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In Focus

Why Scotland Might Break Away From the United Kingdom

The future of Britain is balanced on a knife edge as Scotland weighs independence vote.

A West Highland terrier scampers past Scottish independence graffiti on a World War II defensive emplacement, near Pitternweem, on the east coast.

In 1746 forces loyal to Bonny Prince Charlie, the last Stuart claimant to the throne of Scotland, were crushed at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness. Almost 40 years earlier, in 1707, the Act of Union bound together England, Scotland, and Wales. Culloden—the last pitched battle fought on British soil—had marked the death knell for the Scottish dream of independence.

Until now. On September 18, when Scots go to the polls to vote, they'll have a chance—peaceably this time, it is hoped—to rewrite their history.

It was back in October 2012 that Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. (Salmond is also the head of the Scottish National Party [SNP], the majority party of the Scottish parliament and the engine behind the Yes Scotland campaign for independence.)

For most of the past two years, a clear majority of those polled have been against independence, but a poll released on September 7 showed that for the first time Yes Scotland was in the lead, by 51 percent to 49 percent. The race is now believed to be too close to call. (Related: Scotland's Vote for Independence By the Numbers)

"It's impossible to predict what the emotional state is going to be in the 13th hour," says Nick Harvey-Miller, a farmer in Stirlingshire whose father commanded a Scottish regiment in World War II.

"We're a very emotional people. They just need to put Braveheart on the telly every night, and that Rob Roy film where Jessica Lange is raped by an English soldier."

The so-called "Braveheart factor"—an emotional longing for independence, coupled with a historic antipathy to the English—has been much talked about in the lead-up to the referendum.

Looking out to the sea, the medieval fortress of Dunnottar Castle, on a remote coastal stretch near Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, is now owned by the heritage group Historic Scotland.

But emotions are only part of the story. Scotland's distinct history and culture, the belief that its economy would be better run by Scots, are all factors driving the country toward the exit door. So is politics. Scotland has always been more left-wing than the rest of Britain. Saying Yes is also a way of saying No to Cameron's austerity policies, above all his deep cuts in health and welfare spending.

And, after being well behind in the polls for most of the year, the Yes campaign has suddenly got the momentum. What seemed an impossible dream may next week become reality. Passions are rising. For No voters, the prospect of leaving the U.K. is nothing short of a tragedy: 300 years of shared achievements confined to the dustbin of history. For the Yes camp, independence means freedom. At last.

One of the most dramatic moments at this summer's Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow in July, occurred when the 21-year-old Scottish swimmer Dan Wallace touched home to win gold in the 400-meter individual medley, then leaped from the water and yelled: "For freedom!"

"There's a little bit of Wallace in all of us," he said of his reprise of that Mel Gibson line in Braveheart. "It warms my heart, seeing this and all the patriotic fans outside."

Two years earlier, at the Summer Olympic Games in London, Scotland's tennis great Andy Murray (who used to wear wristbands emblazoned with the blue-and-white Scottish saltire, or national flag) held aloft the Union Flag after winning gold and declared: "We represent Great Britain."

At that time the U.K. was united by Olympic fever as never before, and the dream of Scottish independence looked dead in the water. First Minister Salmond's ill-judged attempt to make Scots cheer only for "Scolympians" was greeted with hoots of derision. A poll taken two weeks after the closing ceremony showed that only 25 percent of Scots wanted to break away.

Dis-United Kingdom

Scotland has always been, in some sense, another country, preserving its own legal system, vernacular, and cultural traditions.

In recent years the U.K. has increasingly become the dis-united kingdom, its constituent parts beginning to spin away from the center—London and the so-called Home Counties of southern England—like atoms in a centrifuge. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, reacting to rising nationalism in Scotland and Wales, set in motion a process known as devolution.

Scotland was allowed to establish its own parliament and take control of some social policies, such as health and education. But key powers such as taxation and welfare remained in the hands of Westminster.

