From the remote highlands and islands in the North to the largest city of Glasgow, the people of Scotland are almost equally divided over whether to declare their country an independent. The vote is being watched closely by the rest of the united Kingdom and Britain's allies, investors and restive regions at home and abroad.
Here's what you need to know about the next 24 hours:
When do polls open and when will we know the result?
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time Thursday and will close at 10 p.m. Separate total counts will be announced in each local authority area but there will be only one overall result – the aggregate of all 32 local totals – which will be announced by the Chief Counting Officer in Edinburgh.
Because expected declaration times range from 2 a.m. Friday until 6 a.m., it’s expected that the decision will not be announced until 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. Friday morning.
In Canada, that means between 3 a.m. Friday morning Atlantic Time and 11 p.m. Thursday Pacific Time.
There are 32 government areas compiling votes in the election. In some remote regions, ballot boxes will be brought by helicopter to be tallied in central counting stations. The smaller regional councils will announce their tallies first, while Glasgow, the biggest – and, with Edinburgh, the most crucial city to the vote’s final outcome – will likely announce last.
Who will be voting?
A remarkable 97 per cent of eligible voters have registered to vote, a total just shy of 4.3 million residents. Eligible voters include Scotland residents who are 16 and older and are British citizens; qualifying Commonwealth citizens; or citizens of a European Union member state.
- 4,285,323 people are eligible to vote.
- Ninety-seven per cent of electorate has registered to vote.
- About 124,000 teenagers aged 16 and 17 will be allowed to vote for the first time.
- A record number of 789,024 people registered for advance voting by mail.
- The electorate includes any British citizen resident in Scotland, Commonwealth citizens with rights to British residency and citizens from all other EU member states.
- Prisoners are barred from voting despite protests from human rights groups and legal challenges.
- Scotland-born voters living elsewhere in the U.K. are barred if they lack Scottish residency requirements.
What do the latest polls say?
A recent poll by TNS-BMRB released Sept. 09, with a sample size of 990 respondents ages 16 and older asked: How do you intend to vote in response to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?
Compared with the lengthy wordings of the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referendums, the Scottish ballot asks a straightforward question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
50% + 1
There is no minimum turnout or specified supermajority. A simple majority (50 per cent plus 1) wins. If more people vote Yes than No, Scotland would become an independent country.
Who are the leaders?
In May, 2011, the Scottish National Party won a landslide victory. Its leader, Alex Salmond, campaigned on a promise of a referendum on independence and voters gave the SNP the first majority government since the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999. Along with the Scottish Green Party, they form the pro-independence side.
The Better Together pro-union campaign, led by Labour MP Alistair Darling, is a coalition founded with Scotland’s Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour parties. The three main Westminster parties’ leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have campaigned strongly in favour of union.
Salmond and Darling have faced off twice in televised debates, the first of which was seen to favour Mr. Darling but the second going to Mr. Salmond.
How is power divided?
Scotland has had its own parliament since 1999. Currently, the Scottish government based in Edinburgh is responsible for health, education, justice, rural affairs, housing, environment and transportation. The U.K. government based at Westminster retains powers such as defence, security, foreign affairs and immigration.
What will happen after the vote?
If the Yes side wins: Scotland and the rest of the U.K. enter into negotiations over matters such as currency, allocation of assets and liabilities, and what happens to the Royal Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines now based at Faslane, near Glasgow (the secessionist movement wants to Scotland to become nuclear-free).
If the No side wins: there could still be negotiations and changes. With the pro-independence side gaining strength, British Finance Minister George Osborne has pledged to give the Scots more fiscal and budgetary autonomy and more control over welfare if they vote No.
Currency is a big issue. What are the options?
Scotland could have one of several options for a post-independence currency:
- A formal currency union with the U.K. using the pound. The downside of this would be that the U.K. would control interest rates, and the independent Scotland would rely on the Bank of England for stability. The leaders of the U.K. Parliament’s three main parties have all rejected sharing the pound, as has BoE governor Mark Carney, who called a common currency “incompatible with sovereignty.”
- Scotland uses the pound informally. This is known as the “sterlingization” option. A sterlingized Scotland would have no control over interest rates, but it wouldn’t have to deal with potential Bank of England’s limits on taxing and spending.
- A new currency backed by central bank.
- Scotland adopts the euro. This would not be an automatic or immediate process, though, as Scotland would have to meet specific criteria on interest rates, deficit, debt and inflation.
What about the Queen?
Both the separatist and unionist sides agree that Queen Elizabeth II will continue to be Scotland's monarch, either as"Queen of Scots" or under the dual English-Scottish monarchy that the U.K. has had since 1707.
The Queen, whose role traditionally obligates her to remain neutral on political matters, has only cautiously weighed in on the independence vote, saying on Sept. 15 that Scots should"think very carefully about the future."
What about the EU and NATO?
An independent Scotland would need to reapply for membership in the European Union, but nations with their own local separatist movements – such as Spain with Catalonia, or Belgium with its Flemish regions – might not let them into the club so easily. Gaining EU membership would be a blow to the United Kingdom, which would have fewer seats in the European Parliament.
Scotland’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is also an open question. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said an independent Scotland would need to reapply for membership in the military alliance. Scotland’s naval base at Faslane is currently home to the U.K.’s four nuclear-missile-equipped Trident submarines, but Scotland’s governing party has insisted an independent Scotland would be free of nuclear weapons. The U.K.’s Defence Ministry has called this a “significant” hurdle to Scotland joining NATO.
If an independent Scotland is blocked from joining NATO or chooses not to join, it would be an unprecedented weak spot for the military alliance, and new arrangements would be needed to defend the North Atlantic and North Sea shipping routes.
The parallels: Canada and Quebec
The parallels are striking for Canadians following the Scottish referendum. Sovereigntists are cheering for the Yes camp, while federalists are reminded of the final days of the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, with the No side in disarray. But there are clear differences between the two ballots:
- The question: The National Assembly had sole responsibility for the questions that were put to Quebeckers in 1980 and 1995. Both were convoluted, with a call for an economic union with Canada to be ratified in a second referendum in 1980, and a reference to a potential political union with Canada in 1995. By comparison, the Scottish question is a six-word testament to clarity:"Should Scotland be an independent country?" The Scottish question was determined after negotiations with Westminster.
- Terms and conditions: The future after a Yes vote in 1980 or 1995 was never established, with no clear path to negotiations with the rest of Canada. In Scotland, the issue of currency remains at the centre of heated debates, but negotiations are already scheduled to start in the event of a Yes victory, predicted to last 18 months. Key issues will involve sharing the debt and the North Sea oil between Scotland and the rest of the U.K., and Scotland's participation in international organizations. Similar issues could one day surface in Quebec, with the Scottish case serving as a potential model.
- Identity: Scotland has a clear identity inside the U.K., but the Yes side has focused its campaign on political issues and a potential for a more progressive country. The issue of identity is much harder to extract from the Canadian debate. At the heart of the sovereignty movement lies the sense that Quebec's francophone majority is in peril and that getting out of Canada is the best way to ensure the survival of the French language in North America. Still, the PQ took a beating in the last provincial election after promising a Charter of Values that would have banned some religious symbols among provincial workers. Seen as rooted in the past, the sovereigntist option lost support among young Quebeckers, prompting the PQ to revise its approach to identity issues in the upcoming leadership race. It hasn't been lost on Quebec sovereigntists that a factor in the Yes camp's success is that the voting age has been lowered to 16 in Scotland.
And if all of that doesn't do it...
Here's a Scotland primer by John Oliver from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, published Sept. 14.