On September 18, Scotland’s voters will go to the polls to cast ballots on a big question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” After 307 years of a formal union with England, its neighbor to the North is considering a split. We explore what brought the vote about, what it would mean for both the United Kingdom and European Union – and the likelihood of Scottish Independence becoming a reality.


  • Michael Geary Global Fellow, The Wilson Center; Assistant Professor of Modern Europe and the European Union, Maastricht University, The Netherlands
  • Ben Riley-Smith Political reporter, The Telegraph


  • 13:29:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAfter 307 years together, the union between Scotland and England may be coming apart. On September 18, Scottish voters will go to the polls to answer a simple question, should Scotland be an independent country? The yes campaign argues independence would bring greater economic freedom, the ability to make decisions that better serve the population's unique needs and protect benefits like the national health service and tuition rates that citizens fear losing because of decisions made in London.

  • 13:29:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe no side under the slogan better together argues that, well, the grass isn't always greener and that the costs of separating would outweigh any economic boon independence enthusiasts think might come their way. Here to help us better understand the issues underlining the vote and what to know ahead of September is Ben Riley-Smith. He's a political reporter covering the Scottish independence referendum The Telegraph. He joins us by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland. Ben Riley-Smith, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:17

    MR. BEN RILEY-SMITHNo problem. Hi, Kojo.

  • 13:30:19

    NNAMDIMichael Geary joins us by phone from Cork, Ireland. He's a global fellow with the Wilson Center and professor of modern Europe at (sic) the European Union at the Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Michael Geary, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:32

    MR. MICHAEL GEARYKojo, thank you for having me on the show.

  • 13:30:36

    NNAMDIBen Riley-Smith, I'll start with you. Remind us which countries currently make up the United Kingdom and why after 300 plus years together Scotland is considering opting out of the group?

  • 13:30:47

    RILEY-SMITHWell, there are four countries as part of the UK, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. And the vote coming up in September is really the climax of an eight-year push by the Scottish National Party in a lingering resentment about where power lies in the UK and who makes decisions. And throughout the last couple of generations, there has been a growing feeling in Scotland that decisions should be made in Scotland by Scots rather than in London via representatives from across the UK.

  • 13:31:21

    RILEY-SMITHThe key turning point really in the last decade was -- well, there were two. Firstly, 1997 when Scots got to vote on whether to have their own parliament, they said yes comprehensively. And so the Scottish parliament was created in Edinburgh. And, in 2011, when the Scottish National Party won a whopping majority in (word?) where you got the Scottish parliament and got the chance to put this question to the Scottish people.

  • 13:31:47

    NNAMDIMichael Geary, for someone not up to speed on the news, how do you explain the upcoming vote and the decision the Scottish people are facing?

  • 13:31:57

    GEARYWell, it is a unique turning point or it's a unique point in their history, their relationship with the United Kingdom. It's not the first country, of course, to leave. The Republic of Ireland left in the early 1920s over the (unintelligible) the circumstances were different. It is going to be -- it's a major decision, of course, whether or not to leave. It looks as if the no-fight have the advantage. I think Scottish people are conservative for the (unintelligible) and I just don't know whether they're prepared to make that jump.

  • 13:32:36

    GEARYThere's all sorts of questions that haven't been adequately answered on a whole range of policy areas from defense to monetary policy to national debt and employment and a whole range of other areas where, you know, the Scottish government -- the Scottish National Party really haven't been as convincing as one would have liked in terms of selling the possibility of their independence.

  • 13:33:01

    GEARYAnd so it is -- I think, for Scots it's a major event in the relationship with London, but also I think the debate itself has become a little bit obscured in policy talk about, you know, the pound and currencies and the national debt and oil and nuclear weapons and deterrents and all these kinds of things. And I think what it comes down to, I think Scotts are confused. And given the conservative of nature of the Scottish military, I think that they might be reluctant. While they enjoy the role of power, I think, going full hog toward an end, it might be a bit too far.

  • 13:33:41

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about the Scottish independence referendum, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you been following the movement, the independence movement? What's your take on it, 800-433-8850? You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Ben Riley-Smith, Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, has been a driver behind this independence push. Who else is backing the campaign and why did they choose this particular year for a vote?

