Independence for Scotland?

On September 18 the residents of Scotland will cast their votes in a referendum that will decide whether or not Scotland will break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent country once more. According to the polls at the time of writing, it looks as though the "No's" will win by a margin of 10 points or so - but polls are only polls and they have been wrong before. At first sight, in the twenty-first century we all tend to think that borders are set tight and are unchangeable. But a closer look at no more than the past 25 years shows us that that is not necessarily so. On Aug. 31, 1990, the signing of a Unification Treaty between the West German and East German governments led to the formal establishment of the present-day Federal Republic of Germany. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in December 1990, several countries in Eastern Europe regained their sovereignty and became independent. In Czechoslovakia, however, Czechs and Slovaks drifted apart until on Jan. 1, 1993, they became separate countries in what became known as the Velvet Divorce.

As recently as earlier this year, Crimea was annexed by Russia from Ukraine.

And currently in Syria and Iraq the border established more than 90 years ago at the end of World War One has been brushed aside by the aggressive and brutal actions of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the announced intent of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region.

At least, in Scotland's case the decision process is more democratic and calm. But calmness of process disguises the passion that many of the just over five million Scots feel about being united with England since 1707 and under the thumb of decisions made by Parliament in London. "If Denmark and Iceland and Eire can be successful independent countries, so can we!" In an effort to head off the growing problem of Scottish devolution, by a referendum in 1997 the Scottish Parliament (which had existed from the early 13th century to 1707) was re-established and a Scottish government was given certain powers for domestic matters within Scotland.

But this failed to stem the tide of independence being pursued by the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by canny Scot politician and First Minister Alex Salmond and so in 2013 it was agreed in London and Edinburgh that a decisive referendum should be held on Sept. 18, 2014. Salmond noted that 2014 would be "a good year to hold a referendum" as not only would Scotland host the 2014 Ryder Cup but it is also the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 when the Scots had delivered a crushing blow against the English army of King Edward II.

As the date of the referendum has come closer, views have hardened. Scottish nationalists have argued that, with sovereignty regained, income from North Sea oil and gas will bolster the economy once the ownership is prised from the grip of companies headquartered in London. The SNP has taken the position that Scotland will apply to join the European Union and, while most likely seek to adopt the pound sterling, perhaps in due course might adopt the euro as currency. Scotland would also become a non-nuclear country which would mean that it would no longer provide base facilities for British ballistic missile submarines.

The warnings from London have become increasingly ominous. The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that removal of British submarines will cost Scottish jobs in the defence industry, and those will not necessarily be limited to submarine bases. The Governor of the Bank of England (the British equivalent more or less of the U. S. Federal Reserve) has stated that the body has "a wide range of tools and plans" to maintain the financial stability of the pound, but cross-party political leaders in London have robustly warned that they will not enter into a currency union with an independent Scotland. In the business community, opinion seems divided: in Scotland more than 200 business leaders have issued a statement lending support to the "Yes" campaign, while a day earlier over 130 business leaders had issued an open letter saying that the case for independence had not been made. Several important members of the business community have carefully avoided taking any public position in order to avoid any potential harmful consequences should they find themselves on the wrong side of the decision.

On Sept. 18 and in the days following, the outcome will hopefully become somewhat clearer. But if the referendum fails to achieve independence for Scotland, there have already been cautions that for financial and commercial stability it will be important to avoid a "neverendum." In other words, an SNP that wins, say, just over 40 percent of the vote should not then be allowed to claim another referendum in a couple of years' time.

Quite apart from what happens in Scotland, it is interesting to consider a wider view. If the "Yes" vote wins, what message will that send to the Basques in Spain? Or the French Canadians in Quebec? Or the Walloons in Belgium? or the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Iran? And even further ahead, what message might it send to the Spanish-speaking majority that will exist in California by 2040 or thereabouts. Borders are not necessarily set in stone.

Derek Boothby is a resident of Manchester and a former arms control expert for the U.N.


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