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Explainer: Are we going to see an independent Scotland?

Could the United Kingdom really cease to be and what would this mean for Ireland?

Updated 10 September, 9am

Team Scotland sets off for Delhi Scotland makes the biggest decision in a generation on 18 September. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

EIGHT DAYS FROM today Scotland will be asked to decide whether or not to end its 307-year union with England.

Whatever happens, the result will have a profound effect on the future of the United Kingdom and its ripples are likely to be felt throughout Europe, arguably nowhere stronger than here in Ireland.

But what exactly is it at stake? How likely is it that the world will get a new sovereign state and what will this mean? Take 10 minutes to get filled in.

What are Scots being asked and why?

Quite apart from what is usually the case in Irish referendums, the question being asked on 18 September is in plain language: Should Scotland be an independent country?

It’s being driven by the Scottish National Party (SNP), the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, which has always placed independence as its primary goal. The SNP achieved an overall majority in the 2011 elections and First Minister Alex Salmond set about putting a referendum timetable in place.

Scottish independence referendum Alex Salmond pushing for an 'Aye'. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The holding of a referendum needed the approval of both the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood and the UK Parliament in Westminster. A period of negotiations ensued in which Salmond wanted the referendum in 2014 and British Prime Minister David Cameron wanted it later.

Salmond also wanted two or three questions on the ballot paper outlining alternative options for greater powers. Cameron was against this. Eventually a compromise was agreed whereby the referendum would be held in 2014 and would feature just one Yes/No question.

The SNP are campaigning for a Yes vote while the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are going for a No.

Source: Sky News/YouTube

What happens in the case of a Yes vote?

Scotland has voted before on strengthening its powers, in 1979 and 1997. In the former of those votes, a slim win for the Yes side was not enough to make devolution a reality because a minimum margin was required.

This is not the case here. A narrow victory for either side (and it looks like it will be narrow) will be decisive to set Scotland on the path to singledom or a continuation of its journey with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Last November, Salmond outlined Yes Scotland’s ‘white paper’ on independence which tackled 650 questions on the practicalities of going it alone.

It proposed that Scotland would maintain a currency union with the Bank of England (BoE), keep the monarchy, have its own defence force and ultimately join the EU as a sovereign nation.

It also, of course, would take control of its own tax affairs, health service and social welfare which are still ultimately controlled by Westminster. London’s control of finances has always been a bugbear for many Scots, especially now. David Cameron remains their Prime Minister even though only one Conservative MP was elected north of the border.

But how Salmond’s plans are to become a reality have pretty much dominated the campaign.

The Better Together campaign, led by former UK Chancellor Alastair Darling, has repeatedly pointed to the BoE’s insistence that Scotland would not be able to share sterling and link its currency to the pound. They have accused Salmond of ‘having no plan b’ in the event of this arrangement being deemed impossible.

Source: Alistair Davidson/YouTube

Salmond says that the BoE essentially simply can’t stop Scotland linking its currency to the pound, adding that they would not abandon Scotland because it would also mean absolving Scotland of a portion of the UK’s national debt.

The issue has even led to former European commissioner Olli Rehn saying that the ‘sterlingisation’ model proposed ‘would not be compatible with EU membership’.

It wasn’t the first time that Scotland’s future membership of the EU was questioned. Commission President Manuel Barrosso hinted that some of Europe’s leaders would seek to block Scotland from joining because it would encourage other restive regions, Catalonia for example, to push for their independence too.

In reality though, it is highly unlikely that the EU would be able to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people if they had chosen independence and wanted to join the common market.

Another issue that has become more central in the final few weeks of debate is the future of the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland. Labour says that the NHS is being broken up by the Tory Government in an attempt to privatise it and the SNP has seized on these concerns.

Channel 4 carried out ‘FactCheck’ on whether Scotland’s NHS is under threat from Westminster.

And what about the Queen? Well, she’s head of state in many sovereign countries like Australia and Canada so it’s no surprise that Scotland would keep her on.

It is a little more complicated though because of the monarchical line and how it runs through Scotland. It’s argued that a constitutional change would also be required in the UK as well as Scotland to smooth things over.

Aides of the Queen have been quoted as saying she is worried about the break up of the union but she has yet to make any public comment on the matter. That could change soon though.

If Scotland does vote Yes, many fear what is already being compared to a potentially bitter divorce fro the UK. Issues like Scotland’s North Sea oil revenues, nuclear weapon sites and the national debt would all likely dominate the debate surrounding separation.

