismissed that idea. They point to the Eurozone, which illustrates that currency union without political union is highly problematic. Someday the UK might end up bailing out Scotland the way Germany is bailing out Greece.

Theoretically, Scotland could keep using the pound sterling without a currency union. Panama uses the U.S. dollar and it’s not in a currency union with America. But that would leave Scotland at the mercy of the British central bank and unable to manipulate its own money supply. It’s unlikely a new Scottish government—eager to live out its fantasies of huge social welfare spending—would put up with that for very long.

What will happen if Scotland votes against independence?

In Scotland, there will be hard feelings for some time. “What’s in the air here right now is getting quite ugly,” says Smith. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has offered to grant even more powers to the Scottish Parliament. So that may help ease the pain.

In the rest of the United Kingdom, the overall attitude toward the referendum is “meh.” The average person really doesn’t care. Some diehard supporters of the Conservative party will be disappointed. Scotland has 40 Labour members in the British Parliament in London and just one Conservative. So a Scottish exit would redraw the British electoral map in the Conservatives’ favor.

What will happen if Scotland votes for independence?

Scotland will not become its own country on September 19. Independence will be negotiated over an extended period, probably 18 months or longer. This is like the phase where a couple has decided to divorce but the judge won’t make it official until they’ve divided up their assets, agreed on child custody, etc. There is no pre-nup to govern the negotiations for Scottish independence. Scotland will get some of the UK’s assets but will also have to assume some of the national debt. As a negotiating tactic, Salmond has threatened to refuse to take on any share of the debt unless the UK agrees to his demand for a currency union. So things could get interesting.

As an American, will Scottish independence have an impact on me?

Not really—at least not initially. Scotland will become just another one of the many small countries in Europe. You can still take lovely vacations there. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both called on Scotland to stay in the UK, but that seems to be mostly for sentimental reasons. Clinton told the BBC, “I would hate to have you lose Scotland.”

The broader impact will only be felt in the years and even decades to come. The Scottish referendum is being watched very closely by secessionist movements all over the world—from Catalonia in Spain, to Flanders in Belgium, to Quebec in Canada and even Puerto Rico in the United States. This year in the Ukraine we’ve witnessed a highly-divisive, violent attempt at secession. Scotland could become the model of what a peaceful, democratic secession should look like. If things go smoothly, other groups will certainly be lining up to try to become “the next Scotland.”

So will Scotland vote for independence?

It’s unlikely. Ever since the referendum was announced, polls have indicated that a majority of Scots favor staying in the United Kingdom. Salmond and the nationalist movement have managed to narrow the gap somewhat, but they’ve never polled ahead. There’s an element of uncertainty because 10 to 15 percent of voters still claim to be undecided. “Some people are predicting the vote will be between 1 and 2 percentage points. I don’t think it’s going to be that close,” says Smith. “It’ll probably be more like 10 or 15 percentage points [against independence]. I think the undecided voters have actually decided. They’re just not telling.”