  • 13:34:13

    RILEY-SMITHWell, you know, Alex Salmond has really been the key thicket driving this whole campaign. This British National Party, the party he leads, like I said, has been around for 80 years. Twenty of those eighty years, Alex Salmond has been in charge for a decade-long stint, first of all, from 1990 to 2000, then a brief break, then 2004 to today. He is really the figurehead of the entire campaign and has a remarkable ability to speak to Scottish hearts and sum up the excitement that some see in going independent.

  • 13:34:44

    RILEY-SMITHThe yes campaign is a wider coalition. The SMP is by far and away the largest party. But the greens and the Scottish parliament have also joined them, as has the Socialist Party. But it's fair to say that the SMP is really the driver behind this movement. In terms of why this year, like I say, the key point was in 2011 when the SMP won that big majority, the Scottish parliament was set up to be a coalition.

  • 13:35:14

    RILEY-SMITHThey won outright power with the majority and that allowed them to go to David Cameron, the prime minister of the UK, and say, we have the democratic will behind us to have this vote. There was some wrangling between the two about exactly when to hold it. This year 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Some critics, including recently John Major, the former prime minister, Sir Alex Salmond, chose this year to coincide with that sort of sentiment to be -- not that many people have said that.

  • 13:35:47

    RILEY-SMITHBut he promised in 2011 that in this parliament he would deliver an independence referendum. And it's coming 2014. Now we just got less than three months to go.

  • 13:35:58

    NNAMDIBen, on the other side there's the better together campaign. Who is spearheading that effort and what appeals are being made for the preservation of the union?

  • 13:36:07

    RILEY-SMITHThat's right. The better together campaign is basically a union of UK-based parties. So when you look at Westminster, it's the conservative and the liberal Democrats in the coalition. Both of those parties are in the (unintelligible) as is labor. Also, the Scottish versions of those political parties are in the campaign.

  • 13:36:29

    RILEY-SMITHThe head of that campaign is a man called Alistair Darling who was the former chancellor under Gordon Brown. David Cameron also has a role within the campaign and there's been some debate about how engaged he should be. The cool pitch for them is that Scotland is, as the name says, better together. The UK, 12 times the size of Scotland in terms of population, has an international clout and an economic security that Scotland cannot have on its own. That's what it says.

  • 13:37:02

    RILEY-SMITHIn the EU and NATO with allies such as America, Britain has a say in the world that Scotland, if it went alone, could match economically by sharing all the risks and pooling the benefits of the economy. Scotland would be safest staying together. That's their pitch.

  • 13:37:22

    NNAMDIBen Riley Smith is a political reporter covering the Scottish independence referendum for The Telegraph. He joins us by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland. Joining us by phone from Cork, Ireland is Michael Geary, global fellow with the Wilson Center and professor of modern Europe and the European union at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Ben, just a specific here, the implications are huge but the wording of this ballot itself is fairly simple. We mentioned it earlier but what question exactly will voters be casting a yes or no vote on come September?

  • 13:37:54

    RILEY-SMITHYou know what? It is quite a simple question. And it was a result of some wrangling again between the Scottish parliament, Alex Salmond and David Cameron down in Westminster. The specific question is, should Scotland be an independent country? It's a yes or no question. One of the key debating points before they settled on that question was whether there'd actually be a second question. That was going to say something along the lines of, should the Scottish parliament have more powers, yes or no.

  • 13:38:21

    RILEY-SMITHThis idea is called devolution max, demo max to some people. And that was actually Alex Salmond who was pushing to have that question on the ballot paper. The reason being is if you look at the polls, the majority of people, or rather the most popular constitutional change is to the Scottish parliament to be given a few more powers. So if Scotland stays within the UK but it's parliament has more powers to control things like income tax and others.

  • 13:38:51

    RILEY-SMITHDavid Cameron stonewalled that question, the hope being that push come to shove, the majority of Scots won't back the idea of independence. But, you're right, come September 18 it's a straight yes or no question, should Scotland be an independent country.

  • 13:39:04

    NNAMDIMichael Geary, the simplicity of the question aside, the issues voters have to weigh ahead of this vote are complex. What sense do voters have at this stage for how an independent Scotland would function?

  • 13:39:18

    GEARYI think there's a certain confusion still in the minds of voters. It is a very complicated one, but certainly questions, of course, Alex Salmond simply cannot answer. But if you take the issue of the currency that an independent Scotland would use, London has repeatedly said that the pound is not up for grabs. So therefore Scotland would not be able to use the pound.

