By HOPE RACINE
In one of the closest votes of the modern age, Scottish citizens will vote today on whether to leave the United Kingdom and branch out as an independent country.
Scotland, which has been part of a political union with Britain since 1707, is hosting a nation-wide referendum asking a simple yes or no question: should Scotland be an independent country?
Thus far, more than 4.2 million people have registered to vote on the referendum, and if the majority votes yes, plans will be set in action for Scotland to become fully independent as early as 2016. Current polls conducted by the Scotsman newspaper place the outcome as close as 49 to 45 percent in favor of staying in the UK, with six percent still undecided.
Scottish independence is not a new concept; it is one that citizens have been fighting for both subtly and overtly for almost 1,000 years. But the push for independence is stemming less out of old hostilities and more out of a desire for a more representative government.
This poor representation has historically landed Scotland with a lot of bad hands. For example, Scotland has been tasked with safeguarding U.K. and U.S. nuclear weapons, effectively making the country a nuclear target. In the 1990s, Scotland was the testing ground for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, which had disastrous effects on the economy. In 1746, Scottish tartan was actually banned as part of a government project to eradicate highland and Gaelic culture.
In 1999, as a response to the historical mishandling of Scottish interests, former Prime Minister Tony Blair helped establish a new Scottish parliament as part of the Scotland Act of 1998. However, the parliament deals primarily with “devolved” matters of education, health, agriculture and justice, and is still under control of the British parliament. This means that the majority of the important decisions, including immigration, taxation and war declaration remain out of Scotland’s hands.
According to those who are part of the “Yes” campaign, Scottish politics are routinely liberal, compared to Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative British government.
While the independence movement is not new, it has often been in the background of Scottish politics, serving more as a fringe group. However, since the 2011 victory of the Scottish National Party, independence has moved from a fringe concern to the center of Holyrood debates.
“The ‘yes’ campaign has centered on a positive vision for Scotland,” Scottish actor Sean Connery said.
So what will happen if Scotland votes yes? According to the SNP leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, not a whole lot.
Salmond, while campaigning for a yes vote, has assured voters that citizens would be able to keep using the pound sterling, which is currently one of the strongest currencies in the world. However, the British government has insisted that they will not agree to this, meaning that Scotland would then have to join the infamously weak euro.
Unfortunately, the European Union stated that it will be at least five years or more before they are accepting new members to the union or bringing new countries on to the Euro. In addition, once spots open up, the EU faces hostilities from Spain, who are currently dealing with their own independence referendum with the country of Catalonia. This means that without the pound or euro, Scotland would be forced to create their own currency.
But where would the financial backing for this new currency come from?
The SNP’s main economic plan relies almost entirely on the North Sea oil and gas reserves that lie off its shores, which have historically been a cash cow for Great Britain. However, each year sees the rigs produce less and less oil, indicating that they are near the end of their lifespans. In addition, there are debates over how much control over these reserves Scotland would actually receive. In a recent session of Parliament, a Scottish MP asked Cameron the likelihood of Scotland being allowed to keep 60 percent of the reserves.
“Well, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer,” Cameron responded.
In addition, Scotland’s growing technological and manufacturing industries could potentially be crippled, as many large businesses have indicated that with a yes vote they will remove their offices from Edinburgh and move south to London.
However, Better Together supporters, which include famous Scots such as “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are still hoping for a resolution.
Cameron, Labour Party leader Ed Milibrand and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg all publicly signed a pledge that would give Scots “extensive new powers,” on the condition that they stay with the union. Among these new powers would be the ability for the Scottish parliament to raise taxes.
“The ability to tax our people is not so exciting, especially when independence gives us that option as well,” one Scottish MP said in response.
In addition to economic worries, many are concerned of the social and cultural ramifications of the potential break.
“Voting yes will end every single last remaining link that exists, the connections we have with our friends, neighbors and relatives in the rest of the U.K.,” said Brown during a Better Together campaign in Scotland last week. “This cannot be a trial separation. This is bound to be a messy and expensive and costly and difficult divorce.”
Though symbolic changes, such as what to do with the Union Jack are still up in the air, Salmond has indicated that an independent Scotland would function as a monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II at the head, much like Canada or Australia.
Britain, who in the post-imperial age are known for losing countries, faced a similar, though less devastating, situation in the 90s. In 1995, Canada held their second and final referendum to gauge support for leaving the Commonwealth. The ‘no’ vote won out in a union victory largely accredited to support from outside politicians, such as U.S. President Bill Clinton.
No such support has been indicated by outside leaders for the Scottish referendum. Many insinuated that it is not anyone’s business but Scotland’s. However, that is not necessarily true.
As a global power, significant changes to the United Kingdom, such as the constitutional crisis that would follow a ‘yes’ vote, will send ripples out across the world. This vote will not only impact a tiny amount of people on an island far away, it will affect all of us as global citizens.
One thing is for sure: something will have to change, regardless of the vote.