LONDON — I've been to the United Kingdom many times before, but I've never experienced a visit like this one — because the United Kingdom may no longer exist by the time I leave. Watching the debate ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum on Scottish independence is extraordinary. As I write this, British Prime Minister David Cameron is speaking in Aberdeen. "On Thursday, Scotland votes, and the future of our country is at stake," he said, eyes misting up. "On Friday, people could be living in a different country, with a different place in the world and a different future ahead of it."
He's right. It may have taken a while for Britons to fully comprehend that Scotland might actually leave, but nobody doubts that possibility now. Even down here in London, far from the scene of the vote, everyone is aghast at the implications.
A friend tells me that her husband, an officer serving in the Royal Regiment of Scotland, has no idea what will happen if the referendum goes through. "There haven't been any contingency plans at all," she says. No one in his unit, which consists overwhelmingly of Scots, knows whether it will become part of a new Scottish army or remain within the British armed forces. Someone else here tells of a friend who's trying to buy a house in Scotland, but who can't get a mortgage because the bank is holding off until after the referendum.
The potential reverberations of a Scottish divorce fill the airwaves and the papers. Will Scots who are opposed to independence get to keep their British passports? How will pensions be divided up? What sort of border controls will have to be implemented? Will Scotland really be able to join the European Union as an independent country — or NATO, for that matter? And will Scots be able to go on using the pound — as independence campaigners say they'd like to — if the Bank of England, which manages the currency, refuses to go along?
It's also been highly educational for those of us who've never really paid particular attention to Scotland before. I confess that I didn't know the first thing about such exotica as groats, woad, or devo max before I started following the debate. And despite the seriousness of the issue there's also been some wonderful unintentional comedy — like the puff piece from high society magazine Tatler about the poor, underprivileged folk from the 432 families that own half of Scotland's private land.
But even at this distance one thing is manifest: Because there's so much at stake, the vote has galvanized Scottish voters and civil society in a way that no other issue in recent memory has managed to do. Only 64 percent of Scotland's registered voters turned out for the last British parliamentary election. Given the current level of voter registration, around 80 percent are projected to take part in the referendum. Younger Scots have been especially active (both pro and contra), prompting commentators to remark on their "astonishing lack of apathy."
Whatever the outcome, it's hard to dispute that Scottish vote offers a dramatic demonstration of democracy in action. Independence campaigners are especially keen to emphasize this point. Scots aren't motivated by crude, anti-English resentment, they say, but by the earnest desire to bring government closer to the people. Alex Salmond, the head of the Scottish government, says that a vote in favor of the referendum will be "the people's victory." He insists that a vote for independence will be "an act of self-confidence and self-assertion which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here – not by a remote Westminster system." (Nor, judging by declining voter turnout across the United Kingdom, are Scots the only Britons to feel this way.)
In that sense, it's entirely apt to view the Scottish independence movement as an expression of the same worries that drive not only other European separatist movements (the Catalans, the Basques, or the South Tyroleans), but also such disparate forces as America's Tea Party and the U.K. Independence Party, the noisy populists who have been campaigning against British membership in the European Union. What they all have in common is a protest against "remote" governments, the fear that power has become alienated from the people who deserve to exercise it. "We're a few days away from the people of Scotland taking control of the future of our own country," said Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy, over the weekend.
One might even go so far as to see the Scottish independence movement in the context of the recent revolts against democratically elected leaders around the world. In Pakistan, two discontented political parties have vowed to topple the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — even though he came to power in a free election just last year. They may have been inspired by events in Thailand, where protestors also unhappy with election results paralyzed the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until the army stepped in with a coup, a move they have since proclaimed to be an act of "true democracy."
Of course, no one in Edinburgh is calling for a coup. In fact, the independence movement has made its demands with striking peacefulness — and the government in London has never shown even a hint of calling out the guns to suppress it. All of this attests to firmly rooted liberal principles on both sides. Yet Scots insist that the United Kingdom's long-established democratic system isn't enough for them anymore. They may have some representatives in parliament, but they no longer feel represented by those "elitist toffs" in distant London. So Dennis Canavan, one of the organizers of the pro-independence campaign, sees the referendum as a unique opportunity to restore "real democracy" in Scotland. (Those who disagree with him argue hat a simple majority vote on such a momentous decision doesn't seem especially democratic. If 49 percent of Scottish residents vote no, they'll find themselves in an independent Scotland regardless.)
It could turn out as the pro-independence campaigners hope. The government of an independent Scotland, population 5.3 million, may well prove much closer in complexion to what many Scots desire. Many Scots seem to hope that independence will bring a more expansive welfare state, financed by an increased share of North Sea oil and greater control over Scotland's resources.
It's not at all clear, though, that achieving full political self-determination will achieve all these ends. To the contrary, there's good reason to believe that an independent Scotland may have a harder time finding its way in the global economy without the buffering effects of membership in a larger state. Tiny Scotland will find it tough to weather a big economic shock like the global financial crisis that sent the economy of Ireland, pop. 4.4 million, into a tailspin from which it's only just emerging.
Salmond and his colleagues have ridiculed warnings that financial institutions might flee an independent Scotland for more stable climes beneath the Tweed — but precedents suggest that risk-averse bankers and investors may not be willing to stay. (Threats of retaliation against companies that refuse to jump on the independence bandwagon probably aren't helping.) An independent Scotland thus might make good on activists' vows to banish the specter of rampant neoliberalism, but the cost could turn out to be prohibitively high. More likely the newly sovereign country will find itself facing soaring borrowing costs and skeptical investors. "[I]ndependence that does not give citizens some power against global forces is fragile and shallow — and, as Ireland learned in 2010, can be revoked by the financial markets," notes journalist Fintan O'Toole in the Guardian, in one of the best pieces on the debate that I've read so far.
The pro-independence campaign also dismisses fears about the currency of their future state, saying that they'll retain the British pound sterling even if Britain doesn't want them to. (Scottish nationalists rather bizarrely cite the example of Panama, which uses the U.S. dollar even though the country has nothing to do with Washington politically.) The paradox is that they'd have even less sway over the Bank of England, which sets monetary and fiscal policy for the UK, than they do now. For what it's worth, recent polls of Welsh and English voters show them adamantly opposed to letting an independent Scotland retain the British currency. (Wales also has an independence movement, but so far few Welsh voters seem inclined to follow the Scottish example.) Political sovereignty could thus come at the price of reduced freedom of maneuver in economic matters. The modern world's interconnectedness cannot be willfully ignored.
Perhaps the nay-sayers will win on Thursday, and all of this will be moot. Or perhaps the independence campaigners will triumph, and none of these dark scenarios will come to pass. But doesn't it seem like a lot to risk? An independent Scotland will enjoy the gift of sovereignty. But how much control will it ultimately have over all of its affairs if it ends up with diminished economic clout? Will the new Scotland really be free? One wonders.
But let's end on a positive note. O'Toole, in the article I've cited above, praises the Scots for their newly discovered spirit of democratic engagement, a spirit that has transformed the country into "a buzzing hive of argument and involvement, most of it civil, respectful and deeply intelligent." The important question now, he says, is whether "after the referendum, Scots return, like the rest of us, to a state of frustrated powerlessness, or can sustain the democratic energy that has been unleashed." If they can, then perhaps the whole exercise will have been worth it — no matter what the outcome of the vote.
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