Could Scotland Really Break Away From the U.K.?

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Aug. 18 2014 5:34 PM

Could Scotland Really Break Away From the U.K.?

453774086-first-minister-alex-salmond-speaks-during-a-visit-to
First Minister Alex Salmond speaks during a visit to Abbey Bowling Club on Aug. 18, 2014, in Arbroath, Scotland.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

We’re now a month away from a vote to determine whether Great Britain will have to continue on as not-quite-as-great Britain. On Sept. 18, Scots will head to the polls for a long-awaited independence referendum, and while the “no” camp—those opposing secession—continue leading in the polls, it’s still too close for comfort as far as London’s concerned.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

One recent poll has support for independence at 38 percent versus 47 percent opposed with 14 percent still undecided. Another is at 42 to 46 percent with 12 percent undecided.

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Interestingly, support for independence has slightly increased in spite of a lackluster televised debate performance by Scotland’s First Minister and independence leader Alex Salmond.

Salmond (whom I interviewed last year during a visit to D.C.) has been stumbling over the question of what currency an independent Scotland would use. The ideal arrangement from the point of view of the independence campaign would be for Scotland to remain in a currency union in Britain and continue using the pound, at least until a new currency were created. But British parties may not allow that, meaning that Scotland may have to simply use the pound without a formal arrangement, the way that countries like Panama use the U.S. dollar. There’s also the thorny question of whether an independent Scotland would be a member of the EU.

With due respect to high-profile appeals from the likes of David Bowie and J.K. Rowling, practical concerns like these seem as if they would be the most likely to sway voters. National independence is a romantic notion, but it will also lead to years of debate over how responsibilities, revenues, and resources are allocated.

Least helpful to the unionist cause may be appeals like that of Australian leader Tony Abbott, who said recently that those favoring independence “are not the friends of justice [and] not the friends of freedom.” Barack Obama has slightly more subtly voiced his opposition to a breakup.

Despite the recent polls showing some undecideds breaking for the pro-independence camp, the smart money’s still on Scots sticking with the U.K. There’s been some concern that the country could be in for Quebec-like “neverendum” in which the question of independence reappears year after year.

On the other hand, this vote is taking place at a time when, thanks to a confluence of economic and political circumstances, European voters are uniquely fed up with the status quo, rewarding populist parties of all political stripes at the ballot box, and a number of separatist movements—not just in Britain—are seeing their popular support surge. If the Scottish nationalists can’t make it happen this time, they’re unlikely to get a better chance anytime soon.  

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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