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What Happens if Scotland Votes for Independence?

9 minute read

In eight days time, Scotland will vote on whether or not to quit a Union that has existed for the past 307 years. Recent polls have showed a surge in support for the pro-independence Yes campaign. But what exactly will happen if Scotland elects to leave the U.K. on Sept. 18?

When would Scotland actually secede from the U.K.?
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has set a provisional date of March 24, 2016, as Scottish Independence Day.

What would happen between September 2014 and then?
Behind-the-scenes negotiations on how Scotland would extract itself from the U.K. would begin almost immediately. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister spearheading the campaign, has said his deputy Nicola Sturgeon would lead the negotiation talks on behalf of the Scottish nationalists. Westminster has not yet announced who would lead its team.

Would the United Kingdom have to change its name?
Whereas the name “Great Britain” refers to a geographical union, the “United Kingdom” refers to a political one, taking its name from the 1707 Act of Union. If Scotland becomes independent, it’s possible that both names may change, though in reality the country could (and probably would) keep the names. The handle “the rest of the U.K.”, typically abbreviated to rU.K., has been used frequently, though both “continuing U.K.”and “Future U.K.” have been floated as options.

Would Scotland be in the European Union?
Eventually, yes. According to the pro-independence campaign, “Scotland’s E.U. membership will be secure” by the time of independence. But it may not be as quick or straightforward as the Yes campaign has said. E.U. treaties do not specify a protocol for a member state breaking apart, and Brussels has said that Scotland will probably have to apply to join. This process will be slowed by debate over whether Scotland could opt out of the E.U.’s single currency zone (since all E.U. member states have to join the euro once the necessary conditions are fulfilled) and by concerns from countries like Spain and Belgium who face pressure from their own secessionist movements. Since E.U. policies and legal regulations already apply in Scotland, the majority of negotiations shouldn’t be too difficult. However, while Salmond claims the transition to E.U. member state can be done within 18 months, waiting for approval from all 28 countries is likely to take considerably longer.

What would independence mean for Scotland’s defense force and for NATO?
The Yes campaign supports continued membership of NATO, but Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said an independent Scotland would not be guaranteed an automatic place in the defense organization. Scotland would have to reapply to NATO as a new state and all 28 member states would need to unanimously agree on enlargement. The process could take years.

Furthermore, Scottish nationalists are opposed to having the U.K’s nuclear arsenal at its Faslane naval base on the west coast of Scotland and would like to see it removed as soon as possible. If Scotland votes yes, the SNP intends to remove both the Trident nuclear deterrent and nuclear warheads in nearby Loch Long by 2020. Since there are no clear alternative naval bases in the U.K. for the Trident submarines, their transfer to another part of Britain would be inevitably difficult, lengthy and expensive. In fact, the Henry Jackson Society think tank argues that Scottish independence could unilaterally disarm the rest of the U.K., essentially requiring an abandonment of its nuclear program.

Given that NATO is fundamentally a nuclear alliance, U.K. ministers have warned that Scotland’s application could be vetoed if the SNP pursues its pledge to ban nuclear weapons on Scottish. Des Browne, former Secretary of State for Defense and Scotland, says “a vote to leave the UK is a vote to leave Nato, the most successful defense and security alliance in the world.”

Would David Cameron have to resign?
The Prime Minister has said he “emphatically” would not resign if Scotland decides to leave the U.K. Nonetheless, he would certainly be under great pressure to do so from both his own party (who are technically still the “Conservative and Unionist party”) and the opposition. Senior party members have suggested Cameron may face a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the wake of the referendum, possibly just for allowing the referendum to take place.

Would there still be a U.K. general elections in May 2015? Would Scottish voters be able to take part?
There has been talk of delaying the general elections to prohibit Scottish voters from choosing the government of a union it intends to leave. Postponing remains unlikely because, bar one exception during World War II, parliamentary terms in the U.K. are always fixed at a maximum of five years. Scottish voters would still be able to participate, but their representatives would serve only a 10-month term in office since Scottish MPs would have to leave Westminster on Independence Day in March 2016.