Scotland has long had high unemployment and chronic social problems, so when Prime Minister Cameron imposed austerity measures in response to the recent recession, many Scots felt even more alienated than before.

Golf—a proud Scottish invention, like the steam engine, tarmac, and penicillin—is still "the people's game" in its motherland. Here golfers putt in the shadow of Grangemouth, Scotland's only crude oil refinery.

"I started as a No voter," says 32-year-old poet and events organizer Jenny Lindsey. "What put me off the Yes voters were all these Braveheart fanatics covered in saltires."

Now she's on the other side. "For me it's a purely democratic argument. The U.K. is going in a different political direction to Scotland. There are particular social problems here, particularly in health. We're an extremely unhealthy country. We have a deeper divide between rich and poor than the rest of the U.K. And unless we have control of our own country, we won't be able to address these issues."

David Greig, Scotland's best known playwright and a passionate Yes Scotland campaigner, says, "For me it's an issue of principle. The British state was built for a small class of people to maintain an empire. It did very well at that, but it's not any longer, to my mind, the kind of modern, functional democracy we need in Scotland."

"Nessie," on show at the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit, is a powerful emblem of Scottish identity, like whiskey and heather. The legend of the Loch Ness monster dates back to early Christian missionary Saint Columba, in the sixth century.

From Bonny Prince Charlie to North Sea Oil

Economics, as much as politics and nationalism, have galvanized the modern debate—the economics, that is, of North Sea oil, seen as the jewel in the crown of any independent Scottish state.

Since oil first came ashore, in 1975, from the North Sea, it has fed billions of pounds into the U.K.'s Treasury: £4.7 billion (about U.S. $7.5 billion) in 2013-14 alone.

Because the vast majority of the oil lies in Scottish waters, London has returned some of the wealth to Scotland by granting higher levels of spending on welfare.

Oil rigs in the deep harbor of the Cromarty Firth at Nigg, within striking distance of the North Sea oil fields, wait to be repaired or decommissioned. How much oil remains since it was first piped ashore in 1975, and what it will be worth to an independent Scotland, are hot-button issues in the referendum debate. "It's Scotland's oil!" is one of the pro-independence slogans.

But, as Salmond argues, that's small potatoes compared to the estimated 91 percent of oil revenue an independent Scotland would collect, based on an internationally accepted median line drawn out to sea between Scotland and England.

"It's Scotland's oil!" is one of the SNP's loudest rallying cries.

As the referendum approaches, both sides have sharpened their rhetoric, invoking numbers to make their case. How many barrels of crude are left? How much is it worth? When will it run out?

Speaking in a televised debate at the end of August, Salmond, himself a former oil economist, said that 30 billion barrels remain, worth £1.5 trillion (about U.S. $2.4 trillion). Independent estimates say the resource is more likely to be between 12 billion and 24 billion barrels.

When he assured voters that North Sea oil and gas "will be with us way beyond 2050," that claim was immediately challenged by the Aberdeen-based oil services billionaire Sir Ian Wood, the leading expert on North Sea oil, who suggested there would be a sharp drop in output after 2030.

Better Together? Or Apart?

Scotland's Better Together campaign, spearheaded by Alistair Darling, chancellor of the exchequer under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has mostly tapped into Scottish fears and doubts rather than Scottish hopes and dreams: Independence will make Scotland more vulnerable to terrorism, less attractive to business, poorer.

The Yes Scotland campaign offers a vision of a Scotland that will be fairer, more compassionate, and more representative. Salmond's battle cry—"A Scotland run by Scots"—always gets a rousing cheer.

For those living life on the breadline, the prospect of independence offers the hope of a better tomorrow. As one unemployed Yes Scotland voter put it, "If we're better together, then why aren't we better?"

Reenactors re-create the Battle of Bannockburn where, in 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated the larger forces of Edward II, temporarily opening the door to Scotland's independence. The so-called Braveheart factor—a passionate longing for independence, fused with antipathy toward the English—fuels some, but far from all, Scots who will vote in next week's referendum.

