Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Holy sh$t, Scottish independence might happen

Scotland independence; Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes
The pro-independence supporters are feeling . . . frisky.

Unthinkable → extremely unlikely → a respectable showing → closer than we thought → neck and neck → PANIC

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have assured you Scotland would vote against independence. While the vote looked like it might be somewhat close, the pro-union (or anti-independence) campaign of "NO" voters appeared to have a comfortable cushion to win the campaign. After the first televised debate in early August on independence between Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, and the leader of the "Better Together" pro-union campaign, Alistair Darling, the independence campaign was losing in the polls by double digits. But then a second debate in late August gave a strong boost to the "YES" vote; the polls quickly showed independence closing the gap to within six percent.

This issue has been on my radar for nearly two years, when I saw a news blurb announcing an agreement (the "Edinburgh Agreement") between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond that Scotland could hold a referendum regarding independence. That announcement came on 15 October 2012. Although I had no idea in October 2012 I would be moving to Scotland, I'm a political junkie and the referendum was an oddity worth pondering.

Then, in early 2013, Kate got offered a position in Scotland and we soon committed ourselves to moving to the U.K. The independence referendum occasionally popped up in the news and I started doing some background research. I made a reference to the referendum in my very first blog post and have tracked it closely ever since:





And then came a poll on September 7, for the first time showing the pro-independence YES supporters in the lead. It was a small lead, 51% to 49%, and within the margin of error. Nevertheless, the poll showed the campaign to be in a dead heat.

This sent shockwaves through the political elite of the U.K. The general consensus -- as it evolved -- is what I outlined at the top of this post: progressing from regarding independence as unthinkable to a panic that independence might happen.

Since the September 7 poll, other polls have weighed in. Most show a small lead for the NO vote, though one poll indicates an eight point win for NO. On the other hand, one poll indicates an eight point win for YES. Averaging the polls, it looks like NO has a tiny lead, perhaps within the margin for error.

The new general consensus is that no one knows how the vote will turn out. Roughly six to ten percent of voters claim to be undecided. The YES voters are visibly more passionate. The NO voters have the support of most media, the professional classes, and most large businesses. This election may very well hinge on turnout and a get-out-the-vote effort. {Ed.'s note: As do many elections, of course.}

Scottish independence referendum--YES campaign billboard
The YES campaign has billboards up throughout Glasgow.
Scottish independence referendum--YES campaign stickers on car
YES voters are much more visible.
Scottish independence referendum--YES signs in window
You can find YES signs in windows everywhere. I'd estimate that YES signs outnumber NO signs in Glasgow by at least a 20 to 1 margin, and I'm probably underestimating that ratio by a large amount. I could see a 50 to 1 margin. It's rare to see a NO sign.
My anecdotal, man-on-the-street impression is that YES supporters are everywhere. They seem to vastly outnumber the NO voters. I ask just about every Scot I know about independence, and many tell me they have moved from a NO vote to undecided. What that means in reality is that many were likely undecided but leaning toward NO, and some may now lean a bit toward YES. Polls don't reflect the YES visibility on the ground. My guess is that NO voters are keeping their heads down, afraid of rowdy YES supporters hectoring them, calling them unpatriotic, or some other confrontation.

What is the Scottish independence referendum?

Scotland will vote in a referendum to answer a solitary yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" If the electorate votes yes, then Scotland will leave the United Kingdom.

When is the vote?

September 18, this coming Thursday. The polls will be open from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm. Approximately 789,000 voters requested and were sent postal ballots at the end of August.

Who can vote?

The following groups of people can vote on September 18, so long as they are over the age of 16 and have registered to vote:

         - British citizens living in Scotland (including any English, Welsh, or Northern Irish);

         - service personnel posted outside of Scotland, as well as spouses and children (aged 16 or over);

         - European Union citizens living in Scotland; and

         - certain qualifying Commonwealth citizens living in Scotland.

That means about 800,000 Scots who live outside Scotland cannot vote, while about 400,000 English, Welsh, or Northern Irish can vote in the referendum.

