As countries go Scotland can’t claim to be a big one or in the grand scheme of things an important one, some people feel it can’t even claim to be a country at all. That might change in September.
On September the 18th this year all the permanent residents of Scotland will have the opportunity to vote on one question – ‘Should Scotland be an Independent Country?’ and if more vote ‘Yes’ than vote ‘No’ then the process of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom will begin.
For anyone who doesn’t know the United Kingdom, or UK as it’s often called, is made up of a union containing four distinct ‘countries’; England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Many people mistakenly call this entity Great Britain, or GB, but that is in fact the name of the island England, Wales and most of Scotland are on. Some people are also prone to saying England when they mean the UK, this can often annoy residents of the other three members of the union. England, Wales and Scotland have been willing and active members of this union for several centuries now. The island of Ireland was also once a member however following an acrimonious split in the early 20th century Northern Ireland remained in the UK and the Republic of Ireland became a separate country entirely.
The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy, everyone over 18 and not in prison can vote, it has two houses of parliament, one elected and one appointed with both situated in London, and a Queen as head of state a role that’s mainly ceremonial. In addition there is an elected assembly in Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London and an elected parliament in Scotland. These regional bases have various powers and responsibilities. On top of all that there is the European parliament in Brussels, it also has certain powers and responsibilities. So on the whole there’s no shortage of democracy for anyone looking for it.
For various social and political reasons the ‘independence movement’ has gained significant traction in recent years. The main ‘independence party in Scotland is the Scottish National Party or SNP and at the last Scottish parliament elections they won an outright majority for the first time. The SNP has existed for decades but it tended to be a fringe party, strong in some geographic areas and sometimes attracting a protest vote from those disillusioned with the larger UK wide parties. But its goal of removing Scotland from the UK seemed very unlikely even a decade ago. However events have conspired and here we are.
With the possible exception of the Ice Bucket Challenge nothing dominates the media, both traditional and social, in Scotland like the referendum. As the election gets closer feelings are becoming heightened, the rhetoric has ratcheted up a notch or three and people are being forced to choose a side.
By now you might be wondering what does any of this have to do with you. Well like all major events if Scotland does become independent there will be ripples felt across the world. For a start other European secession movements are watching intently. Spain, France, Belgium, Italy and Romania all have secessionist movements. Spain in particular has been quite outspoken as it contemplates what Scottish independence might mean for Catalonia and the Basque Country. The further fracturing of Europe into smaller countries isn’t popular with the United States government. Most Western European countries are natural allies and trade partners of the US, change could affect this. Scotland is also a strategically significant part of Europe for NATO. It’s the home of most of the nuclear weapons and all the nuclear submarines in the UK for example, indeed its not clear anywhere outside of Scotland could house those vessels. The independence movement have made great play of their intention to remove all nuclear weapons from Scotland. The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should that change if it breaks up? The UK is a powerful nation in the EU and provides a balance for those nations less interested in federalism. The weakening of the UK in an EU context might mean German and French influence increases. Interestingly there is no guarantee an independent Scotland can join the EU and some serious political manoeuvring can be expected on that topic should it arise.
Scottish waters are also home to oil and gas reserves, the largest in Europe and a significant source of revenue for successive governments. Uncertainty and change can also affect the economy. Business leaders have generally been in favour of remaining in the UK but a number of high profile ones have taken the opposite view and most have expressed no view at all. What’s not clear is what a ‘Yes’ vote would mean for an economy intrinsically linked to its southern neighbours. Some say it would flourish, other argue the opposite and in truth nobody really knows. What can’t be argued is the revenue gained from oil, gas and Scottish whisky exports is significant and it’s loss is likely to weaken the economy of the rest of the UK should it happen.
So far all opinion polls have a shown a majority of Scots will vote ‘No’ and choose to remain part of the United Kingdom. But it’s close and the number of people undecided is still large enough to change the course of the election. This might surprise some people, but it should be remembered that Scotland isn’t suppressed, it wasn’t invaded and conquered and it’s a member of a modern, democratic, liberal democracy. There are some cultural differences between the constituent parts of the UK but culturally we also have much more in common. Unlike say Quebec or Catalonia the vast majority of people in the UK speak the same language as each other, indeed speaking English is a great benefit for Scotland globally. We watch the same films and TV, listen to the same music and follow the same sports, albeit we might want different sides to win. We’re a mongrel bunch as well, many of us have a partner, parent or grandparent from outside Scotland, likewise Scots moving to other parts of the UK to live and work is commonplace.
It’s not clear what legacy this will leave. Increased powers for the Scottish parliament are guaranteed no matter the outcome and hopefully supporters of either side will accept the will of the people and move forward without acrimony or recrimination. Other parts of the United Kingdom are affected by this vote yet they’ve no say in it. The current UK government remains unpopular and unrepresentative here, if it retains power at the next UK election we could be doing all this again in five years time.