Two giant steel sculptures of horselike kelpies, mythic creatures of Celtic mythology, guard the entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal, once the main artery of Scottish industry. The referendum will almost certainly be decided in the heavily populated, economically deprived Central Belt—the industrial and post-industrial corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Clan power: Malin Heen-Allen (center) and her husband Charles John Allen (second from right), who has appeared in numerous Hollywood blockbusters, have poured his movie earnings into constructing medieval replica Duncarron Fort, where they host reenactments and educational events.

Backed by an army of passionate, mostly young, supporters, Salmond has made voting Yes the "cool" choice. There's a sleek website, with snappy videos answering key questions. There have been rock concerts and poetry readings.

Salmond has even exported his campaign across the Atlantic, tasking Scottish government counsellor Robin Naysmith to educate Americans about Scotland, highlighting its low carbon economy and Glasgow's "Silicon Glen"—rather than Braveheart and whiskey tours—in the hope of attracting business investment.

Battle of the Names

Celebrities have lined up on both sides.

Though he rarely sets foot in the country of his birth and is barred from making major financial donations because he lives in the Bahamas, a tax haven, former 007 Sir Sean Connery is a passionate supporter of the Yes Scotland campaign.

Other Yes supporters include Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand and comedian Frankie Boyle.

A number of high-profile Scots, including singer Rod Stewart; Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United Football Club; and Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart (who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard) have come down on the opposite side.

Even the normally reclusive David Bowie has dived into the debate. Speaking via Kate Moss at this year's BRIT Awards ceremony, he urged: "Scotland, stay with us!"

Comedian Billy Connolly has dismissed the independence debate as "a morass that I care not to dip my toe into."

Across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama reserved comment until June, when he told a joint news conference with David Cameron in Brussels that Washington had a deep interest in a "strong, robust, united, and effective partner." For "united," read No to independence.

Death Eaters and Internet Trolls

One of the highest-profile opinions also came in June when author J. K. Rowling, who began writing the Harry Potter books as an unemployed single mother in Edinburgh and still lives there, posted a lucid and moving essay on her website about why she doesn't support independence.

Comparing the more extreme fringes of the nationalist camp to her books' Death Eaters—cohorts of Lord Voldemort who hate people without pure blood—she revealed that she'd donated a million pounds (about U.S. $1.6 million) to the Better Together campaign.

She was immediately heaped with a torrent of abuse from so-called Cybernats—Scottish nationalists who use social media to trash opponents of independence.

Undeterred, she used Twitter last weekend to tell her 3.6 million followers that she didn't donate the money "out of self-interest, but because I care very deeply about the people who still [are] where I once was. They are being asked to play a game before they're told the rules."

From Bonnie Prince Charlie to Hogwarts: In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last Stuart pretender to the Scottish throne, raised his standard above Loch Shiel. A year later the Jacobite Rebellion, and with it Scottish dreams of independence, was snuffed out at the Battle of Culloden. Here the Jacobite Express crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct—which also carried the Hogwart's Express in the Harry Potter movies—above the loch. Author J. K. Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, is strongly against independence.

Other independence skeptics have felt the wrath of the Cybernats. Britain's greatest ever Olympian, Scottish-born cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, was branded a bigot and an "anti-Scot" after he warned that Scottish athletes will find it harder to compete on the world stage if the country becomes independent.

And after his comments, David Bowie was told by a Cybernat to "**** off back to Mars."

The rancor has not been one-sided. In a magazine interview, Better Together's Alistair Darling appeared to compare the Scottish independence movement to "blood and soil" nationalism, a phrase associated with the Nazis.

And as the minutes tick down toward voting day, temperatures keep rising.

