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End of the road for Team GB?

Sunday, September 14, 2014
Outside Track

On Thursday, it’s Scotland’s independence referendum. It has been a long, nasty campaign, starting effectively in May 2011, when Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party won a majority in Scotland’s parliament. For most of those three years, it has looked like a clear win for “no.” One week ago, the “yes” side snatched an opinion poll lead. London panicked. With more polls since, the result is too close to call. But the tide is running “yes.”

So, if Salmond gets his way, what changes? On some counts, not much. Scotland’s devolved parliament already runs the legal system, police, health, education—indeed, most things north of the border. Scotland has always had its own banknotes—issued, oddly, by the commercial banks. Scotland plays its own in the World Cup—though not the Olympics. Scotland’s sense of history and identity is second to none.

Independence would mean flags, lots of them. It would mean Scottish embassies and High Commissions, an army, and a UN seat. There would be national storytelling, and a distancing from Scotland’s role as supporting co-star of Britain’s slave trade and empire. Scotland last month wrapped up a successful Commonwealth Games. This month, Gleneagles hosts golf’s Ryder Cup. June marked 800 years since the Battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland routed an invading English army.

A century ago, powerful neighbours swallowed small countries by force, or locked them out of markets. With the WTO, EU and Nato, those dangers are off Scotland’s worry-list. It’s easy to see why many Scottish hearts are with the “yes” campaign. In some ways, a “yes” vote would impact England more than Scotland.

Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster. Only one supports Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party. With the Scots MPs absent, he would have won a clear majority in 2010; so, no need for a tedious coalition. If Scotland votes “yes,” next May’s British election will be a mess. With independence not yet finalised, Scotland will elect 59 MPs.

British opinion polls currently suggest a narrow win for the opposition Labour Party—on the back of Scottish support; but perhaps with no majority once Scotland goes. That shaky government would negotiate the details of Scottish independence—and perhaps lose its majority on the dawn of Independence Day. Britain would lose one-third of its land area, and nine per cent of its population. That would be a nasty knock.

In principle, there could be a new flag, and a new country name to replace the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That can of worms would be better left unopened. By rights, Northern Ireland should go with Scotland. Scots Presbyterian settlers developed its troublesome Protestant-Catholic mix. But London will be left to sort out that one; until and unless the North votes to join the rest of Ireland.

And Wales? Up to now, there’s not much sentiment for independence. If an independent Scotland can fly, that might change. Within Europe, Britain would drop a notch in the pecking order. Disastrously, a bruised England might stalk unlamented out of the EU in a flag-waving huff, leaving Scotland and Ireland prosperously within. 

Britain’s permanent veto-bearing seat on the UN Security Council would look even odder than it does now. Britain would have a smaller economy than Brazil and possibly Russia, with India coming up fast. That’s the benign scenario. Now for the nightmares. Nightmare One. The Bank of England refuses Scotland a currency union. So Scotland can either invent its own currency, use the euro, or keep the pound—but without influence over monetary policy or interest rates.

Nightmare Two. Scotland hopes to seamlessly join the EU from Day One. But Spain may play nasty—they want to deter a split from their own Catalonia. Tough negotiations might see Scotland forced to use the euro and join the Schengen system. That would mean passport controls at the English border, alongside the new cambios. Nightmare Three. Spooked by uncertainty, big financial firms like Royal Bank of Scotland move to London.

Nightmare Four. These, and a whole set of other squabbles, create lasting hatred. Last week’s opinion poll frightened the markets. Sterling dipped. So did shares of big Scottish companies. With years of fractious independence talks, that slide could turn to a rout. David Cameron has trouble. North of the border, his southern upper-class face and voice just don’t fit. If Cameron wants to keep Scotland, he has made some gigantic errors. He gave full control of the referendum to Alex Salmond.

He allowed a simple “yes” for independence. Any marketing manager will tell you “yes” is an easy sell. “Alternative A / Alternative B” gives a different feel. He allowed a campaign lasting years, not months or weeks. A simple majority—however tiny—can make an irreversible historic choice. Canada narrowly avoided a break-up in 1995, when Québec voted “no” by just 50.6 per cent.

In 1905, Norway voted by 99.95 per cent to split from Sweden. Just 184 ticked “no.” Alex Salmond may do well on Thursday, but he won’t get that result. Who’s next? Nevis again? Tobago?


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