  • 13:39:47

    GEARYAgain, you know, that's the argument against, is debatable. I mean, if you look at Ecuador uses the American dollar, but it's not an American state. Or if you're in Kosovo and Montenegro, they both use the euro, the single currency in the European Union, but they're not members of the European Union. So Scotland has options.

  • 13:40:07

    GEARYThe Scottish voters are somewhat wondering what currency will we use if we decide to go solo. But I think, you know, London would need to be very petty to deny them the use of the pound or the creation of a Scottish pound on parity with the English pound, as you had with -- when Ireland left the Union in the 1920s, they simply -- they created the Irish pound, which was on parity with the British pound for about 50 years after independence. So there are ways around that. But again there's question mark over the currency issue.

  • 13:40:47

    GEARYAlso a question mark over things like share of national debt -- how much money -- how much should Scotland bear of the entire U.K. debt? So there are a number of issues. And then, of course, there is Scotland's relationship with the European Union. As a newly created state, Scotland, I argue, is not automatically entitled to EU membership and therefore would have to apply anew, as a successor -- as a new state. And again, it would also have to apply to the United Nations, to the World Bank, to the IMF as a newly created state and follow past precedent.

  • 13:41:30

    GEARYSo, you know, when countries like Pakistan broke away from India, India was already a member of the U.N., but then it had to -- Pakistan had to apply anew for membership. There is no precedence in the European Union for other country breaking away for a sub-territory actually breaking away and applying for EU membership. So this is all very new and, again, unchartered territory for some of this. So if the Scottish voters, I suppose, it's inevitable that they are a little bit confused about the future and where it's future will take the country on issues like economic and foreign policy, which of course are at the heart of this debate.

  • 13:42:15

    NNAMDIBen Riley-Smith, you wrote about the currency issue in a piece today. What's the latest on that front?

  • 13:42:23

    RILEY-SMITHI did. The currency issue is one of the most central issues in this entire debate. Polls show the economic concerns are the number one issue on voters' minds. Every voter can understand the currency -- what money would literally be in their pocket the day after independence. The independent Scotland would have four different currency options theoretically. It could keep the pound in a currency union with the U.K. It could keep the pound, even if the U.K. doesn't want it to keep the pound, a so-called Sterlingization or polarization. It could join the euro. Or it could set up its own currency.

  • 13:43:00

    RILEY-SMITHNow Alex Salmond has prompted for the first of those options. He said, after independence, we would keep the sterling, keep the pound as we currently do. We would enter a currency union with the U.K. Now, all three political parties down in Westminster made a bold move back in February and said, no ifs, no buts, this would not happen after independence. Alex Salmond contests that situation and said this is bluff and bluster and bullying and, after a yes vote, they would reverse that position.

  • 13:43:29

    RILEY-SMITHNow it's so important, this issue, because if sharing sterling in a currency union is not upheld, then Alex Salmond has three pretty unpalatable currency options to try and sell to Scots. Joining the euro while the euro zone has been in huge financial crisis in the last five years. That's going to be a tough sell. Setting up an independent -- setting up your own currency, now that has huge risks involved. And again it's a tough one to sell. And so-called Sterlingization, where you keep the pound even without any control over monetary policy, means that the decisions continue to be taken in Westminster on economic issues.

  • 13:44:06

    RILEY-SMITHSo we're essentially at a standoff, where Westminster says, you won't be able to keep the pound. Alex Salmond says, it's as much Scotland's as England's and we will be able to keep the pound. Some voters have to judge who they trust most on that issue.

  • 13:44:19

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the Scottish Independence Referendum. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. If you're from the U.K., tell us what you think about the impending vote and what it would mean for you and for your family. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:36

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum that takes place in September. We're talking with Michael Geary, global fellow with The Wilson Center and professor of Modern Europe and the European Union at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, and Ben Riley-Smith, he's a political reporter covering the Scottish Independence Referendum for The Telegraph. I want to go to the phones and talk with Ian in Alexandria, Va. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:02

    IANHey, good afternoon, Kojo. And I love this show, et cetera. I'm English. I've been here 33 years and I've got a Scottish wife -- or the family's Scottish. My initial reaction when I started to hear about the Scottish independence, was if they feel that strongly about it, let it go. And of course I'm -- and I was very aggressive about it, because we have a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. And they had, you know, the Scottish influence in England. And it was a knee-jerk reaction, I guess. But it was, well, if they want their independence, kick the Scots out of England.

