The pros and cons of Scottish independence: referendum countdown

The Union and Saltire flags

Next week's referendum will deliver a verdict on Scottish independence. Here are the pros and cons of going it alone

LAST UPDATED AT 16:34 ON Tue 16 Sep 2014

Postal voting is already underway in the referendum on Scottish independence, and by the end of next week the electorate could have set Scotland on the way towards severing links with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

As voters north of the border prepare to decide whether to strike off on their own or remain within the United Kingdom, we answer the key social, political and economic questions about what Scottish independence would entail – and the issues it would raise for the UK, Scotland, the EU and the wider world.

When did Scotland become part of the UK?

The acts of union between Scotland and England were passed in 1706, taking effect on 1 May, 1707. On that day, the Parliament of Great Britain was formed.

Why did each side agree to the Union?

The English were keen to make sure Scotland didn't choose a different monarch from the one sitting on the English throne. Meanwhile, the Scots were seriously "cash-strapped" after an "economically disastrous scheme to attempt to colonise the Isthmus of Panama in the late 1690s", says the Daily Telegraph.

What question will voters be asked at the referendum?

This bit is simple. There will be one question with a yes or no answer: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Who won the TV debates on Scottish independence?

Most commentators chalked up the two televised debates as a score draw. Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-Union Better Together campaign, was widely regarded as the victor in the first debate, during which his focus on detail of which currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would remain within the EU (see below) appeared to have SNP leader Alex Salmond struggling for convincing answers. But after the second contest, Salmond emerged the clear winner in post-debate polling. Darling was criticised for getting bogged down in detail while attempting to re-run the earlier debate, while Salmond's more combative approach paid dividends. It is not clear whether the debates changed any minds, but the Yes campaign's vote has risen sharply in opinion polls carried out in the weeks since the second debate.

What happens if Scotland votes for independence?

Who will win the referendum?

It may be a much closer race than many had expected. Until recently, and especially after the first televised debate, the No campaign was sitting on a clear lead. But in the past few weeks the gap has narrowed substantially. Two weeks ago a poll put the gap between the two sides at just six percentage points, and last weekend the Yes campaign took the lead for the first time. A YouGov poll that excluded those who expressed no opinion gave the pro-independence campaign a 51 per cent to 49 per cent advantage. Since then, the majority of polls have put the No vote back in front, but only by the narrowest of margins. Nevertheless, bookmakers have installed the No campaign as a clear favourite.

Why is it being held on 18 September?

The all-important date was chosen – after much deliberation – by Salmond. The BBC says the chosen day took into account factors such as Scottish winter weather, the UK party conference season and public holidays. It notes that 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Salmond may be hoping Scottish republicanism will be stirred by commemorations of Robert the Bruce's famous victory over the English army.

When will we know the result?

The polls close at 10pm on 18 September and the count will begin immediately, but Elections Scotland is decidedly cagey about when the result will be announced. "Factors such as geography, weather or road conditions are outwith the control of the COs [counting officers] and CCO [the chief counting officer]," it says. "There can be no firm prediction of a time when the result will be known." Some of the highland and island constituencies in particular may take some time to collect all their ballot boxes and confirm their results, especially if the contest is close or the weather inclement. The national outcome will not be announced until all 32 local counts have confirmed their results, which may mean that no declaration is made until the following morning.

Who is eligible to vote?

Everyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland. That means the 800,000 Scots who live in other parts of the UK won't be able to vote, and the 400,000 people from elsewhere in Britain who live in Scotland will. All the main players agree this is "the fairest way" to do things, the BBC says.

Who are the politicians backing?

It won't surprise you to learn that the SNP wants independence. The Scottish Greens also want to break free from the UK. Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all want to maintain the Union (although the Scottish-born Labour MP for Leeds East, George Mudie, has said  he would vote Yes if he were eligible to take part).

What about foreign politicians?

