In just under a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to become an independent country. The issue is already so divisive that the comedian Susan Calman had to call for an end to the “name-calling, swearing and death threats” she received after making jokes about it on a radio show. It is so controversial that it would be bad manners to bring it up with anyone who doesn’t agree with you already.
Last month, a survey of 1,004 Scottish people aged 16 and over found that only one-quarter would vote yes next year. It was seen that 44% would vote no and 31% remained undecided. The poll was the second in a series planned for the run-up to the September 2014 vote and there showed little change in opinion on either side of the argument despite increased publicity.
In Scotland, people are constantly bombarded with the “unknown issues” they would face as an independent country. How much of the UK's national debt would the Scottisch inherit; could they still use the pound; would they have to reapply for membership to groups such as the European Union and Nato? There is also the question of whether military personnel would be given the choice about which armed forces they join if Scotland went its separate way. Another big issue is the gap in public spending in Scotland (£40bn) and the revenue raised here (£27bn). Clearly, a Scottish government would have to choose between higher taxes or a cut in public services to make up for this.
Perhaps the main reason for many who will vote in favour of an independent Scotland is that semi-independence is unsatisfactory. Scotland has its own parliament, laws and legal system and yet fiscal powers and economic control remain at Westminster. It has been said that independence will allow Scotland to cut business taxes and promote economic growth.
It could also give Scotland more weight where it matters: a seat at the UN and in the EU Council of Ministers as currently the Scottisch are poorly served in Brussels by UK ministers. On the flipside of this however, it is possible that Scotland has more influence in Brussels as part of the UK than it ever could as a separate state.
The truth is, it remains unclear what Scottish people want, let alone what independence will mean for them. We know that Scotland votes in a different pattern from the rest of Britain: the current coalition government is dominated by the Conservatives, who have a single Scottish M.P. (and Margaret Thatcher never won a national election here). But we don’t know whether this is a result of genuine political difference or of protest votes, cast with the assumption that they won’t do anything dangerous.
If Scotland leaves Britain, will it be allowed to remain within the European Union? Accepting an independent Scotland might set a precedent for Catalan separatists in Spain and the Walloons in Belgium. It could lead to the slow destruction of an already turbulent European Union.
Some people, very admirably, hope that as a smaller country Scotland will be able to take a lead in eco-tech, developing sustainable energy sources and electric cars. But in reality, we’re not really discussing any of these things. We’re discussing yes or no.
A few months ago at an event on cultural identity at Aberdeen University, I witnessed a room of students cower as an elderly man in a kilt walked in. Everyone mistakenly thought he was an angry nationalist who had come to disrupt the event. Actually, he was an eccentric Englishman. He made a great contribution by talking us through his outfit and sitting with his legs open.
That’s more than you can say for most of our elected officials, cultural commentators and money spent on the “Yes Scotland” campaign to sell the idea of “independence”.