What would independence mean for Scotland? On Jan. 10, the country’s First Minister Alex Salmond pledged that a referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom would take place in 2014. Here’s an expert, Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute of Studies, on how an unshackled Scotland might look:
It will still be damp, windy and miles from everywhere.
And what of the rest of the United Kingdom?
[It] will also remain exactly the same, only more so.
Brubaker and his Institute are fictions dreamed up by the satirical website Daily Mash in this [be warned, mildly scatological] take on the prospect of Scotland seceding from the union with England established in 1707. For years, even centuries, that prospect seemed consigned to the realm of fiction too. Salmond’s referendum is intended to take place a few months after the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce’s famous rout of the English. In his 1995 film Braveheart, Mel Gibson, in fetching tartan and woad combo as Robert the Bruce’s doomed brother-in-arms William Wallace, may have rallied cinemagoers’ sentiment against rule from Westminster, but only three years later Tony Blair’s Labour government delivered a Blairite third way between independence and full union: devolution. With Scotland still limited on fiscal and foreign policy but able to determine much domestic policy through its own parliament and government, the appeal of the independence movement, spearheaded by the Scottish National Party (SNP), seemed fatally undermined.
2011—the year that upended so many certainties—changed that calculation. Last May, the SNP, led by Salmond, a politician whose name British journalists so routinely prefix with the adjective “wily” that it seems Road Runner must soon dash into view, won a landslide victory in Scottish parliamentary elections, giving his party a mandate to form the first majority government of the modern era. That landslide did not necessarily reflect Scots’ sharpened appetite for independence. Like most election results, it reflected the weakness of the other parties at least as much as it signaled support for the victors. But the SNP’s manifesto pledged a referendum on secession. That left governments both sides of the border with a series of strategic challenges to ensure the results they desire.
These aren’t quite as clearcut as their rhetoric suggests. Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will lead the fight to convince Scottish voters they are better off within the union. Though his party would actually gain electoral advantage from a divorce—Conservatives won only one Westminster parliamentary seat north of the border in the 2010 elections compared to their Liberal Democrat coalition partner’s 11 and the Labour opposition’s 41—Cameron does not wish to go down in history as the man who did for Scotland what
Mel Gibson William Wallace could not. And Salmond is aware that his compatriots may not really want a clean break, but might instead prefer “devo max,” a further devolution of powers giving Scotland free rein on taxation within the continuing framework of the U.K. He does not want to go down in history as the man who led the charge in the second Battle of Bannockburn, only to look back and discover most of his troops had peeled off in another direction.
Salmond’s announcement of the referendum timing was spurred by goading from Cameron, who claimed Scottish business was suffering from uncertainty over the future and challenged the SNP to hold the referendum as soon as possible. The earlier the vote, the less time for the SNP to build support, so the logic goes. For the same reason, the Westminster government wants the referendum to be framed as a straight in-or-out question for the Scots, without the “devo max” option. A further wrinkle is that Westminster has the power to call a binding referendum. The Scottish government does not.
Wrangles over timing and phrasing are set to continue, but it’s a safe bet that Scots will get to cast a ballot within the next two years that could presage a more Disunited Kingdom. Less certain is what Scottish independence would mean.
Much of the rhetoric in favor of independence envisages that revenues from North Sea oil would flow to Scotland rather than England. But this may not be true and would likely be challenged by Westminster. And much of the rhetoric against secession assumes Scotland is subsidized by taxpayers south of the border. That is disputed by the Scottish government but is lent support by the U.K. treasury; in any case, the differences are not nearly as stark as either side likes to suggest. Professor Brubaker may be surprisingly on the money for a fictional pundit: a historic change could mean more of the same.
Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .