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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Scottish Independence Spells Trouble For The Rest Of Us

Steve Helmeci |
September 17, 2014 | 10:50 p.m. PDT




If ever there was a word with a decidedly positive connotation, especially from the American perspective, it would be that. Taking a possibly world-changing risk in the name of seeking autonomy is perhaps the archetypal American ideal. Why then would it be a major problem from an American perspective if another state votes for independence on Thursday?

For those unsure, a vote is scheduled on Thursday, Sep. 18 in Scotland. The issue at hand: should Scotland separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation?

READ MORE: Scotland Votes Against Independence

At the time of this writing, polling data from Scotland remains too close to call, with the Yes campaign - the pro-independence side - holding at 48 percent of the decided vote, leaving the remaining 52 percent of the vote to those in favor of staying with the UK.

The catch, however, is that 5 percent of voters remain undecided, making the split much closer: 49-47 in favor of the No campaign. 

If this seems like a positive sign for the No campaign, consider the fact that up until earlier this month, the No side held a solid 10 point advantage over the Yes campaign, as shown on this BBC interactive tracker. By all accounts, a televised debate victory for Alex Salmond, the leader of the separatist movement in Scotland, over Alistair Darling, the leader of the “Better Together” unionist campaign, was the catalyst for the shift in public opinion.

But if the No campaign does come out triumphant tomorrow, it won't just represent a close call for the unionists, but for the globe as well. Should the Yes campaign pull out a victory - of which nobody is certain today - the ripple effect could have quite a drastic impact on the economics, politics and security of one of the major players on the global stage, not to mention the United States’ most staunch ally.

READ MORE: Decision Day As Scotland Votes On Independence

Due to the increase in support for the Yes campaign, the pound has fallen 3 percent against the dollar. Meanwhile, Japanese bank Nomura has warned investors of an impending 15 percent drop should Scotland vote for independence and has predicted a run on UK assets - in which customers rapidly pull their deposits in what becomes a positive feedback loop towards default.

Despite the upswing in Scottish-based companies moving their base of operations to London, uncertainty surrounding the transition could lead to drops in investment and a difficult economic situation for the UK. Even Scotland itself would likely fall into recession as companies move their operations to London amid uncertainty about whether the country would retain the pound and whether it would be granted membership in the European Union.

Simply put, due to massive amounts of uncertainty, a Yes vote would have harsh and immediate effects on the economies of both Scotland and the remaining UK, entities that together make up the sixth largest economy in the world. 

On the subject of uncertainty, the political ramifications of a Yes vote in Scotland would be far reaching as well, but similarly difficult to define. There could be books written on the constitutional problems involved in a breaking up of the United Kingdom, but perhaps the most important question in terms of global politics is this: will an independent Scotland be allowed membership into the European Union?

All signs as of now seem to point to no, they would not. The nation would have to rescind their membership with the UK and reapply, putting them in line behind a number of other small European nations who are also applying for membership. It would be years before Scotland would see even a vote as to whether or not it could be admitted as a member.

Assuming, however, that the issue of Scotland’s membership as an independent state comes to a vote, a number of countries would be wary of setting a precedent of allowing separatist states to autonomously join the EU. Belgium and Spain are both currently facing separatist populations within their countries - the Flemish in Belgium, and both the Basques and the Catalans in Spain.

Spain in particular would hasten to block Scotland’s membership as an independent state, as its relationship with separatist movements has been particularly antagonistic. Madrid is highly concerned about losing Catalonia, as it would also represent the loss of one fifth of the already struggling Spanish economy. While the Basques provide a significantly smaller economic contribution to Spain than the Catalans, the Basque separatist organization Eta has been linked to terrorist attacks in the region. Any precedent of other European areas gaining autonomy thus could not only lead to economic downturn, but could re-ignite conflict within the country as well.

More than just setting a dangerous precedent for other separatist movements in Europe, a Scottish vote for independence could spell the end of England’s involvement in the EU. A referendum is already set for 2017 regarding Britain’s position in the bloc, and, according to Reuters, Scotland’s absence in that debate could be consequential in that they are much more prone to voting for staying in the EU. While Scotland represents only four of 45 million votes across the UK, their more liberal stance and the fact that the race remains very close could mean a swing toward the more conservative, nationalist stance of cutting ties with the EU.

Additionally, a Scottish exit could see Westminster dominated by the conservative party generally, as the liberal opposition Labor party has 41 Scottish MPs that would exit with independence (as opposed to only one conservative). This could precipitate many changes within the UK, including an expedited referendum on leaving the EU.

Even the safety of Britain could be in question if Scotland chooses to become independent. One of the demands the EU would make of Scotland should it re-apply for membership is that the Scots open their border to EU citizens, allowing for a much easier flow of people to an area already under constant terrorist threat. There are additional security questions being raised about UK-owned nuclear submarines stationed in Scotland and what will happen regarding those dangerous vessels, but that is more of a regional than globe-wide issue like terrorism.

All of this relates back to the United States very simply: if the UK is weakened and the EU is weakened, America is weakened. The United States has aligned itself with both entities time and time again,economically, militarily and politically, and any decrease in power for either of the two entities has a direct effect on the power of the United States worldwide. 

If the majority of this article seems like conjecture, that’s because it is. The points here were all posited under an assumption that Scotland votes for independence, and they all stem from the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of the yes vote. So, if you want to take everything that’s said here and dismiss it, so be it. 

The goal of this column, though, isn’t to report things after they happen. That’s why I wrote this the day before the referendum. My goal as a writer is to help people see that the world around them isn’t as disjointed as it may seem. I hope I’ve shed some light on the fact that if such a small entity as a piece of the United Kingdom breaks away from its union, the global system will feel the ramifications. 

In the end, independence as an ideal is commendable, but sometimes the global system just cannot support it. For the sake of the UK, the EU and the global system as a whole, let's hope for a "No" vote come tomorrow.


"Global Turning Points" is a new NT column on the critical international issues you might have overlooked. Check back Thursdays or read more here.

Reach Columnist Steve Helmeci here.



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