It’s a simple question, but it has enormous implications: should Scotland be an independent country? This week, the people of Scotland will have a chance to vote “yes” or “no,” thus determining whether to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Recent polls suggest that the vote could go either way, with consequences that extend from the Royal Bank of Scotland to the royal residence at Buckingham Palace.
Why is Scotland considering independence?
Scotland is more left-leaning, politically, than the rest of the UK. Of the 59 members Scotland sends to the UK Parliament, only one belongs to the Conservative party. In England, the majority of MPs are Conservatives.
Scotland does have its own regional parliament, which can set policies for health care, education, culture, and environmental protection. If it were independent, Scotland would have much fuller control over taxation and spending priorities, allowing it to forge the kind of strong social-welfare state that Scottish voters seem to support.
A vote for independence would provide a sort of test case for the role of the state in the modern world. Three centuries after Scotland and England first joined in a political union, the two nations would begin pursuing different paths, with Scotland introducing a more interventionist, social-welfare state and England continuing to rely more heavily on free market outcomes. As a Scottish pro-independence voter might put, “We’ll take the high road, you take the low road, and we’ll see if Scotland gets there before you.”
Hold on. If Scotland isn’t already a country, what is it?
Scotland is one of the four members of the United Kingdom (UK), along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Very loosely, you can think of them like states, here in the United States. They have some limited powers of their own, and they field their own World Cup soccer teams, but they are not independent, sovereign countries.
Not only does most power still reside with the British Parliament, but the UK signs international treaties, sits on the UN Security Council, and belongs to NATO and the EU.
What happens if Scotland votes yes?
The optimistic view is that after a “yes” vote Scotland and the remaining UK members would work together to ensure a smooth transition to independence. The pessimistic view is that all hell will break loose.
There are a lot of issues that still need to be negotiated and resolved. For instance, many Scottish people live in England, and vice versa. Would they require passports to go back and forth? Would it become more difficult for Scottish citizens living abroad to travel to London? Would Queen Elizabeth become Queen of Scots? What about the UK’s public debt? How much should be shouldered by a newly independent Scotland?
Perhaps the biggest issue has to do with whether Scotland would develop its own currency, continue on the pound, or join the euro. Technical questions like these sometimes have enormous implications, and one of the big lessons of the last few years is that currencies matter a lot. European countries with their own currencies have weathered the Great Recession better than those on the euro.
This leaves Scotland with two bad choices: either join an existing currency (the pound or the euro) and risk the fate that has befallen other currency unions; or start your own currency and hope your economy survives the transition from an established currency to a totally new and untested one.
And what if they vote no?
Even a “no” vote could bring big changes to Scotland and the UK. Not wanting to be the prime minister who fiddled while the UK dissolved, David Cameron has spent the last week campaigning to keep his country together. He’s promised that if Scotland votes against independence, he’ll organize a fast-track process to increase the authority and autonomy of the Scottish Parliament.
What do the polls say?
For months, it looked like Scotland was likely to vote “no” on independence--or “no, thanks” as the opposition calls it. Two weeks ago, a surge of support for independence put the “yes” vote briefly in the lead. And while more recent polls show the “no” side back on top, the final outcome is still uncertain.
Could the vote have more far-reaching effects?
Secessionist groups around the world are hoping that a “yes” vote will embolden their own efforts. And Scottish people living outside the country — who aren’t allowed to vote in the referendum — are wondering what this will mean for their own sense of home and belonging.
More esoterically, readers of “British history” and fans of “British literature” may have to start discriminating more carefully between the English and the Scottish. While works by Shakespeare and Francis Bacon can still be shelved with “English Literature,” Scotland has dibs on arch-skepticist David Hume, father of economics Adam Smith, and Sherlock Holmes-creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others.
In the end, Scotland is not entirely unlike Massachusetts. It’s a small, liberal redoubt in a not especially liberal country — with a thick regional accent. Yet, there is at least this one difference: In Scotland, talk of seceding from the union has passed from a kind of dinner party joke into a real possibility. We’ll know just how real by the end of the week.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz