Why you should care
The Scottish independence vote is a game changer for the U.K., whether the outcome is aye or nay. Here are four under-the-radar reasons why.
Scotland might just vote for independence on Thursday — the polls are too close to call — ending a union with Great Britain that’s lasted 307 years. Is British history even conceivable without the fighting Scottish brigades? Or men marching in kilts to the mournful tunes of the bagpipe? Or the much more recent offshore Scottish oil wealth?
Prime Minister David Cameron has warned of the dire consequences, especially economic, of a “Yes” vote, and yesterday asked Scots not to walk away from their shared history. But Conservative Cameron is unpopular in left-leaning Scotland. The Scots may join the many people around the globe who just want to be free.
In the emotionally charged debate, here are four key issues that have flown under the radar:
1. What Happens to Britain’s Nuclear Fleet?
The U.K. bases its nuclear fleet, Trident, in Scotland’s Faslane naval base, but maybe not for much longer. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged that an independent Scotland would be firmly antinuclear. In its manifesto for independence, the Scottish government argues that Trident is “an affront to basic decency.”
Although the fleet is due to be replaced in 2016, at a cost of £100 billion, relocating Trident from Scotland would be extremely difficult, add billions to the cost and, according to Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, force Britain’s nuclear deterrence into “a dangerous period of destabilization.”
2. Will the Queen Reign in Scotland?
How could there be a breakup when the princess is pregnant with a potential heir to the throne? Call us cynical, but it seems suspect that the royal family confirmed that Will and Kate are expecting Queen Elizabeth II’s second great-grandchild on the very day a poll showed the “Yes” on independence vote had pulled ahead. (The latest poll numbers are inconclusive.)
The role of the monarchy in an independent Scotland is uncertain. Of course, the royal family hasn’t run the country in centuries, but it remains an important symbol of state. Until 2016, Scotland would operate under an interim constitution, which retains the Queen as head of state, as in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But then a permanent Scottish constitution would be drafted, which could kick-start a debate about whether Scotland would follow Ireland by declaring a republic and abandoning the monarchy altogether.
Buckingham Palace has admonished both sides in recent weeks for trying to claim Her Majesty’s support, insisting that the monarch will remain neutral, but the Queen did urge Scots to “think carefully” about the decision. In the meantime, who wouldn’t want to be ruled by a baby this cute? Actually, maybe a lot of people.
3. The Rise of Scottish Conservatism
The “Yes” campaign’s won the support of the Scottish far left, aiming for an independent Scotland that could emerge a champion of social justice, once freed from the influence of patrician English politicians with their upper-class accents. Scots have always steered left of the English. They elected just one Conservative Party member to parliament in the 2010 elections, and antipathy toward Cameron is a powerful plank in the “Yes” platform.
But with English Conservatives gone, independence would likely give birth to a Scottish brand of conservatism, which would distance itself from the hated legacy of Margaret Thatcher while reducing taxes and promoting industry.
The first Scottish government would not be elected until 2016. By then, Scotland would already have suffered a painful economic transition, which could force the left-leaning SNP out of favor.
4. Looming Economic Disaster?
Scotland’s most powerful banks — the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group — have stepped up post-independence contingency plans, including relocating headquarters (and jobs) to London, where both banks are already major players.
The banks’ concern is understandable. RBS and Lloyds received £65 billion in taxpayer bailouts in 2008 and 2009, without which the Scottish economy could plausibly have gone under. Resting its economic case on Scotland’s dwindling oil supplies, the SNP has failed to provide convincing answers to questions about currency and finance. It insists that Scotland will peg to the U.K. pound but, as Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times, “The combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster,” as demonstrated by the collapse of the EU’s peripheral economies in 2009, including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
Others chafe at the idea that bigger is always better. Relatively small eurozone members like Belgium and the Netherlands share the monetary policies of the largest European economies. Both recovered rapidly from the recession in part due to prudent fiscal policies. After all, who’s more famed for frugality than the Scots?
Should the outcome of Thursday’s referendum be a “No,” don’t expect the U.K. to return to business as usual. This campaign, with its Shakespearean drama and political intrigue, has demonstrated that the divide between north and south runs deeper than anyone knew.
Steve Butler contributed reporting.