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Scotland's Secession Vote: Indecisive Independence

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By HENRY MOLSKI, for The Pulitzer Center

As the July sun descends behind the Scottish hills and the temperature drops just enough to fog up a window, Barry Lane locks up his chickens in their coop and secures the gate around his wife’s garden.

He retires to his highland cottage—here the rooms are decorated with traditional tartan patterns and the menu for his guest’s morning breakfast includes haggis, smoked Scottish salmon and fresh eggs from his chickens. Before Lane heads to bed, he confides that he may sneak a wee dram of Scotch whisky while his wife is away on holiday.

Lane lives the quaint life that many Scottish men dream of. However, he’d be willing to pack his bags on Sept. 18, 2014, the day of the Scotland’s vote for independence, if the outcome isn’t in his favor.

The often tranquil countryside of Scotland is starting to awaken to the debate. The Lane household is no exception.
Barry Lane and his wife, Ellie, have lived quietly in the Scottish highlands for 18 years, but the future may not be all so certain.

“My wife tries to keep me muzzled when the vote comes into conversation with guests around,” said Lane. “But I’ve told her, if the referendum passes that we’re leaving.”

Many of Scotland’s loyal citizens are claiming they may flee the country. Even a Scotch-loving Englishman who married a Scottish lady threatens to leave the land he now calls home over the 2014 vote.

Why would someone like Lane vacate such a perfectly constructed arrangement? Lane finds himself asking a similar question to those in support of a “yes” vote.

“What some people don’t understand is that Scotland has the perfect set-up as it is,” said Lane, the former English military man. “An independent Scotland raises far more concerns than problems it promises to fix. Why risk leaving?”

The problems to which Lane refers have taken center stage in this UK-wide debate as the days before the vote grow fewer. Scottish citizens are moving past the question if they can be an independent nation and onto the why.

Why Leave A Global Power?

It is no secret to the people of Scotland that there is one political party leading the charge for Scottish independence. Ever since establishing a majority government in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, item number one on the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) agenda has been holding the vote for secession.

The SNP serves as the primary backer of the “Yes Scotland” campaign that presses for a successful separation from the rest of the United Kingdom. The party leader and First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, is found expounding upon the issue on a daily basis across UK media outlets.

Fellow SNP Member of Parliament (MP) Marco Biagi is not any less forward than Salmond when it comes to the vote. Biagi proudly wears the pins and lanyards of the “Yes Scotland” campaign as he hustles his way around the Scottish Parliament house commonly known as Holyrood.

“A passing of the referendum would ensure that the wishes of the people matched government policy,” said Biagi, MP for Edinburgh Central. “There have been decades of policy (from London) that Scotland is no longer able to support.”

Biagi argues that Scotland could better regulate healthcare and childcare initiatives that have been repeatedly rejected by the British Parliament in Westminster. Main points of interest include securing Scotland’s economy and oil along with establishing a foreign policy that the rest of the country supports.

The social democratic ideas that the SNP pushes here are some of the exact reasons they possess a majority in Parliament. However, the independence vote still faces large disapproval. Latest estimates only report 34 percent in favor of secession.

Even supporters of the SNP can be found asking why a full secession is necessary to propagate this agenda.

"Three hundred years ago Scotland joined the UK because it was bankrupt and needed access to the British Empire," said Biagi. "Scotland benefited from the empire, but now seeks change. It's similar to you not seeing Canada begging President Obama to become the 51st state any time soon."

The notion of comparing an independent Scotland to other countries is not uncommon. Just north of Edinburgh, at Biagi’s alma mater of the University of St. Andrews, Mark Imber looks to Scandinavia for a comparison.

“The SNP hopes an independent Scotland would be a Denmark with oil,” said Imber, former head of the School of International Relations. “Scotland has hopes to establish a position in the European Union and build on this type of Scandinavian model.”

Yet, Imber is not convinced that the SNP possesses the ability to create such a model or, let alone, a “yes” vote in 2014.

“The rationale of the SNP is evaporating and Salmond is seen as somewhat of a sail [that] is filled with whichever way the wind is blowing,” said Imber.

Many are concerned that Salmond sees the independence vote as a bill that simply expands Scotland’s self-governance to a “devolution max” model. Salmond has now said that Scotland could retain the pound sterling along with the crown from England if the referendum does pass.

Although the SNP is a force to be reckoned with, many questions over their policy are raised as the line between an independent Scotland and devolution-max Scotland is blurred.

A World Watching

Scotland’s historic push for independence will only continue to garner international media attention over the next year. Part of the reason the world will tune in is because it has to. The 2014 Commonwealth Games, a large lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics, will be held in Glasgow. Media from across the globe will flock to Scotland next summer just months before the long-awaited vote.

Additionally, some of Scotland’s top scholars hypothesize that a “yes” outcome is not even necessary to the future success of the SNP and Scottish Parliament as a whole.

Nicola McEwen, director of public policy at the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh, has conducted extensive research on the upcoming vote and feels that a different number may spell success.

"If the SNP achieves forty percent it would be seen as a big achievement," said McEwen. "This would continue to put pressure on other parties to keep self-government an issue with the upcoming elections following the vote."

With a story of such magnitude, the population isn’t quite sure what to say, what to think or even how to vote. In fact, McEwen points out that 46 percent of the population reports being under-informed on the vote as of late July 2013.

Then, there are people like Jason Wassel, a foreign adviser in the financial sector in Scotland, who senses discomfort in the independence conversation.

“There is this notion that the supporters are fanatics and opponents are English sympathizers,” said Wassel, who now works and lives in Scotland after years in England. “It becomes easier to listen to the dominant aspects of the debate and you find people saying, ‘I don’t want to be painted with that brush.’”

Early on in the debate, analysts considered nationality a central issue of the referendum, but now many realize that the nation's identity extends beyond its border.

“The populace doesn’t just call itself Scottish now,” said Wassel. “They say, 'I’m British' or 'I’m European,' but you don’t find as many global citizens that identify as Scots first."

A year of discussion remains and each official thinks that the “yes” and “no” campaigns will continue to tighten. The biggest sprint to the finish will occur 16 weeks before the vote, when ad campaigns are permitted a full launch. At this point, the whole world will watch to see the fate of this small Western European country.

In the end, a “no” vote will not change Scotland. The capital will still be in Edinburgh. Queen Elizabeth II will still vacation in Speyside. And people will still complain that Mel Gibson’s accent was entirely wrong as William Wallace in Braveheart.

Scotland is a proud country full of people dedicated to the future success of the country. Over the next year they’ll learn which vote will best protect their homeland.

“You know a country when you trip over it,” said MP Biagi. “It’s time to put Scotland back on the map.”

But perhaps it already is.

Henry Molski is the 2013 Pulitzer Center Student Fellow from the High Point University.

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