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8 questions about Scottish independence you were too embarrassed to ask

Jeff J Mitchell

On Thursday, September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum that asks only one question: Should Scotland become an independent country?

If a majority of voters check the "yes" box, then Scotland will become the world's newest country. (Sorry, South Sudan, you've had a good run.) If a majority of them choose "no," then Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

But why is Scotland even considering independence? What is at stake here? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning epic film BraveheartHere's what you need to know.

1) What is the Scottish independence movement?

Yes campaign superman

A young supporter of Scottish independence holds a "yes" campaign sign at a rally in Glasgow, Scotland on September 8th. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)

The Scottish independence campaign, or "Yes campaign," is a political movement that wants Scotland to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country.

Americans might hear about Scottish independence and think that the current referendum is just a continuation of the historical struggle depicted in movies like Braveheart. But the truth is that William Wallace fought his rebellion centuries ago, Scotland has since voluntarily unified with Britain, and while the Scots do have a long history of skepticism toward that union, today's campaign is mostly about present-day issues.

Rather, this is because relatively recent political differences between Scotland the rest of the UK — Scotland is more liberal than the conservative, but wealthy and populous, south of England — have led Scottish leaders to push for more independence, in order to pursue a more liberal political agenda. Scotland has used its decades-long campaign for political autonomy to gradually win more local control over its own affairs. But rather than appeasing political disagreement, that increased autonomy has allowed the separatist Scottish National Party to flourish, by taking advantage of Scottish voters' disagreement with the policies being made in Westminster.

All that means that the independence referendum isn't about freedom from oppression, or a radical overhaul of Scotland's system of government. The pro-independence camp isn't even advocating for a monarch-less republic — just more local control over Scotland's existing institutions, which it intends to preserve, largely intact.

2) How did the movement for independence get started? This goes back centuries, right?

Wallace Statue

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland. (Axis 12002)

Not quite. English rule began in 1296, when England's king forced his Scottish counterpart to abdicate so that he could take over, and the next year William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, led a short-lived rebellion. The Scots won de facto independence from England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The countries were united under the same monarch in 1603's Union of the Crowns, when James VI of Scotland took the English throne to become James I of England, but the two countries remained separate. After an awful lot of political wrangling, Scotland formally united with the rest of Great Britain in 1707.

However, you won't find references to the 18th-century union on the Yes campaign website — a sign that this movement has more to do with modern political differences than with historical grievances. The only mention of Braveheart's William Wallace is a reminder that his family was actually Welsh, cited by the First Minister of Scotland as evidence that immigrants have a long history of positive contributions to Scotland.

The roots of the movement are actually much more recent. Political divisions between Scotland and the central UK parliament in Westminster have been growing for the last couples of decades. Scotland is notably more liberal than England — since 1997, it has never elected more than one Conservative MP at a time — but the more populous, and conservative, south of England dominates the Westminster government.

Scotland has its own parliament, and has had a substantial degree of autonomy for nearly two decades. There was hope that this might blunt secessionist sentiments, but it's just ended up sharpening them. Scottish politics became much more open to separatism in 2011, when Scottish voters ousted most of the once-popular Liberal Democrats from the Scottish parliament, as punishment for joining in a parliamentary coalition with the Conservative-led government in Westminster. They also voted out members of the Labour Party for being, as they saw it, too patronizing toward Scots. The separatist Scottish National Party took many of the open seats, and began pushing for an independence referendum.

3) What's the case for Scottish independence?

Glasgow Yes rally

Campaigners rally in favor of Scottish independence in Glasgow. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)

The case for independence can be summed up as, "We really love Scotland, Scotland is the best. Oh, and did we mention that we're unhappy with the political status quo in Westminster?"

As political divisions have grown between Scotland and the more economically- and politically-dominant England, cultural pride in Scotland's accomplishments has translated into an argument that it would be better off managing its own affairs.

It's not difficult to see the appeal of national pride. Scottish culture is both noticeably distinct from that of the rest of the UK, and beloved by Scots and non-Scots alike. This is, after all, the birthplace of David Hume and Adam Smith, not to mention the game of golf.

Scotland has islands inhabited by tiny ponies, some of whom go about dressed in woolly sweaters. Cows so fluffy they resemble giant, horned labradoodles roam its highlands, in sight of the distilleries that manufacture world-renowned Scotch.

Scotland incorporates magic so thoroughly into everyday life that its official national animal is the unicorn, and its capital city, Edinburgh, counts "being haunted" among its local industries. (It's hardly surprising that Scotland is the home of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, as well as the location of the fictional Hogwarts.) Oh, and its philosophers arguably invented the modern world. No big deal.