Scotland has some of the highest unemployment rates and most severe social deprivation in Britain. Left: A row of new houses in Glasgow lead toward the Easterhouse estate's iconic water tower. Built to rehouse tens of thousands during slum clearances in the 1950s and '60s, the estate itself became a symbol of deprivation and poverty and is now being demolished. Right: Another iconic postwar development, the Red Road flats, in Glasgow, await their turn to go under the wrecking ball.

Scottish Labour MP and passionate No campaigner Jim Murphy was recently forced to suspend his tour of Scotland when he had eggs thrown at him and was verbally abused as a "quisling," "traitor," and, bizarrely, a "war criminal."

One Scot I spoke to predicted that within 30 years of independence, there would be another war between Scotland and England.

Funny Money

The battle lines today are drawn most sharply around two interlinked questions, neither of which Alex Salmond has definitively answered: What about EU membership? And what about Scotland's currency?

In a speech delivered in Brussels in April, Salmond insisted that an independent Scotland would automatically remain within the EU.

But as there's no precedent for a situation like this, the outcome isn't clear. The balance of opinion is that under EU law, Scotland would have to reapply as an independent state. Existing member states would have to unanimously agree to its application.

Spain, which faces its own independence battle with Catalonia (a referendum on Catalonian independence is slated for November 9), is on record as saying it would veto a Scottish application.

There's also confusion about what currency an independent Scotland would have. Even most Scots who favor independence want to keep pounds sterling in their pockets.

But George Osborne, the U.K.'s chancellor of the exchequer, and all the major U.K. political parties have made it clear that the Bank of England will not countenance this arrangement.

"It's called the Bank of England, but it's actually the bank of the U.K.," The Economist's Callum Williams explains. "It has no remit to assist or be in a partnership with foreign countries, which is what an independent Scotland would be."

Scottish bulldog Alex Salmond has vowed to keep the pound whatever Westminster says. ("It's our pound, too!" is one of his slogans.) This is the so-called "sterlingisation" plan, whereby an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound without a formal currency union, as Panama does with the U.S. dollar.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has warned that a "combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster." And Olli Rehn, Finland's former EU commissioner, has said it would be "almost impossible" for Scotland to join the EU without its own central bank.

Salmond's threat that if an independent Scotland under his leadership isn't allowed to keep the pound, the country would default on its share of the U.K.'s national debt has sent shivers through the business community.

"No entry" signs line the road to the spherical Dounreay Fast Reactor, one of five that share the site of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority and Ministry of Defence on the sparsely populated north coast of Scotland.

"If Scotland says we're going to become independent but not take on any of the debt," says Callum Williams, "I think investors will be quite reluctant to invest in Scotland. Basically, it's using a legal technicality to get out of paying back its debt. And that's probably not the best way of convincing people you're going to manage your economy responsibly."

Indeed, Lloyds Banking Group, Standard Life, and BP—companies with significant operations in Scotland—have all signaled unease over independence or an intention to move south of the border.

The other option—an independent Scottish currency—is also fraught.

"The biggest problem they'd have is credibility," Williams explains. "The quickest way of getting that credibility is to accumulate foreign exchange reserves to buy up your own currency and increase its value, as India and China do. But I don't think Scotland would be able to generate large enough foreign exchange reserves to do that for a very long time. It would just have to hope that people believed its currency was credible, which seems unlikely for a country that would have a high debt."

All these uncertainties haven't stopped people from floating names for a Scottish currency. Front-runners include the merk, after a coin issued in Scotland in the 16th century; the groat; or even the bucky, after Buckfast, the notorious tonic wine popular among Scots.

Peter Ross, a Scottish journalist and author of the new book Daunderlust, advocates the dreichma. "It's like the Greek drachma," he says with a laugh, "but with the Scots word dreich, meaning miserable, which the weather here is most of the time."

Upping the Ante

Will Scotland wake up on September 19 as a new independent nation?

