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Analysis
Scotland's day of destiny

Scotland's day of destiny

The people of Scotland hold the UK's future in their hands

by John Nugée

Thu 18 Sep 2014

After more than two years – some might say more than 20 years – of campaigning and counter-campaigning, today the people of Scotland finally have their chance to vote on the future of their country. There have been many complaints from the rest of the United Kingdom that only 10% of the population is having a vote on a decision affecting the whole country. But there are two important reasons why the alternative, a UK-wide vote, could be far more destabilising.

First, the referendum cements the narrative that Scotland is voting on whether to leave the Union, not end it. This is important because should the vote be to leave, it enables the rest of the UK (rUK) – a smaller union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but still a union – to claim to be the continuing state, not a new state. As a result rUK will automatically have all the rights, obligations, international status, contracts and treaties of the current UK. London would not have to reapply to the European Union or the United Nations (if it did, neither would be an easy or seamless process and the country would almost certainly lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council). The pound would continue unchanged and unchallenged.

Such an outcome is not as inevitable as one might think. Russia fairly easily established itself as the continuing state after the Soviet Union broke up, and maintained all the USSR’s international positions and possessions. Serbia was deemed the continuing state to Yugoslavia, but achieved this status only after time-consuming and difficult wrangling. But neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia was able to assume the mantle when Czechoslovakia broke up, and it caused the Czechs in particular more international effort to establish themselves than they expected.

Second, although a country-wide vote (either by the UK parliament or a plebiscite across the whole of the UK) would on the surface meet rUK objections, careful analysis shows that its consequences could be very adverse. In 1965 Malaysia’s parliament voted to expel Singapore, then part of Malaysia, despite desperate efforts by Singaporean negotiators to avert this possibility. But a Singapore-style outcome in which rUK expelled Scotland, possibly against its will, would have almost certainly poisoned bilateral relations and immensely complicated talks over the terms of its independence.

More dire still would be the reverse, with the rUK outvoting Scots to force them to remain in the Union despite their desire for independence. The Union would survive. But it would be a terrible marriage, with Scotland denied and resentful, and in the worst scenarios a recipe for armed struggle, civil war and a replay of the Irish Troubles.

Both of these outcomes would be disastrous. Only if the four UK nations all voted the same way could such outcomes be averted – but no politician could guarantee this or risk the consequences of getting the ‘wrong’ result. Despite the alarm and uncertainty surrounding today’s vote, a Scotland-only poll is the only viable model and the only way to secure either a workable ongoing partnership or a clean break.

It would have been all too easy for Westminster to agree two years ago to a UK-wide vote as an ‘exercise in democracy’. Everyone today would have found themselves in a position where some of the outcomes were disastrous. The Scottish Yes or No vote is the simplest and cleanest approach. It may well become a template for future approaches to democratic secession in other countries.

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