Politics makes strange bedfellows; political adversity makes even stranger ones. This adage was recently brought to the fore when British Prime Minister David Cameroon from the Conservative Party and his Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, of Liberal-Democrats joined hands with Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband of Labour on a trip north, in a bid to woo voters away from the Scottish National Party’s (SNP)demand for independence for Scotland.
The odd trio, were on a mission to woo Scottish voters ahead of the crucial referendum on 18 September, which could see Scotland remain, along with Wales and England, as part of Great Britain or become a free nation. As latest opinion polls indicate that the pro-independence and pro-union factions are running a neck-and-neck race, the three leaders put aside their customary political bickering and in uncommon unison called on Scottish voters to stay within the United Kingdom, saying that any separation would be irreversible.
In the months and weeks leading up to the referendum, British politicians and media have tried the ‘carrot’ approach with the Scots, promising that a ‘No’ vote to independence could lead to more powers being given to the devolved Scottish Parliament, and assuring them of better economic conditions under the Union. They also tried brandishing the ‘stick’ with warnings that a ‘Yes’ vote would lead to Scotland losing its right to use the British currency, and would find itself out of the European Union (EU). Now, in a last-bid effort to keep Scotland in the Union, the British leaders are trying the ‘emotional’ approach.
In his latest visit to Edinburgh, the prime minister said he would be “heartbroken” if the “Family of nations was torn apart.” Asking voters to make their decision not based on political terms but on historical ones, Mr. Cameroon said, “This is a decision about not the next five years. It is a decision about the next century.” Mirroring these views, the Labour leader Miliband said, “From the head, from the heart, from the soul, Scots should vote no to independence.”
However, the emotional pleas drew a mocking response from First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP led government and its pro-independence campaign, who said, “No one believes their panicked pledges — it is a phony timetable for measly powers.” Supporters of independence say it would allow them to build a more socially inclusive nation, a message that seems to have been welcomed by many in Scotland, which tends to tilt more to the left than England does.
As the actor Sean Connery, a Scot, put it, “There's something fundamentally wrong with a system where there's been 17 years of a Tory Government and the people of Scotland have voted Socialist for 17 years. That hardly seems democratic.” Meanwhile, Big Business, which for the most part is firmly opposed to any breakup, in its latest salvo against secession, released a warning through its media minions that “Scotland would face sharp price increases were it to secede from the Union.”
On Thursday, 18 September, registered voters across Scotland aged 16 and over will be heading to polling booths to answer a straightforward question of "Should Scotland be an independent country?" with a simple Yes/No vote. Incidentally, in a characteristic Scottish quirk, only British, EU or Commonwealth citizens who are legally residing in Scotland will be eligible to cast their votes. This means, the 800,000 Scots who live in other parts of the UK do not get a vote, while the 400,000 people from elsewhere, who currently live in Scotland, do. Members of the armed services and their families serving overseas who are registered to vote in Scotland also get to vote.
It is significant that it will be on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn that the Scots are once again being called on to decide the future of their land. Seven centuries ago, in 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn, which is often considered the First War of Scottish Independence, Scotland gained a decisive victory against the English. The question now is whether Scots in 2014 will reignite the fervor for independence and echo their ancestors battle victory of 1314, with a convincing ‘Yes’ vote in the ballot.
Thanks to Hollywood and actor-director Mel Gibson and his 1995 epic historical blockbuster Braveheart, many people are familiar with the Scottish wars of independence fought against the English in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. These wars eventually led to the recognition of Scottish sovereignty by the English Crown. However, the hard-won victory was gradually squandered, and in 1707 members of the Scottish and English Parliaments signed the Acts of Union that led to the two countries joining together as the United Kingdom of Great Britain with a single Parliament.
Saying that the 300-year-old Union is no longer fit for purpose and that an independent Scotland, aided by its oil wealth, would be one of the world's richest countries, First Minister Salmond has called for Scotland to take charge of its own destiny and to free itself from the “shackles” of the UK parliament in Westminster.
In response, Prime Minister David Cameroon said that the United Kingdom was one of the world’s most successful social and political unions. Pointing out that North Sea was a British success story, he reminded voters that, especially now, when oil and gas extraction from the North Sea was becoming increasingly difficult to recover, Scotland needed to rely on the “broad shoulders of the UK.
If Scotland votes for independence, the UK will lose 32 percent of its land with the density of population going from 263 people per square km to 355 people per square km. This could push UK from being the 45th most densely populated country to the 29th most populated, so a country already busy would suddenly find itself being much more crowded. This could also have consequences in rump UK’s dealing with other members of the UN and the EU.
An independent Scotland’s entry into the EU has often been raised as a stumbling block. First Minister Salmond in his recent speech at the College of Europe in Bruges has said that the new Scottish government would negotiate entry into the EU using Article 48, which allows for amending the Treaties of the European Union, the EU rulebook, by existing members. Pro-Union activists and the British government say that an independent Scotland would have to seek EU membership using Article 49, which is a more specific provision that deals with the accession to the EU by new member states.
While it is true that Scottish secession would have demographic and cultural as well as constitutional and political implications for the United Kingdom, the issue most likely to sway Scottish voters in the referendum is the economy. Among the main economic issues likely to arise following a split is the continued use of the British Pound as a currency by Scotland, and dividing the assets and liabilities of the two entities, including North Sea oil and public sector debt.
Under independence, the Scottish government wants to keep the Pound Sterling as part of a formal currency union with the rest of the UK, arguing that this is in everyone's best interests. However, the three main UK political parties do not agree to this. They say such a currency union is “fraught with difficult” and that whoever comes to power after the next UK election, will not agree to any such move.
Debating the tax and national debt also brings up serious implications for the split. The tax take from Scotland’s share of North Sea oil and gas are vital to its case for independence. Over the past five years the average annual tax revenue from oil and gas to the UK has been around $15 billion. Scotland’s part of this revenue, estimated at 90 percent based on its geographical share, would net the new government about $14 billion a year. Earmarking just a tenth of oil revenues, or US$1.4 billion a year, could form an oil fund similar to the one operated in Norway, said Mr. Salmond. This would help create a $49 billion sovereign wealth fund over a generation, he added.
While the debate on oil rage, the fact remains that latest data from oil operations in the North Sea do not appear all that lucrative. With nearly 40 billion barrels of oil already recovered from the total estimated presence of 65 billion barrels, only around 25 billion barrels remains to fund a future Scotland. Under current extraction and recovery rates, the 25 billion signifies around 30 to 40 years of production.
In 2012-13 Scotland, with 8.3 percent of the total UK population of 64 million, generated $86 billion in revenue; with tax receipts from oil and gas accounting for around 16 percent of this. Also, worth noting is that tax generated in Scotland is £10,000 per head, while in the rest of the UK it is only £9,200 per head. This means that for every person in Scotland last year, the exchequer received £800 more than the UK average. And that gap is not new. The Scottish government says that their tax receipts have been higher than the UK average in every one of the past 33 years.
But taxation is only one part of the story. Scotland’s public spending per head of $20,000 led in 2012/13 to a total public expenditure of around $106 billion. This figure along with income of $86 billion left the country short by $20 billion a year. With around 17 percent of the Scottish population below 16 and the same percentage above the age of 64, welfare and pension scheme are also expected to exacerbate the new government’s deficit.
Whether Scotland votes ‘Yes’ to independence, or chooses to stay within the United Kingdom with a ‘No’ vote, the decision will definitely be a victory for consensus of opinion and a triumph of democratic traditions. The entire issue of independence was thrashed around, debated and discussed for quite some time now.
The pros and cons of Scottish secession has been proposed and opposed from political platforms, and drawn support and denouncements from pubs and pulpits. Pro-independence advocates and their anti-independence antagonists have traveled the lowlands, highlands and many islands of Scotland seeking supporters for their viewpoint. While it is true that on few occasions arguments have been settled by sinewy fists landing on ruddy faces, nowhere during the entire process was there thoughts of armored tanks rolling across the border and no calls for the cavalry to be sent in; the same cannot be said of places elsewhere.