Barack Obama is the most high-profile foreign leader to have entered the fray, saying that the United States wanted to see the UK remaining "strong, robust and united". While Obama went out of his way to say that the decision was up to Scottish voters, he left no doubt about his position. "I would say that the United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner to us," he said. "From the outside at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well, and we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner."

Many European leaders, particularly those facing separatist movements within their own countries, are openly hostile towards Scottish independence. With one eye on Catalan nationalists, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has insisted that an independent Scotland could not expect automatic membership of the EU.  "It's very clear to me, as it is for everybody else in the world, that a country that would obtain independence from the EU would remain out of the EU," he said. "That is good for Scottish citizens to know and for all EU citizens to know."

And what about celebrities?

Prominent Scots have turned out on both sides of the debate. Sean Connery, perhaps the most celebrated supporter of independence, said: "As a Scot and as someone with a lifelong love for both Scotland and the arts, I believe the opportunity of independence is too good to miss." On the unionist side, JK Rowling has donated £1m to Better Together. "This separation will not be quick and clean," she said. "It will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours."

Would an independent Scotland keep the Queen?

At least in the short term, the Queen would remain Scotland's head of state. "The Scottish Government’s proposal is that the Queen remains head of state in Scotland, in the same way as she is currently head of state in independent nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, says Yes Scotland. "This would be the position for as long as the people of Scotland wished our country to remain a monarchy." However, many Scottish nationalists are also republican, and the Daily Telegraph reports comments by a minister that have been interpreted as a suggestion that a Yes vote would soon be followed by referendum on the monarchy. 'Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, said 'it will be for the people of Scotland to decide' on the Queen's role if they vote to leave the United Kingdom in September this year," the paper reports. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail suggests that, in the event of Scottish independence, the Queen may be forced to appoint a Governor-General to represent her north of the new international border. 

Would Scots retain British citizenship after a Yes vote?

Precise citizenship laws will need to be negotiated, but precedent suggests that most Scots would lose their British citizenship in the event of a Yes vote. "Citizens of newly independent countries do not in fact retain citizenship of the country from which they have become independent, with the exception of a small number of potential dual citizens who qualify under the citizenship laws of both countries," writes immigration barrister Colin Yeo. Scots born to British parents (ie those from what remained of the UK), or who were born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would probably qualify for British citizenship, but others would not. Likewise, it is probable that Britons born in Scotland or to Scottish parents could apply for citizenship of an independent Scotland.

Would an independent Scotland keep the pound?

Alex Salmond was "pilloried" for the assumption - stated in the White Paper - that Scotland will be allowed to keep sterling. Salmond says David Cameron would be "in breach of undertakings to the Scottish people" if he refuses to allow an independent Scotland to join a sterling currency union, the Guardian reports. But the Chancellor, George Osborne, has made it clear that it is "highly unlikely" that Scotland will be allowed to keep using the currency after independence. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has also said that Scotland "could not force the UK into a currency union against its will".

What about the euro?

The currency issue is further complicated by the desire for a newly independent Scotland to join the EU, but opt out of the Euro. Salmond says there's "no prospect" of Scotland joining the Euro, but experts believe it may be forced to use the European currency. Professor Jo Murkens, an expert on Scottish independence and European constitutional law, told the Scottish Express: "Every new applicant state has to commit themselves in law to adopting the euro. There have been no opt-outs. It is a condition of membership."

How would the UK's national debt be shared?

Another thorny issue raised by the separation of the two countries is the amount of the UK's £1 trillion national debt that will be inherited by Scotland. The White Paper says Scotland will take on a share amounting to between £100bn and £130bn. As a proportion of GDP – gross domestic product, which is boosted in Scotland due to income from North Sea oil – the document says this is “less than the debt of the rest of the UK expressed in the same terms”. Alex Salmond has said that he may not agree to taking on Scotland's share of the national debt if Scotland was not allowed joint control of the pound. The Treasury has said it will stand behind all existing UK Government debt, regardless of how it might be shared between an independent Scotland and the rump UK after this September's referendum. The pledge is "aimed at removing the risk of default from any debt-sharing dispute between Scotland and the rest of the UK," the BBC reports. Doubts about who would be responsible for servicing the debt could have led to increased borrowing costs as the referendum approached.

