It does not matter how Scotland votes, the United Kingdom is history.
The problem is England and London
How could it come that 300 hundred years after uniting with their neighbours to form a common state, Scots are now demanding to sever these links again? To understand the Scottish independence movement, one has to understand the very different political landscapes of the British nations. While the four „home nations“ England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland form a united state, their political cultures are not the same. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own regional parliaments and governments, while England does not. Scotland has become the heartland of social democracy in Britain, Wales and Scotland have strong regional parties and Northern Ireland has a political system that is distinct from the rest of the UK altogether and mostly a result of its position between the United Kingdom and Ireland. Only England does not have its own parliament or government but is governed by the British government directly – proposals for setting up regional assemblies in the English regions were raised ten years ago, but turned down by a referendum in the North East of England.
But within the United Kingdom, England is the largest and hence the most powerful of the nations: of the 650 seats in Parliament, 533 are assigned to England – and England happens to be the stronghold of the Conservative Party. Currently, 305 Members of Parliament in Westminster are Tories – but only 1 of them was elected in Scotland. Indeed, while the two strongest parties in Scotland are left-wing and liberal (the Scottish National Party and Labour), the two strongest parties in England are now right-wing and conservative/reactionary (the Tories and UKIP). Without the Scottish Members of Parliament, the Conservative party could easily secure a majority of its own. This shows just how different – and indeed, incompatible, the political systems of the nations within the UK have become. After the Second World War, the Conservatives have strongly shaped the British society, often to the advantage of Southern England and London and to the disadvantage of the other regions of the kingdom. The de-industrialisation and privatisation policies of the last decades (most pronounced by Thatcher, but continued by other governments since) and the strengthening of the financial sector may have bolstered London and its surrounding regions – but at the expense of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern England.
Now combine an increasingly incompatible political landscape, unresponsive central government and the potential for large oil reserves in Scottish – and you get a mix that makes independence not only possible but logical for a large part of the electorate.
What happens after independence?
What political and constitutional consequences Scottish independence might have is far from clear. In fact, Scotland has now the choice between more powers within the UK or an independence that will be limited because many ties between Scotland and the UK will remain – a common currency, open borders and very likely also many common financial and economic policies. This means that the actual differences between independence and staying in the Union might be surprisingly few and mostly symbolic. But potential unexpected disruptions could happen elsewhere.
In legal terms, Scottish independence will most likely mean repealing the Act of Union of 1707, which merged the Parliaments of England and Scotland and thereby created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. But this would also mean that the remaining United Kingdom would be not automatically be the legal successor to the current UK – this would only be the case if the Scottish government agreed to accept England as the sole legal successor of their union. It is very likely that Scotland would – but this might turn into a powerful bargaining chip for Scotland. And it might open up a debate about the future of another region of the UK that is often overlooked in the debate: Northern Ireland. Whether Scotland becomes independent or is granted more powers, Northern Ireland, Wales and possibly also some English regions might also call for more devolved powers for them, which would in turn question the whole structure and power balance of the UK.
In effect, whether or not Scotland becomes independent, the UK is getting into troubled waters and will need to discuss its future. This will mean a new political settlement and fundamentally reforming the state. This process will not be easy years and will preoccupy the British government for many years. But if Scotland votes against independence, this will just be the last chance to save the UK from falling apart completely.
Centralism killed the Union
When the United Kingdom of Great Britain was founded, it was the logical way forward. The Scottish and English Crowns had been united for a long time, but the two kingdoms were still administered separately. The King (or for that matter, the Queen) was still an actual player in government and had to deal with two distinct legal systems, two parliaments and two sets of political traditions. Modern concepts of governance, such as a separation of powers and federalism were not yet truly implemented. Uniting the two parliaments and legal systems was the most straightforward way to solve these problems. But it also meant that the power was centralised in London. And this centralisation continued as the Kingdom developed into an Empire. Instead of a transparent sharing of powers, decisions were to be taken by the same parliament (and later by the same government). It is obvious, that this centralised government would not be able to take care of the different needs of each region in the long run.
Sadly, the UK missed the right moment to reform its structure and create a federation of states with regional governments for each state (and maybe even regions within England). A federal constitution for the UK would most likely have defused the political conflicts. The deep-running animosity to federalism might now just be what brings down the United Kingdom. But no matter how Scots vote, the United Kingdom of the future will either be very different from today – or it will not be at all.