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The pros and cons of going it alone

With the campaign period now officially underway, voters north of the border have 16 weeks to decide whether to vote for Scottish independence, or to preserve the United Kingdom with Scotland as a constituent part.

As the referendum approaches, we answer the key questions about  Scottish independence and the issues it raises for the UK, Scotland and the wider world.

When did Scotland become part of the UK?

The acts of union between Scotland and England were passed in 1706, taking effect on 1 May, 1707. On that day, the Parliament of Great Britain was formed and set up shop in the Palace of Westminster.

Why did each side agree to the Union?

The English were keen to make sure Scotland didn’t choose a different monarch to the one sitting on the English throne. Meanwhile, the Scots were seriously “cash-strapped” after an “economically disastrous scheme to attempt to colonise the Isthmus of Panama in the late 1690s”, says the Daily Telegraph.

What question will voters be asked at the referendum?

This bit is simple. There will be one question with a ‘yes or no’ answer: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Why is it being held on 18 September?

The all-important date was chosen – after much deliberation – by the Scottish National Party’s leader Alex Salmond. The BBC says the chosen day took into account factors such as Scottish winter weather, the UK party conference season and public holidays. It notes that 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Salmond may be hoping Scottish republicanism will be stirred by commemorations of Robert the Bruce’s famous victory over the English army.

Who is eligible to vote?

The simple answer is everyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland. That means the 800,000 Scots who live in other parts of the UK won’t be able to vote, and the 400,000 people from elsewhere in Britain who live in Scotland will. All the main players agree this is “the fairest way” to do things, the BBC says.

Who are the politicians backing?

It won’t surprise you to learn that the SNP wants independence. The Scottish Greens also want to break free from the UK. Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all want to maintain the Union.

What about foreign politicians?

Many international leaders, particularly those facing separatist movements within their own countries, are openly hostile towards Scottish independence. With one eye on Catalan nationalists, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has insisted that an independent Scotland could not expect automatic membership of the EU.  “It’s very clear to me, as it is for everybody else in the world, that a country that would obtain independence from the EU would remain out of the EU,” he said. “That is good for Scottish citizens to know and for all EU citizens to know.”

Would an independent Scotland keep the pound?

Alex Salmond was “pilloried” for the assumption – stated in the White Paper – that Scotland will be allowed to keep sterling. Salmond says David Cameron would be “in breach of undertakings to the Scottish people” if he refuses to allow an independent Scotland to join a sterling currency union, the Guardian reports. But the Chancellor, George Osborne, has made it clear that it is “highly unlikely” that Scotland will be allowed to keep using the currency after independence. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has also said that Scotland “could not force the UK into a currency union against its will”.

What about the euro?

The currency issue is further complicated by the desire for a newly independent Scotland to join the EU, but opt out of the Euro. Salmond says there’s “no prospect” of Scotland joining the Euro, but experts believe it may be forced to use the European currency. Professor Jo Murkens, an expert on Scottish independence and European constitutional law, told the Scottish Express: “Every new applicant state has to commit themselves in law to adopting the euro. There have been no opt-outs. It is a condition of membership.”

How would the UK’s national debt be shared?

Another thorny issue raised by the separation of the two countries is the amount of the UK’s £1 trillion national debt that will be inherited by Scotland. The White Paper says Scotland will take on a share amounting to between £100bn and £130bn. As a proportion of GDP – gross domestic product, which is boosted in Scotland due to income from North Sea oil – the document says this is “less than the debt of the rest of the UK expressed in the same terms”. Alex Salmond has said that he may not agree to taking on Scotland’s share of the national debt if Scotland was not allowed joint control of the pound. The Treasury has said it will stand behind all existing UK Government debt, regardless of how it might be shared between an independent Scotland and the rump UK after this September’s referendum. The pledge is “aimed at removing the risk of default from any debt-sharing dispute between Scotland and the rest of the UK,” the BBC reports. Doubts about who would be responsible for servicing the debt could have led to increased borrowing costs as the referendum approached.

How would Scottish independence affect UK defence policy?

The SNP has previously said it wants Britain’s nuclear submarines – currently stationed at the Faslane Naval Base – out of Scotland as soon as the ink drys on the charter of independence. The White Paper softens that position by saying the Scottish government will want Trident out of Scotland by 2020. And rather than a concrete deadline, 2020 is an ‘aim and intention’, indicating the SNP is willing to compromise further, The Guardian says. Salmond also appeared to “soften” his hardline stance on nuclear-armed vessels using Scottish waters and ports.  He said Navy ships from Britain and other Nato countries would still be able to use them under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy similar to that operated by Denmark and Norway. Not surprisingly, the UK government called the shift in position a “major dilution” of the SNP’s pledge to create a nuclear-free Scotland.

What else will change in an independent Scotland?

The White Paper sets out a broad range of social and political changes, including:

  • Thirty hours of childcare per week in term time for all three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.
    Housing benefit reforms, described by critics as the “bedroom tax”, to be abolished, and a halt to the rollout of Universal Credit.
    Basic rate tax allowances and tax credits to rise at least in line with inflation.
    A “triple-locked” pension system designed to guarantee income keeps pace with the cost of living
    Minimum wage to “rise alongside the cost of living”.

But what of the bigger picture? The concept of Great Britain is threatened by Scottish independence, according to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. In a recent interview with Salmond, he suggested independence would mean the end of Great Britain. Salmond hit back, saying: “The state we currently live in is not Great Britain, it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. ‘Britain’ won’t disappear as a geographical expression any more than ‘Scandinavia’.”

What happens if it’s a yes vote?

Alex Salmond and the SNP will hold a very large party. After that, a constitutional settlement will need to be drawn up and that could take some time, says the BBC. It will lay out the terms of independence and resolve some of the questions mentioned above. Salmond has said he wants to declare Independence Day in March 2016 and hold elections to an independent Scottish parliament in May.

And if it’s a no vote?

Salmond has described the referendum as a once-in-a-generation event. It seems everyone involved in the process wants to abide by the referee’s decision and avoid the prospect of what long-suffering residents of Quebec call the “neverendum”.

Will Salmond’s political career be over if it’s a no vote?

“Don’t bet on it,” says his biographer David Torrance in the Daily Telegraph. A yes vote of between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote would allow Salmond to “point to progress” and hang on as the SNP’s leader. The Telegraph points out that “more powers will still be on their way north”, even if independence is rejected on 18 September. The Scotland Act, signed into law last year, will allow MSPs to set income tax rates and let the Scottish Parliament borrow more money. If the no vote does prevail it “raises the prospect of prolonged bartering between Holyrood and Westminster”, the paper says. Indeed the Scottish Liberal Democrats have already called on the SNP to “embrace devolution” if the country rejects independence rather than acting like “reluctant bystanders” in any talks.

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