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People & Power

Disunited kingdom

As Scotland prepares to vote on independence, what would a 'Yes' vote mean for the UK's standing in the world?

Last updated: 10 Jul 2014 11:20
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The people of Scotland will soon decide in a referendum whether their country should become independent from the United Kingdom.

Opinion polls show that while support for the 'Yes Scotland' campaign -- those who would separate -- is growing, the 'Better Together' or unionist group still commands a clear majority. 

However, there still remains a large number of ‘don’t knows’. It’s not impossible then that Great Britain, which once ruled an empire covering a large part of the world, could be reduced to just England, Wales and Northern Ireland - and that in Scotland, Europe might soon have its newest sovereign state.

So, if that happens, what sort of nations might emerge from this break-up, and what are the implications for Great Britain’s role in the world?

Dr Faisal Devji teaches modern Indian history at Oxford University. His family lived under British imperial rule, witnessed their departure and saw a strong independent nation emerge as a consequence.

As he was growing up, Britain surrendered its last colonies in Africa and the Far East. He has lived in Zanzibar and Canada – both former British dependencies. He’s therefore both a product of Britain’s rich past and an outsider. As a result, he’s curious whether the vote will mark not so much the birth of a new country, but the final chapter in Britain’s imperial story. People & Power asked him to make a personal assessment of the arguments for and against Scottish independence, and what a 'Yes' vote might mean for those affected.

A matter of control

Accompanied by filmmaker Jeremy Bristow, Devji's journey takes him north of the border between England and Scotland and right into the heart of the debate. Through his travels, he explores the question with both sides of the argument. He finds out that though the Scots have been able to promote their own identity within Great Britain and have enjoyed devolved government for several years, many of them see themselves less as citizens of the UK and more of the European Union – a nation with an even wider polity and different views on the world. For them, their shared history with the UK is important but should not necessarily define what comes next.

"My father was in the Royal Household Cavalry, and very proud to serve in the Royal Household Cavalry" one man tells him.

"My son was in the Royal Air Force, so I have a lot of connections that’s got to do with the British Armed Forces and I am very proud of them. But this is actually a very fundamental argument about control. And who is controlling the economy and the physical leavers that are required for the future."

Humza Yousaf, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the current (nationalist) Scottish government’s minister for external affairs, told Devji that it was a matter of different values.

"Certainly the actions of the UK over the last decade, decade and a half, two decades I think, have not been similar to the values we have here in Scotland in terms of how we view ourselves as a good global citizen".

He cited the Iraq war as an example – 'As a young boy growing up, I was marching in the demonstration in London walking past the House of Commons and a light bulb just went off in a flash. [...] every survey and poll showed that Scots were opposed to the Iraq war. Why was I marching in London? Why was the decision not being taken in Scotland? Why were Scottish sons and daughters being sent off into foreign and illegal wars against our wishes?"

A vote 'for the worst'

Others, on the other hand, are more concerned about the consequences of Scottish independence for the UK at large. Lord Robertson, a defence minister in the UK government and a former secretary-general of NATO, is a proud Scot. However, he believes the results of a "yes" vote could be catastrophic.

"If the United Kingdom was to break in two, if Scotland was to secede, then the United Kingdom would lose a third of its landmass, 10 per cent of its national wealth, five million of its population, and potentially its nuclear deterrent as well. Britain then becomes a much more diminished country and its role in the world – a good role in international development terms, its permanent seat on the Security Council, its ability to play a part in a deeply dangerous and complex world today – would all be affected, and for the worst."

A currency union

Ultimately, it might come down to money.

Most opinion polls show that the viability of a post-independence Scottish economy will be the key factor in most people’s minds come September when the vote will take place.

What the nationalists are trying to say to the people is that if we break away everything will be fine [and] you will still keep all the things that you actually want. But you can’t have it both ways.

Alistair Darling - Better Together campaign.

The separatists point to Britain’s remaining North Sea oil reserves (90 per cent of which is in Scottish waters), tourism, finance and hi-tech manufacturing as being perfectly sufficient to keep the country’s economy afloat. Scotland could remain in a currency union with the rest of the UK and keep the pound sterling .

Others dismiss the latter idea as being unworkable. Alistair Darling, formerly the UK Labour government’s chancellor of the exchequer is leading the "Better Together" campaign.

"What the nationalists are trying to say to the people is that if we break away everything will be fine [and] you will still keep all the things that you actually want. But you can’t have it both ways. The reason a currency union won’t work is that it doesn’t make economic sense for Scotland, because you’d be locking yourself into a situation where the rest of the UK could determine your tax and spend. And as you see with the eurozone, that won’t work." An independent Scotland, he maintains, couldn’t rely on the UK to bail it out if it ran into difficulties.

In a few month’s time, one of these two arguments will prove the most persuasive. Either a relationship that stems back to the Act of Union in 1707 will survive, or Scotland will go it alone and try and make its way as an independent European state. Either way it’ll be a momentous decision that will determine Scotland’s future – and that of the UK – for many years to come.

People & Power  can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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Al Jazeera
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