How likely are we to see a Yes vote? 

The short answer: It’s getting more and more likely but it’s still not the expected result.

The British establishment was given a major wake-up call on Saturday night when the results of a YouGov/Sunday Times poll gave a lead to the Yes side for the first time.

The poll gave a 2% lead to the Yes side, less than three weeks since the same pollsters put the No side 22% ahead. Questions have been asked about the accuracy of the poll because the severity of the swing was much greater compared to other companies.

Notwithstanding that, all companies have shown strong momentum for Yes Scotland and the latest TNS poll published on Tuesday showed the difference at  just 1% in favour of No. Excluding ‘don’t knows’ it was a dead heat.

How does this translate in real terms? Well, William Hill bookmakers puts a No vote at 2/5 (€10 wins €14) while a Yes vote is at 7/4 (€10 wins €27.50), so clearly the bookies are favouring a No.

To put that in perspective though, Manchester City are 11/4 (€10 wins €37.50) to win the current English Premier League. So, in essence, an independent Scotland is more likely than the current Premier League champions retaining their title.

But where will it be won and lost between now and Thursday week? As with any election or referendum, turnout will be key and this could be where the No side has a crucial advantage.

Nearly all residents of Scotland aged older than 16 are entitled to vote in next week’s referendum. Polling information from YouGov demonstrates that the Yes side is ahead in every age group except those aged over 60.

Significantly, while the Yes side only has a small edge in every decade up to 60-year-olds, those aged above that intend to vote massively (63%-29%) in favour of a No.

It may be a cliché, but its also close to a truism that elderly people vote in greater numbers and this demographic is the most staunchly opposed to independence.

Again though, it’s not all cut and dry. The TNS poll put the number of undecideds at 23%, suggesting that 600,000 Scots had yet to make up their minds.

Against expectations, polls have suggested that undecideds are more likely to swing to Yes by a ratio of 2:1. How this translates to people in the privacy of the ballot box is anybody’s guess though.

Undecided women are also understood to be breaking to the Yes side by an even greater degree, the infamous #PatronisingBTlady ad not helping.

Source: BetterTogetherUK/YouTube

What would an independent Scotland mean for Ireland?

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that Irish political parties have been observing a deathly silence on the issue. None of the four major parties are expressing a view, insisting that it’s a matter for the people of Scotland.

Fair enough you might say, but the United States hasn’t been shy about weighing in with President Obama even coming out strongly in favour of the union. Most observers say that this is both out of loyalty to the ‘special relationship’ with the UK and also because of the strategic importance of Scotland to NATO.

The closest Irish politicians have come to getting involved in the debate was when TDs held a video conference with their Scottish counterparts last February telling them how we’ve got on in the EU.

An independent Scotland would, in effect, mean the break up of what is currently the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is bound to have a destabilising effect on Northern Ireland which is already experiencing one of its most trying periods institutionally since the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin is committed to holding a border poll to test the waters of a united Ireland and a Scottish vote for independence would undoubtedly give this an extra impetus.

What’s more, the unionist community has fractured in post-agreement Northern Ireland and many unionists share a bond with their ancestral kin across the North Channel. An independent Scotland would surely cause them to question their place within the UK and it could lead to the greater dominance of London, hurting an already shaky Stormont Executive.

Rugby Union - RBS 6 Nations Championship 2011 - Scotland v Ireland - Murrayfield Old friends, new circumstances. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Southern Ireland wouldn’t be immune from the tremors of an independent Scotland though and Enda Kenny’s TBSCITWIWTDB mantra could be under threat.

A central plank of Salmond’s plan is to make Scotland an inviting place for inward investment and a cut in corporation tax to 17% is part of it. Although still higher than Ireland’s 12.5% rate, our low-tax English-speaking niche would have a challenger.

Scotland leaving the UK would also make a UK exit from the EU more likely. There’s an ‘in-out’ referendum on that planned for 2017 and Scottish independence would certainly be a boon to the eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and, of course, in Ukip.

One more thing. If the Scots do vote Yes, the SNP have said that they want their ‘Independence Day’ to be on 24 March 2016, a historically significant day for Scotland.

That day is also Easter Thursday, right in the middle of when Ireland will be holding its Easter Rising commemorations.

For now, all that is in the realm of the hypothetical though. It’s now a decision for the people and it remains to be seen if they listen to the words of their unofficial national anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’.

 But we can still rise now, And be the nation again.
First published on 9 September 

Follow TheJournal.ie’s coverage of the campaign here >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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