  • 13:47:59

    NNAMDIWhat is your reaction now?

  • 13:48:03

    IANIt's -- I think it's ridiculous. They're going to have to have -- it's a bit like Virginia and West Virginia having to be separate. They, you know, we've got the Royal Navy. And Scotland's going to have to shell out money for the, you know, their own Navy.

  • 13:48:25

    NNAMDIWell, there might be a deeper political purpose here, Ian. And I'd like to hear Michael Geary speak on this. Michael, is there a sense that, even though this issue did not make it on to the ballot, what may be occurring here is a desire for greater autonomy within the Union. How could that, nevertheless, be the ultimate outcome of this referendum?

  • 13:48:52

    GEARYWell, yeah, good question. I mean, well, we should remember that Gordon Brown wasn't the only recent Scottish prime minister. Tony Blair was also -- was born in Scotland. Yes, you know, whether or not this referendum is simply as a tool to gain greater autonomy or gain greater devolution of the devolved powers from Westminster remains to be seen. I think the Scottish nationalist certainly want independence. This is their overriding goal. And, again, depending on who you talk to in the campaign, just to be on the yes campaign, the SMP side, some of them are quite conservative.

  • 13:49:30

    GEARYYou know, if they got 48 percent of the vote that blocks the referendum, then, you know, there's still an argument to be made -- a very strong argument to be made that London should devolve more power to Scotland on a whole range of other issues that haven't been devolved yet. And I'm not -- well, you know, it's an interesting argument. We haven't had referendum yet, but I think certainly the number one goal in the -- Scotland, for the yes side, is to win. Even though some might privately say, well, you know, the game is over for them. They're just hoping that they would get a very high yes vote in order to maintain momentum to gain more power from Westminster.

  • 13:50:12

    GEARYBut I think at this stage it is still very much -- the goal is to win. And then it will remain to be seen afterwards how well the no, but yes, I do, (word?) pieces and what kind of policy -- additional policy areas and confidences that they want devolved to Edinburgh. And that, then, remains to be seen. And that basically won't happen until we know that the figures and the ballot boxes are open.

  • 13:50:40

    NNAMDIBen Riley-Smith, should other U.K. residents get a vote? And ultimately what would this mean or imply for entry into the EU?

  • 13:50:49

    RILEY-SMITHWell, it's a very interesting question. I'm interested in your caller's view because, what he was talking about, his views on independence, actually seem to be matched by a lot of English people. A poll a couple of years ago suggested that if English people were allowed to vote on the Scottish Referendum, they would actually vote that Scotland could go independent, which seemed to be his first thought.

  • 13:51:11


  • 13:51:12

    RILEY-SMITHBut like he said, recently, since it has risen up, the news agenda, more and more people want Scots to stay. Should they get a vote? That's been quite a big question in the debate so far. What is up for debate is whether the Union breaks up. And so one argument is that everybody in the Union should be able to vote on it. I think that that argument doesn't go too far, because if you're in a situation where Scots wanted to leave democratically but were being denied so by other partners in the Union, that's a fairly untenable position.

  • 13:51:47

    RILEY-SMITHIn terms of the EU, again, this is a big central one and you have both sides claiming different things. Westminster -- London says, if Scotland became independent, it would no longer be an EU member, because it leaves Britain, it leaves the U.K. and it doesn't get its membership. That would see Scotland applying from outside to try and get in the European Union. The European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for them to get back in. That is highly contested by the yes camp, in particular, Alex Salmond.

  • 13:52:26

    RILEY-SMITHHe has argued that Scotland would inherit the U.K.'s membership and would negotiate from inside the EU to have its own membership. Ultimately, it comes down to the other 28 member states. If they agree to have Scotland inside, then Scotland will be inside. The question is on what terms. Do they get the U.K.'s opt-out with the euro? Do they get the U.K.'s opt-out from the Schengen area, which limits the movement of EU member nationals across borders? That's really the heart of the question when it comes to the EU.

