Breaking from the U.K.: Is an Independent Scotland Feasible?

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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, attends the Yes Scotland campaign launch at Cineworld on May 25, 2012 in Edinburgh

The U.K. is, like the U.S., a union. And as with many unions, political and otherwise, one party in the U.K. wants out. In this case, it’s the Scottish National Party (SNP), which helped launch a campaign on May 25 titled Yes Scotland to separate their country from the rest of the U.K. — England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet despite the fact that the independence movement is perhaps more powerful than ever (Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is spearheading the campaign), polls show separatists face a Sisyphean task: the boulder that is the Scottish public is 57% opposed to the idea and shows no sign of budging.

Still, where there’s a way (a referendum on the issue will be held in Scotland in 2014), there’s usually a will. On May 25, a hodgepodge of Scottish politicians and celebrities stood in an Edinburgh theater before a 500-strong audience, urging a million Scots to sign a declaration of independence that would put Scotland’s future “in Scotland’s hands.” A million signatures would signal sufficient support to win the referendum in 2014, the campaign’s leaders say. 

(MORE: The New Braveheart? Scotland’s Salmond Eyes Independence from the U.K.)

Even with luminaries like the scene-chewing actor Brian Cox on their side, however, it’s unclear whether the separatists will be able to keep their own union united. Salmond wants to spur growth in Scotland by slashing company taxes, while his secessionist partner, Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Green Party, believes rampant economic growth will wreck the environment. The truth is, they don’t have much in common — a fact borne out by the campaign’s failure to detail just how an independent Scotland might be run. (The Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, did say that it would aim to retain the pound and only switch to the euro if approved in a separate referendum.)

Some believe the secessionists should offer a third option in the referendum as well. A group of politicians known as the Devo Plus Group, led by Jeremy Purvis, a former Liberal Democrat finance spokesman in Edinburgh, argue that Scots may be more amenable to voting for a “devo plus” option, which would be a further devolution of powers giving Scotland new tax-raising powers, rather than full independence. “Many people will be excluded from this week onward if the debate is solely about separation or the status quo,” Purvis says.

(MORE: Scot Free: Is Scotland’s Independence from the U.K. Inevitable?)

So what is this really about? The Stone of Scone? Tartan kilts? Haggis? Perhaps a wee bit. But mostly it’s to do with North Sea oil and gas. Secessionists claim the revenues from those oil and gas reserves would sustain Scotland very well. Others counter that those oil reserves will eventually run out — North Sea production has been declining by about 6% a year for the past five years, with an 18% drop in 2011. Then there’s the issue of how much of the oil actually belongs to Scotland. The SNP argues that if you draw a median line into the North Sea from the Scotland-England border, this would give Scotland about 90% of the oil and gas reserves under the sea. But this territorial claim is disputed by the U.K. government.

What is certain is that an independent Scotland would be heavily reliant on oil — offshore activity accounted for about 18% of Scottish GDP in 2010–11. And this could be problematic in the future. Last month, the Economist ran a map on its cover lampooning Scotland as “Skintland,” governed by its capital “Edinborrow” under the title “The Price of Scottish Independence.” Salmond didn’t appreciate the Economist’s satire, dismissing it as “not even funny.” That’s what a majority of his fellow Scots think about his aim to split Scotland from the U.K. He and other proponents of independence will be working between now and 2014 to ensure they have the last laugh.