Sometimes couples end up in the divorce court after many years of marriage. Their common ground looks solid enough, the differences that divide them seem negligible, but resentments against old injuries bubble to the surface like jets of North Sea oil.
Listening to politicians from Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government and their Labour opposition united in attempting to persuade Scots not to sever their more than 300-year-old union with England and Wales on Sept. 18 feels like eavesdropping on a marital row. On that date, voters in Scotland will be invited to answer a single question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Last Thursday, U.K. Chancellor George Osborne warned that a standalone Scotland shouldn’t rely on being able to keep the pound. “There’s no legal reason why the rest of the U.K. would need to share its currency with Scotland,” he said, adding that the proindependence Scottish Nationalists “are like the angry party to a messy divorce. But the pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between two countries after a breakup as if it were a CD collection.”
It’s a fair point, even if it left younger voters scratching their heads and Googling “CD collection.” Europe’s recent experience of currency union hasn’t been reassuring, a point echoed in similar interventions in the debate by other Westminster politicians and by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. And there are any number of possible repercussions of independence Scots might care to ponder before ticking the yes box on the referendum form, as the wearied voices of reason keep pointing out. Scotland on its own might find itself poorer and levying higher taxes to maintain its public services, a small country without international influence, buffeted by globalization. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso even suggested that Scotland risked losing its E.U. membership in the divorce settlement. Yet the more these arguments are trotted out to assuage the forces pushing for rupture, the more inflamed feelings among supporters of independence become.
That’s because, as John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and described by his own website as the “leading relationship expert in the world,” would surely diagnose, advocates of retaining the union fall into the calculating Martian category, but Scottish nationalism is driven by hot, Venusian passion. Admittedly, the proponents of independence present their argument in coldly rational Martian terms, making grandiose claims about the oil wealth Scots will supposedly enjoy once they stop sharing North Sea revenues with the rest of the U.K. But Scotland’s First Minister, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, revealed the deeper, more primal feelings underpinning support for breaking with England in his Feb. 17 riposte to Osborne & co. “To be told there are things we can’t do will certainly elicit a Scottish response that is as resolute as it is uncomfortable to the No campaign,” said Salmond. “It is, ‘yes we can.'”
He was evoking not the gentle “yes we can” of then presidential candidate Barack Obama’s oft-repeated slogan, but the rousing battle cry of a William Wallace (who ultimately couldn’t) or a Robert the Bruce (who could). Scotland’s history — real and mythified — still resonates with voters. Salmond and his party won a landslide victory in 2011 elections to the Scottish parliament at least in part because of the abiding conviction that Scotland is not in a union but under an English yoke.
So will it be Splitsville this fall for the not-so-United Kingdom? Opinion polls suggest otherwise: a recent survey conducted in Scotland shows 42% of respondents favor remaining within the U.K., with only 29% arguing for schism. But the independence lobby’s numbers are ticking upward and a further 29% of those eligible to decide Scotland’s fate describe themselves as undecided. Will these swing voters be susceptible to rational arguments for union or to the visceral, emotional appeal of independence? Is Mars or Venus in the ascendant? A lot depends on the skills of those seeking to keep Scotland in the U.K. It’s worth remembering that nobody ever won an emotional argument simply by being right.