  • 13:53:03

    NNAMDIAnd Ian, thank you very much for your call. Apparently, your sentiment is shared by a great many people in England. Recently a spate of world leaders, including the Pope, President Obama, and the Chinese premier, and celebrities like J. K. Rowling, who was born in England but lives in Scotland, spoke out in favor of preserving the Union. What influence, if any, do you think these statements are having, Ben Riley-Smith?

  • 13:53:28

    RILEY-SMITHWell, I think, fundamentally they back up the better-together camp's case. President Obama said he wanted to see a strong rebuffed, united ally, i.e., indicating that he wanted the U.K. to remain as whole. The Chinese premier has suggested similar. The Pope has, in fairly mild comments, said that all division worries him. I'm not sure how many Scots will base their decision on whether to go independent or not by what these major political leaders are saying.

  • 13:54:06

    RILEY-SMITHIt's for more a question of democratic accountability back in Scotland. But it certainly does play into the better-together camp's claim, which is that Scotland would have a stronger voice on the international stage as part of the U.K. rather than alone.

  • 13:54:26

    NNAMDIMichael Geary, Scotland is not the only country or region where voters would like out of a long-term union. Do you have a sense of whether or how close an eye other independent movements, like Catalonias in Spain, are paying to this effort?

  • 13:54:42

    GEARYYes. Yeah, Scotland -- I think it is part of the reason why you have a lot of bluster and rhetoric over the last number of months. Some people like President Obama and Pope Francis. And again, I don't know how much their opinion will be shared by the electorate in Scotland. I think it would come down to a very personal decision on whether or not to leave. And again, there's a certain (word?) about these people making these comments, of course, that they're hardly going to say the opposite and antagonize David Cameron.

  • 13:55:16

    GEARYSo it's inevitable that you have those people that Ben mentioned, but also in the commission and others who have, you know, made it quite clear that there will problems ahead for independent Scotland in terms of EU membership. But, again, other countries, they are looking somewhat closely at this vote. Catalonia is one. Madrid has been relatively quiet in terms of the Scottish question while others have been commenting on it, like the Pope and the U.S. president. The Spaniards have been kind of holding their fire on the issue. They haven't come out with any statements insofar that they would veto a possible EU application from Edinburgh.

  • 13:55:55

    GEARYI mean, the foreign ministry in Madrid, I think, have been told to tone down any rhetoric and comments on the Scottish referendum, rather than, you know, adding fuel to the case in Barcelona where Catalonia also wants a referendum later this year. And they've proposed one, which of course runs counter to the Spanish constitution. And the Spanish prime minister has made it quite clear that he's not going to support a referendum. And, again, it's interesting, the opinion polls in Catalonia has repeatedly come out in favor. A very strong percentage in Catalonia are in favor of independence.

  • 13:56:33

    GEARYBut the irony and the tension in the opinion polls would indicate that, while they are in favor of independence, again, there is a question mark over what life would be like after independence and the challenges that they would face, particularly on issues like sharing and dividing up Scotland's big international debt, which of course is quite high. And also, of course, it's unemployment and all the economic issues that have to be factored in with the Scottish -- with the Spanish case, that don't necessarily exist at the moment in the Scottish case.

  • 13:57:04

    GEARYAnd then, moving further up Europe, you have, of course, Flanders, in Belgium. Again, another area where you have got a lot of talk of (word?) movement there, where the Flanders, who, of course, are not so keen to stay part of a united Belgium, with (word?) in the south, Flanders in the north.

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDII'm going to have to interrupt at this point. I'm going to have to interrupt because we're running out of time very quickly and have less than a minute left, in which I'm hoping Ben Riley-Smith can tell us what are the polls showing at this point in terms of public opinion?

  • 13:57:41

    RILEY-SMITHTo put it in a sentence, the polls have tightened in the last six months. But there remains a significant gap between the leaders, which is the no campaign, and those who are hoping to win independence. To briefly give some historical perspective, Ipsos MORI, one of the key pollsters has never put -- never given a majority of Scots backing independence in the 38 years it's been asking this question. So it's getting tighter and tighter, but there remains about, if you take the poll of polls, done by one independent organization, a 12 percent gap between the no camp, which is in the lead, and the yes camp, which is bringing up the rear.

  • 13:58:20

    NNAMDIBen Riley-Smith and Michael Geary, thank you both for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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