A total of 4,285,323 people have registered to vote. That makes it the largest electorate ever in the history of Scotland, for any election or referendum.

As an American expat living in Scotland, I cannot vote. I'm happy about that. It doesn't seem like a question I should answer. If I did have a vote, I'd probably vote against independence, though I'm a lot less certain about it than I was several months ago. I think Scotland definitely can succeed as an independent nation, perhaps even thrive. But I think Scotland certainly will suffer in the short term from transitional costs, and quite possibly suffer in the long term. I see no truly compelling reason for Scotland to leave its 307-year old participation in Great Britain (and then the United Kingdom). As a practical reality, Scotland has been tied to England for 411 years when the nations were unified under one king. Scotland has thrived because of its involvement in the U.K., not in spite of it.

When will we know?

We almost certainly won't know the result of the referendum until the next day, September 19. Votes will not be counted until the polls close at 10:00 pm on September 18. The voting will not be reported until all precincts have finished their counting.

I haven't lived in the U.K. long enough to know how they usually handle elections, but I suspect that the various political parties involved in the referendum will have a decent idea of the results before the end of voting on the 18th. I assume they'll have their own exit polls. We may or may not get hints of the outcome from the statements or demeanor of politicians, reporters, and talking heads.

What happens if Scotland votes YES?

Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become its own independent country.

But nothing will happen immediately. Scotland and the rest of the U.K. -- often abbreviated in the press here as "rUK" -- will negotiate many issues, notably what currency Scotland will use, how much of the U.K.'s debt it will take on, who gets the oil fields in the North Sea, and so on.

Salmond, serving as Scotland's First Minister, would like to resolve all issues and have independence by March 2016. That may be optimistic. Both sides, however, have incentives to end uncertainty and get divorced as soon as possible. No one knows how long it will take, but within two years seems pretty likely.

Scotland will retain Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch. But given Scotland's generally left-leaning politics, don't be surprised if there is a somewhat near-future referendum as to whether to retain the monarch. I'd be stunned if this happened while Queen Elizabeth is alive, but broaching the subject with the less popular Prince Charles on the throne makes it easier.

What happens if Scotland votes NO?

Somewhat ironically, a lot will happen fast. Scotland will remain part of the U.K. But the major political parties -- Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour -- have all pledged to give Scotland and its parliament substantially enhanced powers as soon as possible. This is generally called devo-max (i.e., maximum devolution). These powers will include enhanced abilities to tax and spend, more power over the National Health Service in Scotland, and so on. Some political leaders have called for these powers to be in place within just a few months.

Increased powers for Scotland, however, may lead to calls for increased powers to Wales and Northern Ireland. Some in the Republic of Ireland have already speculated on a referendum for Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and join the rest of Ireland.

England does not have its own parliament, and there are a few voices calling for such a body. Will this referendum increase a desire by the English to have their own parliament? We don't know.

In political terms, Scotland will be very much a federalized state within the U.K. It will have more power on some issues than U.S. states have within the U.S. federal system. Scotland will have control over most of its domestic questions, but foreign policy and national defense will still be controlled by the U.K.

If Scotland votes NO, will there be a "neverendum"?

Some folks speculate that if Scotland votes NO but the vote is close, then we'll see another independence referendum fairly soon. Perhaps independence will be a never-ending political football, with multiple future referendums. Don't count on it. In fact, Salmond has publicly stated that the independence referendum is a once-in-a-generation question, at best. And the U.K. is very unlikely to agree to another referendum for a good long while, so any near-term Scottish referendum on the issue would not have the legitimacy (or legality) that this referendum has.

Which side is going to win, YES or NO?

Nobody knows. As I noted above, the polls show a tight race, with a strong cohort of undecided voters.

My best guess is that the NO side will win narrowly. But my prediction is of course made with my own political bias as background, my lack of time in the country, my sense of the polls, and an educated guess on how undecided voters may flinch at voting for the risk of the unknown.

But don't be surprised at a YES vote. Scottish independence just might happen.

Scottish independence referendum--NO and YES signs
The YES voters are more vocal and more passionate. But the quieter NO voters have a slight lead in the polls.

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