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On Sept. 18, voters in Scotland will go to the polls to decide if the nation of 5.3 million should break off from the rest of the U.K. and become a fully independent country. If the referendum passes, it will set in motion the end of the 307-year-old union between the Scottish and English Crowns. The plebiscite has inflamed passions on both sides, and turnout is expected to reach nearly 80%–well above the 50% showing in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, in 2011. Polling in August showed the no vote with a comfortable lead, but the pro-independence campaign, led by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, hopes Salmond’s strong performance in the final televised debate on Aug. 25 will help drive the movement to victory and make Scotland the world’s newest independent country.


After decades of pushing for greater autonomy, Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) won control of the semiautonomous Scottish parliament in 2011 with a promise to hold a vote for independence. The party was able to capitalize on widespread discontent in Scotland with being subject to the right-leaning Conservative government in London. A year later, despite its opposition to severing the union, the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron authorized the Scottish parliament to hold a legally binding referendum on independence.


For Scotland to become independent, the Yes Scotland campaign needs a simple majority. Eligible voters must be residents of Scotland with British, E.U. or Commonwealth citizenship. That means that Scotland resident J.K. Rowling, the English author of Harry Potter who contributed $1.7 million to the anti-independence movement, will be able to cast a vote, but Scottish actor Sean Connery, a supporter of the pro-independence campaign who lives in the Bahamas, won’t. Voters can be as young as 16, because the SNP successfully lowered the eligible age for the plebiscite in 2013.


Advocates for self-rule say that independence would enable Scots to elect a fully empowered government that would reflect the country’s predominantly left-leaning politics. Salmond has warned that Scotland’s prized free health service might be at risk under the U.K. government and has opposed the stationing of British nuclear-armed submarines on the west coast of Scotland. His supporters also say that an independent Scotland would be among the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income, partly because of lucrative oil reserves in the North Sea.


Alistair Darling, a Scot who was Britain’s Finance Minister in the last Labour government in London and now heads up the anti-independence Better Together campaign, argues that staying in the union offers the most reliable path to prosperity for Scotland. In the Aug. 25 debate, he said North Sea oil revenue was “volatile” and challenged Salmond to spell out what currency an independent Scotland would use. Salmond wants to keep the pound sterling in a currency union with the U.K., but British government officials have said they would not cooperate. Salmond says they’re bluffing.

This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.

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