The British newspapers published it on the front page, the stock markets reacted -- mostly negatively -- and the international coverage blasted off. What happened? The first poll in history showed support for Scottish independence above 50 percent, less than two weeks from the September 18 referendum date. To give you, the casual or nonexistent onlooker from abroad, an understanding of the debate, let us look at the four main points of contention leading some to vote "yes" for independence and others to vote "no." As you will see, both sides provide very strong arguments -- with expert backing -- and determining who is right can often be downright impossible.
The Scottish Government -- led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its leader First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond - has proposed that Scotland joins a currency union between the remaining United Kingdom (rUK) and an independent Scotland if the country votes "yes." Independence opponents -- especially former Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the Better Together campaign (which is composed of the three major UK political parties) Alistair Darling - have criticized this plan as wholly unrealistic.
Yes: It is in the best interest of Scotland and the rUK to create a currency union -- or Sterling Zone -- for Scotland to keep the Pound Sterling. According to the independence white paper "Scotland's Future", a currency union "will make it easier for people and companies to go about their business across the two countries." The document also cites the current example of the Luxembourg-Belgium currency union as a system that is already effective with tax rates that differ between the countries. If the rUK will not accept a currency union, John Swinney -- the Scottish Government's Finance Secretary -- has indicated that an independent Scotland has no obligation to pay its share of the UK debt. Notable economists, especially the Nobel Prize Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, believe a Sterling Zone could work and is the best currency option.
No: The best option is to stay in the UK and definitively keep the Pound Sterling. A currency union is detrimental to an independent Scotland because it will have no control of the central bank -- the Bank of England -- and the independent Scottish Government will be forced to set budgets and tax rates on the terms of the rUK Parliament in London. Alistair Darling often compares the Sterling Zone to the Euro Zone and warns that Scotland could be forced into deep austerity -- like Spain, Greece and others -- if it does not have the ability to borrow money from its own central bank. Notable economists, like the Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugman, believe that a Sterling Zone would be a disaster. In both debates with Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling has pressed the First Minister to provide viable backup plans to a currency union, since the UK Government has ruled it out completely, arguing that the backup options are not in the best interest of Scotland either.
2) European Union (EU) Membership
The Scottish Government has argued that an independent Scotland will be able to negotiate its position in the EU -- including the current exceptions that Scotland gets as part of the UK -- as a member of the union. Independence opponents have declared that there is no precedent for this situation and it is much more likely that Scotland will have to reapply for membership, which could take years and force Scotland to take the Euro as its currency.
Yes: With independence, Scotland will be able to make its position in the EU stronger, while the UK Government has floated the idea of a referendum in 2016 to determine whether to stay or remain in the EU altogether. The Scottish Government argues that it is currently an EU member state and thus will negotiate its new position with that status. Graham Avery, the European Commission's Honorary Director General, has stated that "Scotland's five million people, having been members of the EU for 40 years; have acquired rights as European citizens. For practical and political reasons they could not be asked to leave the EU and apply for readmission."
No: Independence threatens Scotland's status as a member of the EU as part of the UK. There is no guarantee and increasing uncertainty about Scotland's place in the European Union after independence. Would Scotland have to reapply? Would the Euro be forced upon the country since it is a requirement for all new EU states? Jose Manuel Barroso, the current President of the European Commission, stated that "a new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU and the Treaties would no longer apply on its territory."
3) UK Trident Program Removal
The Scottish Government has consistently stated that only with independence will the UK Trident program -- the sole nuclear deterrent for the British Isles -- be removed from Scottish waters. Moreover, the Scottish Government has proposed enshrining a nuclear weapons ban in the new constitution. Interestingly, many opponents of independence are also against any nuclear weapons being in Scotland, but they cite the potential loss of jobs -- and the logistical and financial difficulty of removing the program -- as reason to disregard the Scottish Government's claims.
Yes: The UK Government is committed to renewing the next generation of nuclear weapons in Scotland, and voting for independence is the only way to prevent it from happening. The people of Scotland are overwhelmingly against nuclear weapons and it is only democratic to remove them as they are forced upon Scots against their will. The Scottish Government proposal calls for the entire program to be removed as quickly and safely as possible by 2020. According to the Royal United Services Institute, the cost of removing Trident would be approximately £3-4 billion ($4.85 billion to $6.45 billion), a fraction of the estimated £80-100 billion cost of maintaining and ultimately replacing Trident. Furthermore, the UK Government has confirmed -- through a Freedom of Information request -- that just over 500 jobs directly relate to Trident, a much smaller number than what has been claimed by independence opponents.
No: The UK Trident Program sustains over 10,000 jobs, and there is no reason to believe that they would not all be lost of Trident is removed. Moreover, it would take many more years than the Scottish Government claims to remove Trident and would be unreasonably expensive. According to the UK Parliament's Scottish Affairs Committee report on the issue -- which relied on expert testimony -- the removal of Trident could take upwards of 20 years and cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money. For some opponents -- especially those aligned with the Conservative Party -- Trident removal is especially undesirable because it could disarm the entire UK until a new facility is built in England. Furthermore, removing Trident would threaten an independent Scotland's ability to join NATO since it is an alliance bound together by nuclear deterrence.
4) North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Membership
The Scottish Government was officially against joining NATO (since it is a nuclear weapons-based alliance) after independence until 2012, when two individuals -- Angus Robertson, the defense spokesman and SNP Member of the UK Parliament, and Luke Skipper, the SNP Chief of Staff and defense adviser -- directed the change in policy against virtually all odds. It was so controversial that two Members of the Scottish Parliament left the SNP to become independents in protest. Since the change, the Scottish Government's plans to join NATO have been a serious point of contention.
Yes: Remaining in NATO after independence will ensure that Scotland's defense forces maintain their international stature. With the geopolitical position of the North Sea, Scotland's membership is essentially a necessity for NATO. Put simply, both sides need the other. Dame Mariot Leslie, a former UK Ambassador to NATO, has recently argued that negotiations might be tough, but she is 100% confident that "the other 28 NATO allies would see it in their interests to welcome an independent Scotland into NATO."
No: NATO will simply not allow a country that removes nuclear weapons -- and enshrines a constitutional ban on them -- into its nuclear weapons-based alliance. General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe at NATO Headquarters, has argued that Scotland will not walk into NATO as easily as the Scottish Government claims. Considering the Scottish Government plans and the pending applications of Ukraine and Estonia, he says, "Given the current crisis in Ukraine, there will be no quick fixes and there can be no certainty about Scottish membership of NATO."
Who is right in all of this? There may not be an answer. But no matter the result of the referendum on September 18, everyone can be assured that democracy has won, because the people of Scotland -- currently residents of a country within a union of countries -- were able to determine their own future in a respected and accountable democratic process.