How would Scottish independence affect UK defence policy?

The SNP has previously said it wants Britain's nuclear submarines – currently stationed at the Faslane Naval Base – out of Scotland as soon as the ink drys on the charter of independence. The White Paper softens that position by saying the Scottish government will want Trident out of Scotland by 2020. And rather than a concrete deadline, 2020 is an 'aim and intention', indicating the SNP is willing to compromise further, The Guardian says. Salmond also appeared to "soften" his hardline stance on nuclear-armed vessels using Scottish waters and ports.  He said Navy ships from Britain and other Nato countries would still be able to use them under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy similar to that operated by Denmark and Norway. Not surprisingly, the UK government called the shift in position a "major dilution" of the SNP's pledge to create a nuclear-free Scotland.

And what about Scotland's plans for self-defence?

An independent Scotland's defence policy would involve a modestly sized military force that would largely operate within international alliances. It would "not attempt to have full-spectrum capability", according to the Scotsman. With an annual defence budget of £2.5 billion, Scotland would have a total of 20,000 military personnel. Its army would be made up of 3,500 regular and 1,200 reserve personnel and the country would have four frigate warships and 16 Typhoon jets. Former Nato Secretary General and British Defence Secretary Lord Robertson criticised the size of its proposed defence force, telling the Scotsman: "to pretend Scotland would be defended is a dangerous fiction." Nationalists have accused Lord Robertson of scaremongering and dismissed his comments as unionist propaganda. 

What else will change in an independent Scotland?

The White Paper sets out a broad range of social and political changes, including:

  • Thirty hours of childcare per week in term time for all three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.
    Housing benefit reforms, described by critics as the "bedroom tax", to be abolished, and a halt to the rollout of Universal Credit.
    Basic rate tax allowances and tax credits to rise at least in line with inflation.
    A "triple-locked" pension system designed to guarantee income keeps pace with the cost of living
    Minimum wage to "rise alongside the cost of living".

But what of the bigger picture? The concept of Great Britain is threatened by Scottish independence, according to the BBC's Andrew Marr. In a recent interview with Salmond, he suggested independence would mean the end of Great Britain. Salmond hit back, saying: "The state we currently live in is not Great Britain, it's the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 'Britain' won't disappear as a geographical expression any more than 'Scandinavia'."

What happens if it's a Yes vote?

Alex Salmond and the SNP will hold a very large party. After that, a constitutional settlement will need to be drawn up and that could take some time, says the BBC. It will lay out the terms of independence and resolve some of the questions mentioned above. Salmond has said he wants to declare Independence Day in March 2016 and hold elections to an independent Scottish parliament in May. Click here for more details about how Scotland would become an independent nation.

And if it's a No vote?

Salmond has described the referendum as a once-in-a-generation event. It seems everyone involved in the process wants to abide by the referee's decision and avoid the prospect of what long-suffering residents of Quebec call the "neverendum". Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have all pledged to devolve more powers to Scotland if the country votes to remain within the Union, in an option often referred to as Devo-Max.

Will Salmond's political career be over if it's a No vote?

"Don't bet on it," says his biographer David Torrance in the Daily Telegraph. A yes vote of between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote would allow Salmond to "point to progress" and hang on as the SNP's leader. The Telegraph points out that "more powers will still be on their way north", even if independence is rejected on 18 September. The Scotland Act, signed into law last year, will allow MSPs to set income tax rates and let the Scottish Parliament borrow more money. If the no vote does prevail it "raises the prospect of prolonged bartering between Holyrood and Westminster", the paper says. Indeed the Scottish Liberal Democrats have already called on the SNP to "embrace devolution" if the country rejects independence rather than acting like "reluctant bystanders" in any talks.

Will Cameron's be over if it's a Yes?

