- - Thursday, September 11, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Sept. 18, the people of Scotland will go to the polls to vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom and end more than 300 years of union with England. The outcome could have substantial impact on this side of the Atlantic as well. At stake is nothing less than the nature of our relationship with our most trusted ally, international monetary issues, British military capabilities, world oil markets and perhaps the future of the European Union itself.

The second of two debates before the elections was broadcast live on BBC throughout the entire United Kingdom last week. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, argued for the Scottish pro-independence “Yes Scotland” campaign. He was seen as the clear winner in a “snap poll” conducted by The Guardian newspapers, 71 percent to 29 percent over Alistair Darling, former chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Salmond’s counterpart and the leader of the anti-independence “Better Together” campaign. To the participants, the central issues are whether Scotland can keep the British pound as its official currency, how much oil is left in the North Sea and the effect Scotland’s independence would have on energy and taxes, Scottish participation in the British national health service, and who, if anyone, would benefit from a breakaway.

A series of recent polls, all taken before last week’s debate, have shown the pro-Scottish independence vote trailing those who prefer to stay in the United Kingdom by an average of 14 percent. However, for the first time, a YouGov poll released Sept. 1 showed the yes vote leading by 51 percent to 49 percent. Plus the Scottish Parliament, which already has limited self-rule, passed legislation to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 for the referendum. According to Anthony Wells, associate director of YouGov, a leading public-opinion polling firm, when Mr. Salmond announced they would extend the franchise to include 16- and 17-year-olds for the referendum, many took it as a cynical move to enfranchise people who would be very likely to vote yes, but that is far from certain. The demographic divide in the referendum isn’t young versus old, it’s women versus men. Men are consistently more pro-independence than women. Polling also shows that 10 percent to 15 percent of the voters are still undecided and many observers think the yes campaign has a more effective ground organization. Whether they are more effective at engaging those remaining voters remains to be seen.

Other issues, less in the forefront of public awareness, could have a deeper and more significant impact. No issue directly impacts NATO more that the defense questions an independent Scotland would raise. In an eerie parallel to Russia’s situation in the Crimea, the United Kingdom’s major naval facilities are located in Scotland, not England. The House of Commons defense committee stated that Scottish independence would have a negative impact on the kingdom’s defenses.

The Trident nuclear-missile system is based at the Coulport weapons depot and at the naval facility at Faslane, both in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalist Party has stated it would not allow these weapons in an independent Scotland, the British military has indicated that there is no alternative to the current site in Scotland, and British leaders have co-signed a letter stating that forcing the Tridents to leave Scotland would place the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent in jeopardy. A separate report indicated that it could take 10 years and cost an addition 10 billion pounds to relocate the naval facilities. The United Kingdom’s government at Whitehall has even declared it is unwilling to build warships in a “foreign country.”

Missing from much of the debate has been the indisputable fact that Scotland’s independence would have a massive and direct impact on the makeup of future British governments. Of the British Parliament’s House of Commons’ 650 members, 59 represent Scottish constituencies. Of that number, currently only one is a member of the conservative Tory party. The vast majority, 41, are members of the Labor Party. The United Kingdom will face national elections of its own in May 2015, and the ruling coalition led by David Cameron’s Conservative Party has been trailing Labor in most national surveys, but a loss of 16 percent of their parliamentarians would be devastating to Labor.

Though on the surface, the Tories would appear to benefit politically from an independent Scotland, they, like the other major parties — Labor and the Liberal Democrats — have campaigned hard to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. The Tories are sincere in their desire to see Scotland stay in the union, says Richard Murphy, an international political consultant and longtime adviser to the Conservative Party, but, ironically, if it doesn’t, they might just cry all the way to a new majority government.

Since the election debates started, the Scottish Nationalist Party has reversed itself and now says it would stay in NATO. However, it is clear an independent Scotland would, as a new country, find itself automatically outside the European Union. With or without Scotland, the British prime minister has promised to hold a referendum in 2017 on leaving the European Union.

Despite this additional source of uncertainty and turmoil for all the current citizens of the United Kingdom, there is at least one issue on which probably most English and Scots can agree: They do not consider themselves “European,” even if they are not sure they want to be fellow countrymen.

Tom Edmonds is a Republican political consultant, and past president of the American Association of Political Consultants and the International Association of Political Consultants.

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