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Power Move: Scottish Independence

Scottish Independence Referendum Results (yes = green, no = red, saturation of color denotes strength of vote). Note that the “Yes” votes center on only the largest city of Glasgow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recent Independence Referendum in Scotland, where voters flocked to the polls to answer a deceivingly simple question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” failed by a comfortable margin. 44.7 percent of voters, about 1.6 million, answered yes, while the remaining 55.3 percent of voters, around 2 million, answered no. The week leading up to the election saw the two major campaign groups, Yes Scotland and Better Together, furiously campaigning, trying to win over the large portion of undecided voters.

Though Scotland did not in fact gain independence, it received something even better: its threat to separate forced the United Kingdom to devolve more powers to the Scottish government, and its resoundingly negative vote ensured the continued economic and military support of the UK.

Scotland gaining independence would have been detrimental to both Scotland and the UK. Although Scotland would gain freedom and national identity on paper, it would be faced with both immediate and future problems. First, Scotland would have to face an undoubtedly difficult vote to be separately readmitted into the European Union, especially as a few EU countries such as Spain experience similarly unwelcome separatist movements. Secondly, Scotland and the UK have developed an important economic partnership. In the case of separation, Scotland could have lost the British pound and its international prestige and recognition. Scotland would also lose billions in subsidies (which outweigh taxes) from the UK government and have reduced trading with England.

On the other side, the UK would likewise face several issues had Scotland chose to leave. The most pressing of these is the storage of British nuclear weapons in Scotland. Moving over 200 nuclear warheads and finding practical space in England or Wales would be dangerous and difficult. Perhaps most importantly, the cultural union between the four kingdoms has lasted for over 300 years; breaking this apart would be devastating to the monarchy and the UK’s reputation.

Thus, by understanding the UK’s precarious positions and by willing to take a risk, Scotland was able to manipulate the Crown into devolving more powers to them in a show of political peace after the referendum failed.

In the days leading up to the referendum, polls showed that the “yes” and “no” votes were neck and neck. The UK government, sensing the gravity of the situation, vowed to devolve more power not only to Scotland, but also to each of the other three states. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a press conference, “Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs…the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs.” The UK will now further reduce the power of its central government and see a political system closer to the state-federal relationship in the United States. Scotland will likely be granted powers over “most reserved matters, except [defense] and foreign affairs.” This would include broadcasting, trade, industry, social security, and immigration, among other authorities. The UK also offered additional funding to Scotland: a whopping 13 billion pounds, or 1,300 pounds per head — more than even England.

But it has always been more than just disputes over political rights and government funding. Scots are fundamentally different from Englishmen and Welshmen and Irishmen. They have their own proud, independent culture and governed themselves for thousands of years before the reluctant union with England 300 years ago. They want separation not just because they know their own affairs better, but to confirm their identity and rekindle their sense of nationalism. No longer did they want to be the little kid subject to their British parent’s every whim; they want to venture in the world as an independent entity. Even though Scotland did not end up becoming a sovereign nation, by standing up to the UK and making a grand statement, Scotland gained worldwide attention and more cultural autonomy, ensuring that it will never again be just a forgotten subject of the United Kingdom.

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