The prime minister insists that he will not resign if Scotland votes for independence, not least because many in the Better Together campaign fear that some Scottish voters might be swayed towards a Yes vote if they thought that would eject him from power. Nevertheless, some political commentators have said that Cameron would be likely to face a vote of no confidence if a referendum he offered, on terms he accepted, resulted in a break-up of the UK.

For a balanced, in-depth discussion of the historical context of the current debate about Scottish independence, read The Week's ebook, Independence for Scotland?, available now from Amazon.


More on Scottish independence:

Scottish independence: five key questions for TV debateWhat would it cost to divide the UK?Standard Life warns it could quit an independent ScotlandCameron and Salmond to hold rival North Sea oil meetingsDavid Bowie spots the danger: Scots' Yes vote gathers strengthBoE's Mark Carney wades into Scottish independence debateSalmond: end of Scottish pound would cost UK £500mScottish independence: Osborne rules out currency union


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To those who wish for a "YES" vote next September, let me make a suggestion from south of the border.

Why not have every Scottish cinema arrange to offer a special season of stirring Scottish movies - like "Braveheart" "Highlander" "Rob Roy" "Brave" etc., etc,... for 6 months or so leading up to the vote...???

You got a problem? Sounds like you're spitting the dummy out ...

I'm sure there'll be plenty of patriotic feeling as it is. Especially with the commonwealth games happening.

I'd rather see every theatre, lecture hall, arena etc in the country rented out and hosting a debate on independence. Each event can have a panel made of of Yes Scotland, Better Together and local politicians split 50/50. Plus a key note speech from a high profile YES and NO advocate. Have an extensive Q&A.

Everyone should have the chance to take part in this debate and it should be based on intellectual thought.

Not a very well researched article and it's fairly one sided towards NO. You don't even get the spending figures right but I suppose when you use the Torygraph as source what can one expect.

Stupid comment.

The last paragraph says it all realy.
Why should Scots feel bad the so called democratic defesit that SOME English feel because of devolution when Scotland had NO voice for 300 years?
Also it's an English problem not a Scottish one.
remember the "feable 50"?

"Torylaugh" - not "Torygraph"!


I wish the question would be this simple in my native Province of Quebec. "Should Quebec become an independent country?" But don't bet on it!

At the risk of chucking some history into the equation....
Scotland did not become part of he United Kingdom; England and Scotland formed the United Kingdom.
It is - to say the least - highly questionable to assert that Scotland gets more out of the Union than she puts in. The Barnett Formula does not give Scotland a higher share of public spending, just a higher share of certain parts (about half) of public sending, however she gets very little from the other half. The south-east, OTH, does very well indeed in the way of public spending that does not have a Barnett dimension - Channel Tunnel, Thames Barrier, renovating the underground, the M25 to name but a few....the oil revenues have been spent on projects that have benefited the whole country from Watford in the north to Guildford in the south. and a disproportionate share of 'national' government departments which helps to fuel escalating property prices.
Scotland has no clout at all in the EU.
Defence...Scotland's defence needs are trivial compared to the share of Scottish revenue spent on UK vanity armament programmes and foreign intervention.

It is the ignorance of those 'south of the border' that makes independence more appealing day by day. It is often like talking to an American when you talk to an English person. So full of propaganda it renders them politically mute. They resort to the nonsense you have just read from the ironically named TruthBeatsLies. What has happened to Portsmouth ? Royal naval vessels will be built in Scotland. If Scotland becomes independent, this will mean that they will be built in a foreign country. Is this good for Scotland ? Is it good for the remnants of the UK ? Independence is not about patriotism. It is political (shameful that this has to be pointed out). The majority of the population of Scotland are lowlanders.

Unfortunately, very few people (anywhere in the world) have the knowledge to make such a decision on the future of a nation. We are misinformed, ill-informed, and disinformed, and we make our decision based on this 'information'. If the politicians are unable to provide us with accurate information on what independence means, then what chance does the plebeian have ? Alas, our ignorant masses will have their say next year. Heads or tails.


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