Like poker players, each side has progressively upped the ante of its promises. The Yes Scotland campaign promises that each Scot will be in line for an "independence bonus" of £1,000 (about $1,600).

The Treasury in London says that every Scot will be £1,400 ($2,300) better off per year if the country remains part of the U.K.

Maybe Scotland will go the way of Quebec in 1995. Pro-independence Quebecois led by seven points in the run-up to the referendum, but the stay-in-Canada camp prevailed on voting day.

Or maybe not. The major British political parties have been sufficiently rattled by the latest polls to promise Scotland a new package of federalist measures to further devolve powers, including over taxation and budgets, while offering Scotland the continuing security of staying in the U.K. and the EU.

Glasgow-born Gordon Brown, who remains popular in Scotland, has been dragged out of semi-retirement to argue the case for preserving the Union and for further devolution.

"We are talking about a big change in the constitution," he recently told an audience near Edinburgh. "We would be moving quite close to something near federalism."

Salmond has dismissed so-called devo max (maximum devolution) as a "panicky last-minute measure."

Whichever way Scotland goes, the outcome will likely be decided in the industrial and post-industrial corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh, known as the Central Belt. This region has traditionally been a Labour Party stronghold (Keir Hardie, the party's founder, was born in the area in 1856).

"There has always been a tradition of socialism and dissent in the Central Belt," explains Hamish McArthur, a retired chemical engineer from Sterling who has never been involved in politics but has spent the past two weeks going door to door for the No campaign. "In terms of the weight of votes, I think the Central Belt will decide the outcome."

If the Scots do vote to remain in the U.K., it will be because the Yes Scotland campaign has failed to provide cast-iron guarantees about the future—most particularly about the questions of currency and EU membership.

There's also the question of NATO membership and the future of the U.K.'s Trident nuclear submarine fleet, based at Faslane on the River Clyde.

"There will be a Scottish parliament" reads the plinth on Donald Dewar's statue, on Glasgow's busy Buchanan Street. Born and bred in Glasgow, Labour MP Dewar went on to become the inaugural First Minister of the Scottish parliament, which was set up in 1997 as part of the devolution process. Today's First Minister, Alex Salmond, wants to go further—and break with the U.K.

The Scottish National Party is running on a nuclear-free ticket, but Salmond has pledged that an independent Scotland would remain in NATO—without nuclear weapons on Scottish soil.

When it became clear that this is not an option, he backtracked, saying he'd allow nuclear weapons and warships to enter Scottish ports—a key condition of NATO membership—as long as the alliance maintains a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Playing for Keeps

All the uncertainties and contradictions swirling around have pushed James Playfair-Hannay, a cattle farmer in the Cheviot Hills with Scottish roots that go back to the 1600s, into the No camp.

"We're being asked to sign up for a new car," he said from the cab of his tractor. "But we don't know what fuel it's going to run on, we don't know what the performance is going be, what gadgets it's going to have—and we certainly don't know what it's going to cost us!"

The irreversibility of the decision only ratchets up the uncertainty factor.

"The difference between this and a general election," says Peter Ross, "is that in a general election, you'll get another opportunity four years down the line to make a different decision. With this you're playing for keeps. You have to think what sort of country this is going to be in fifty or a hundred years. So I don't want to make the wrong decision for my children, and their children."

Jenny Lindsey, the poet who switched from No to Yes, believes that whatever the outcome next week, Scotland will never be the same again.

"What I find best about the entire process, regardless of who wins, is what's happened to the people of Scotland. The level of engagement has been astounding. And I think the task for the Yes movement is to keep that level of engagement going. This is something that has been growing for many years. And I don't think it will go away."

The St. Kilda archipelago—a dual UNESCO World Heritage site, for both cultural and natural importance—rises out of the Atlantic 40 miles (64 kilometers) off Scotland's western islands. The outlying islands are famous for their rugged beauty and staunchly independent inhabitants. But polls suggest that most rural Scots will vote to stay in the Union.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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