On 18th September, Scotland goes to the polls and votes on its future. Will it choose to remain part of the 300-year-old political Union with the rest of the UK (RUK), but with more powers and more independence from Westminster? Or will it choose to break away and make its own path in the world as a truly independent country in its own right? Whatever the result, this referendum will prove to be truly historic, with important ramifications internationally. Campaigns both for and against independence have been fighting tooth and nail to gain the upper hand, with polls showing that the No to independence (Better Together) campaign has only a slight lead. A recent ICM poll put No at 45%, Yes on 34% and a significant 21% as undecided. But what are the key issues upon which voters are deciding? Take a look at our crib sheet below, which explores five vital questions.
What currency would an independent Scotland use?
There are four options here. Scotland could work out a currency union with RUK, allowing it to continue to use the pound and to have a degree of say in interest rates and so forth. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has stated this as his preferred option, but the UK government has ruled it out as unworkable. Scotland could use the pound without an official currency union and without the RUK’s blessing, as Ireland did for decades – but would then get even less say over its own monetary policy. Critics argue that either option amounts to false independence. Then again, it could just set up its own currency, but a newly independent country might struggle to support a new currency at such a volatile time. The fourth option is to join the Euro, but after the economic crash hit, love for that currency is not high in the UK. Also, some point out that the Eurozone is also a means of depriving countries of their independence because it stops them from controlling their own monetary policy.
Would Scotland even be allowed to join the EU?
The Better Together campaign has repeatedly argued that the answer to this question might be no. Recently, the new president of the European Commission even spoke out against further expansion of the Union, but quickly made it clear he wasn’t talking about Scotland. In reality, though, it seems unlikely that the EU would not welcome a socially liberal, democratic country which has long embraced it and which has been part of Europe through the UK for many years. It certainly isn’t clear how Scotland could negotiate its membership and how long that process would take (the Yes campaign argue membership could be set up by Independence Day) but eventual membership is pretty likely.
What is less certain is whether Scotland would automatically be compelled to join the Eurozone of countries using the Euro. Technically, doing so is a requirement for all new members, but such a rule is rarely enforced. With the Euro still unstable, other member states might not even want a fledging economy to join and risk stability.
With the Prime Minister currently promising a referendum on membership in 2017, there is also the possibility that the UK itself might leave the EU.
What about the Queen?
This one’s pretty easy. Both campaigns have insisted that the Queen will remain head of state regardless of the referendum’s outcome. But Scottish Republicans (not unrepresented in the Yes campaign or even in Scotland’s government) have argued for a second referendum on the matter. The Queen still enjoys the support of the majority of Scots, but would her reign last if Scotland leaves the Union? For her sake, the Queen is keeping out of the debate completely, insisting that independence is a matter for the Scottish people to decide.
How strong would Scotland’s economy be?
Scotland’s economy is currently stronger than RUK’s, and it has the fourteenth highest GDP per capital in the world, but only because of its North Sea oil reserves. It is not clear how much oil is left or what will happen when it runs out. Estimates about its quantity also keep getting downgraded. An independent Scotland’s economy would also face unique challenges, such as the start-up costs associated with a new country and the costs of having an older population than RUK. Scotland is hugely dependent on trade with RUK, with around 70% of all Scottish exports heading south of the border. This is not necessarily a concern given that the figures are similar to Canada’s exports into the US. There is also the matter of debt: an independent Scotland would almost certainly be compelled to shoulder its share of RUK’s national debt, meaning it would start out from day one in the red.
What about healthcare?
The National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland is largely independent from the NHS in RUK, although the countries do share some specialist services. An independent Scotland would continue to provide free healthcare under NHS Scotland, but might lose access to these specialist services – though campaign group Vote No Borders has got itself into trouble for suggesting that Scots would not be able to access treatment at the world-famous Great Ormond Street Hospital, a claim the hospital rejects. There are also questions about funding the NHS with a smaller economy, especially in the face of an older population than RUK. Scotland does spend a lot of money on ensuring prescriptions for drugs are completely free for all patients, which is not the case in RUK. Independence might put additional strain on this service.
And the military?
Because the military is integrated across the UK, splitting it up would be far harder than the case of the NHS, and no clear plan has been agreed upon yet. But what would Scotland’s military look like? Well, the SNP has argued for a smaller, regionally-focused armed forces whilst saying it wants to join NATO.
A controversial subject is the UK’s nuclear submarines, Trident, which currently live in Scottish waters because nowhere else is deep enough. This has long been a point of controversy in Scotland. The SNP has indicated that, if they won the post-independence referendum, Scotland’s constitution would ban nuclear weapons entirely. What would happen if Trident was exiled from Scotland? Would the UK be forced to give up its arsenal? Finally, Westminster has suggested that an independent Scotland would no longer be given the contracts to build British warships, a huge blow to the country’s large ship-building industry.