The campaign pushing for Scottish independence has gathered considerable momentum in recent weeks, with the result of Thursday’s referendum likely to be close. Should Scottish voters choose to leave the United Kingdom, the decision will have far-reaching consequences for the people of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Even if Scotland remains part of the U.K., the small island off Europe’s coast will be inexorably changed forever.
Here’s what to expect after the result comes in.
There will likely be another 18 months of debate.
If the Scots vote in favor of independence, untangling more than three centuries of a political and economic union will not be easy, especially given the rancorous nature of the campaign. One of the most contentious issues to be addressed in the 18 months between Scotland voting for independence and becoming autonomous would be the country's currency.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the "yes" campaign, has argued that an independent Scotland should be allowed to continue using the pound. But Westminster has said this is not a possibility, questioning why the U.K. should agree to a currency union with a country that votes to leave.
In response, Salmond has threatened to renege on the offer that Scotland would take on a share of the U.K.'s national debt if it votes "yes" on independence. If Westminster still rejects a currency union, Scotland would have to use the pound unofficially (similar to the way Ecuador and El Salvador use the dollar) and eventually move toward the euro. However, as Paul Krugman points out in The New York Times, “the risks are huge.”
“Everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous,” he writes.
The National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned this week that Scotland could fail "within a year" if it uses the pound informally and refuses to take on a share of the national debt.
The vote could galvanize independence movements around the globe.
The Scottish independence debate has captured the world’s attention, with many governments concerned that a "yes" vote could inspire independence movements closer to home.
As the BBC notes, a recent editorial in the Hungarian economic news site Portfolio warned that "Europe will in all likelihood be infected by Scottish independence ... Catalonia, the Basque Country, Flanders and even Venice are keeping a close eye on developments, which may once and for all justify their own aspirations of autonomy."
The United Kingdom may need a new prime minister.
If Scotland becomes independent, Prime Minister David Cameron may be forced to resign. His government is already unpopular thanks to austerity measures, and Cameron faces criticism from many members of his own center-right party over his stance on gay marriage and Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.
Even if Cameron survives until the next election in 2015, he will likely be punished at the polls for the breakup. Either way, the prime minister’s political career could be riding on the outcome of Thursday’s vote.
Even a "no" vote could spark huge political change.
After realizing that public sentiment in Scotland was shifting toward a "yes" vote on independence, the government in Westminster quickly backed a series of measures that would give Scotland more control over finance, welfare and taxation -- almost all matters apart from defense and foreign affairs.
Even if Scotland votes against independence, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will likely demand a similar set of measures. Some politicians are even calling for an English-only parliament to match the regional bodies in the rest of the U.K.