How would that change the makeup of the U.K. Parliament?
The impact on future electoral outcomes without Scotland has been heavily discussed, with suggestions of a hung parliament if Scottish MPs are excluded. But an analysis of general-election results since the end of World War II shows that Scottish MPs have had a practical influence over the composition of the U.K. government on just three occasions. Scottish MPs turned a Conservative government into a Labour one with a wafer-thin majority of four in 1964 and a majority of three in 1974. In 2010, Scotland prevented the Conservatives from winning by an outright majority, compelling them to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Of the current existing 59 Scottish seats, the Conservatives have only one, the Liberal Democrats have 11 and Labour have 41. While Scotland could be critical to Labour’s ability to win an overall majority in 2015, past results suggest that the election in 2015 really depends on support in the rest of the U.K. for Ed Miliband’s Labour campaign.

What currency would an independent Scotland use?
Although Salmond has insisted that Scotland would keep the pound sterling, the three main Westminster parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats) have ruled out a currency union. Other possibilities for Scotland include sterlingization (the use of the pound but outside a formal union, which could diminish financial security), joining the euro or creating a new currency.

What would happen to the U.K. national debt? How much would be transferred to Scotland?
This is yet to be decided. It is likely to be calculated on a per capita basis, according to population size.

What would happen to benefits and taxes?
Both benefits and taxes would become the responsibility of the new Scottish government. The Scottish Parliament would ensure that the personal tax allowance and tax credits increase in line with inflation. Tax would stay the same until a new government, elected in 2016, chooses how to change it. However, wide variations in forecasts for the revenue of an independent Scotland make it difficult to calculate potential changes for the individual taxpayer. The pro-union side has challenged the SNP’s plan for the benefits system, arguing that uncertainty is the inevitable outcome and that Scotland’s benefits would be more secure if it remained part of the U.K.

What would happen to Scotland’s businesses?
The oil revenues in the North Sea have always been considered essential to the economic viability of Scotland as an independent nation state. The figures propounded by the Yes campaign about the quantity of oil and gas reserves (Salmond estimates £1.5 trillion, or $2.5 trillion, remain) have proved one of the most contentious points of the independence debates. While Salmond has asserted oil would support the country “way beyond 2050”, Sir Ian Wood, a leading Scottish oil executive and industry expert, asserts that Salmond is overestimating the remaining reserves by 45% to 60%. BP, the major oil company employing over 4,000 people in the North Sea region, released a statement Wednesday in support of Wood’s claims and urging Scotland to vote against independence.

Standard Life, the pensions-and-insurance giant based in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, has warned that it would move large parts of its business out of Scotland in order to protect its customers in the event of secession. As a contingency plan, Standard Life has started registering new English subsidiaries to which it could transfer parts of its business. Neither the Royal Bank of Scotland nor Lloyds Banking Group have announced yet that they would move their main bases to London, but companies would have 18 months until official independence to make any decisions.

Would Scottish citizens need new passports?
This largely depends on whether Scotland can join the E.U. Scottish citizens would be entitled to a Scottish passport, but a U.K. passport would still be valid until it expires. British citizens “habitually resident” in Scotland would be automatically considered Scottish citizens and qualify to apply for Scottish passports.

Would passports be needed to cross the England-Scotland border?
An independent Scotland would be responsible for its own borders, but the Scottish government has signaled that it would not want to sign up to the Schengen free-travel area which covers much of western Europe. As far as the rest of the U.K. is concerned, Home Secretary Theresa May has warned that independence would lead to “profound changes for migration policy.” Scotland’s plan to pursue “healthy population growth” has been interpreted as implying a looser immigration policy. The Conservatives, who prefer a harder line on immigration, have expressed concerns at the possibility of Scotland becoming “a convenient landing point for migration into the United Kingdom.” From Westminster’s point of view, border controls and passport checks are a real possibility.

Would Scotland keep the Queen?
The Yes campaign has said that Her Majesty would remain as monarch, since the referendum concerns the 1707 Union of the Nations, as opposed to the 1603 Union of the Crowns. Buckingham Palace insists that the Queen is politically neutral and that she will not be intervening in the independence debate. In the short term, Scotland’s draft constitution would keep the Queen as Queen of Scotland, but there could well be another referendum on the subject.

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Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com