Scottish independence: Who would get the nukes, and other questions

As it considers a 2014 referendum on independence from Britain Scotland still has a litany of issues that must be resolved beforehand, including its role in the EU and NATO.

David Moir/Reuters
Pro-independence supporters take part in a march in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 22. Thousands of independence supporters took part in a march and rally in Edinburgh, calling for a yes vote for independence in a referendum that could take place in Scotland in 2014.

Outside on an ancient stone plaque on the wall of Scotland's Parliament building, lines penned by Sir Walter Scott reminisce about an independent Scotland, lamenting rule from London. Inside, on Sept. 27, opposition leaders and Scotland's Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon fired off salvos at each other in a debate reminiscent of Westminster exchanges, complete with customary jeers and catcalls from each side.

If Scottish nationalists have their way, such discussions will soon be a feature of an independent Scottish state, as per Sir Walter's s wistful lines etched on the wall outside. Ms. Sturgeon's Scottish National Party is campaigning on the back of a big 2011 election win for Scotland to secede from Britain. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the SNP's name.]

Although the vote is two years away, it is already generating heated debate – unsurprisingly, given the stakes. If Scotland, which currently has a devolved government, votes for independence, it would dissolve a union in place since 1707, during which Britain built the largest empire the world has ever seen.

Now pro-independence voices say that Scotland is better off outside Britain. “Scotland, under Westminster control, is not realizing its potential and that is why becoming independent is so important,” says Stephen Noon, chief strategist of Yes Scotland, the nationalist party-backed independence campaign.

Nationalists say that Scotland has the resources to fend for itself economically – something that many opponents of independence do not dispute.

“We are the EU's largest oil and gas producer and have growing and successful industries including food and drink, tourism, and life sciences and a worldwide reputation for excellence in engineering and innovation,” says Mr. Noon.

It remains to be seen whether or not enough Scots believe that economic security warrants a break with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Only 32 percent of Scots would vote to leave Britain if the vote were held tomorrow, according to the results of a recent British Social Attitudes survey. Though the nationalists hold 67 of the 129 parliamentary seats and say they have a mandate to push for independence because it was a core campaign plank in the election that brought them to power, Scotland's other main parties are against breaking away.

“It is not normal for successful countries to be broken up to create smaller countries,” says Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish wing of the party that shares power in London as part of David Cameron's Conservative-led government.

There are several international and military gray areas that will need clarifying before the 2014 referendum, contend opponents of independence.

“The nationalists have not yet told us what an independent Scotland would look like,” says Labour's Patricia Ferguson, citing a lack of clarity over nuclear weapons stationed in Scotland and whether or not the independent country would be part of NATO.

Moreover, an independent Scotland's position in the European Union might not be automatic, believes Ms. Ferguson, whose party has sought clarification from the nationalists about what legal advice they have been given on the matter, amid speculation that Scotland might have to apply anew to Brussels if it wants to remain in the EU after voting for independence.

Reapplying to Brussels could mean ditching the pound for the euro, which in turn could sway Scots against independence, and business leaders agree that the EU confusion needs sorting out.

“The position of Scotland with regard to the EU has to be clarified before the vote,” says David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors of Scotland, and member of the Future of Scotland campaign, which wants politicians to provide more detailed information about Scotland's options.

Watt says that the debate over independence could revolve as much around national identity as around harder political and economic issues. And even if some Scots feel a greater affinity for Scotland rather than Britain, other Scots are comfortable maintaining both identities. Scottish athletes showed well as part of Britain's third place medal haul at the London Olympics, enhancing a sense of Britishness among Scots, says Mr. Rennie.

Rory Stewart, a Westminster Conservative Party parliamentarian representing an English border constituency. “I am a Scot and also British,” he says, adding that “creating a separate Scotland is a diminishing effort.”

Speaking in Ayr, a windswept coastal town where Scotland held its first-ever Parliament in 1315, author and filmmaker Neil Oliver – whose "A History of Scotland" was a 2009 BBC TV hit – summed up the choice facing Scotland with a marital analogy. Pointing out that an independent Scotland will remain geographically part of Britain, he said, “Scotland and England have been married for 300 years. At least if people get divorced, one person can move out of the house. If we break up, we will have to share the kitchen and the bathroom.”

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