But all of that cultural pride could have meant happy coexistence with the rest of the UK, rather than a push for independence, were it not for the political divisions between liberal Scotland and the more conservative UK parliament. Not all Scottish liberals are also separatists, but unhappiness with the policies of the UK government has fueled the rise of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, which called the referendum after achieving a majority in the Scottish parliament in 2011.

The result has been a political feedback loop in which Scotland's problems are attributed to Westminster's meddling, while its successes are viewed as evidence that Scotland has the strength to make it on its own. For instance, when Scottish employment rose in 2011, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond claimed credit, attributing it to his administration's policies, and warned Westminster not to "jeopardize" it. When news broke in August of this year that Scotland's employment rate was at a record high, Scotland's Youth and Women's Employment Minister held it up as evidence that "Scotland has the economic potential to be an independent country."

4) What are the arguments against independence?

No campaigners Scotland

Supporters of the "Better Together" campaign rally against Scottish independence. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

The primary argument against independence is that it is too risky: the "Better Together" campaign, which opposes independence, argues that it would leave Scotland's economy small and weak, that its new government would pursue fiscally ruinous policies, and that priorities would face serious setbacks. But there is also a more emotional argument against independence, which taps into its own kind of national pride by saying that the union is about more than just economic success — it's about shared heritage, families on both sides of the border, and centuries of joint contributions to the UK's success.

The pro-union camp paints a dark picture of what would happen to Scotland were it to leave the union. It warns that the Yes campaign is making promises that it doesn't have the authority to keep, such as maintaining the British pound, becoming an EU member state, and preserving open borders with the other British Isles.

The pro-union camp also has a dire view of Scotland's post-independence economy (small, weak, and overly reliant on North Sea oil that may be nearly gone); national security (small, weak, and overly reliant on a UK that it would just have pissed off by leaving the union); and medical and scientific innovation community (small, weak, and overly reliant on UK-based donors who will be loath to see their money flowing out of the country).

The emotional arguments in favor of the union, while less well suited to speeches than the independence movement's splashy nationalism, may still prove to be powerful. Even if it is true that, as Scottish historian Tom Devine has said, the only thing binding the union together is "history, family, and sentiment," those are powerful forces. As one impassioned "no" supporter told a reporter from The Guardian in Edinburgh, "those things matter." Anecdotally, several of my Scottish friends — even those who are leaning towards independence — have expressed deep concerns about having a different nationality, and a different passport, than other members of their immediate families.

5) Is this just like Braveheart?

Mel Gibsonesque Wallace Monument

Tom Church's "Freedom" sculpture, which theoretically depicts William Wallace but looks suspiciously like a certain Mr. Gibson, used to stand near Scotland's Stirling Castle. (Rudolph Botha)

The current struggle for Scottish Independence has about as much to do with the events depicted in Braveheart as America's ongoing racial struggles have to do with the events depicted in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That is to say, there may be some similarities in theme and audience, but the Hollywood epic is too thoroughly fictionalized to offer much in the way of insight.

Braveheart told a ripping yarn and garnered a slew of Oscars, but its plot and characters bear so little resemblance to actual Scottish history that it wouldn't have been particularly less accurate if it had been a space opera featuring kilted heroes struggling against Longshanks, the alien king of Planet Zog.

Among the highlights in its cavalcade of getting things wrong: Scotland had actually only been conquered about a year before Wallace's rebellion, so the character who speaks dreamily of achieving "what none of us have ever had before: a country of our own" must have had a very short memory; Princess Isabella of France was three years old and living across the Channel in 1298, making it unlikely that she had an affair with Wallace before the Battle of Falkirk; and the supposed right of "primo nocta," in which English lords took the virginity of Scottish maidens on their wedding nights, was just a straight-up myth.

The film did boost tourism to Scotland, and for a while there was a statue of "William Wallace" near Stirling Castle that looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson, but other than that, there's little connection between Braveheart and real-life Scotland.

6) What do Scotland's celebrities think about independence?

Alan Cumming Yes Campaign

Actor Alan Cumming attendes a pro-independence event in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 8th. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)

There are celebrities on both sides of the independence debate. The "yes" campaign boasts the support of former James Bond star Sean Connery, a staunch SNP supporter, who said "the 'Yes' campaign has centered on a positive vision for Scotland. It is rooted in inclusiveness, equality and that core democratic value that the people of Scotland are the best guardians of their own future." Actors Gerard Butler, Alan Cumming, and Robbie Coltrane have also come out in favor of independence.

The Better Together campaign's most famous supporter is Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who donated £1 million to the cause and penned an impassioned open letter warning of the risks of independence:

If we leave, though, there will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours. I doubt that an independent Scotland will be able to bank on its ex-partners' fond memories of the old relationship once we've left. The rest of the UK will have had no say in the biggest change to the Union in centuries, but will suffer the economic consequences. When Alex Salmond tells us that we can keep whatever we're particularly attached to — be it EU membership, the pound or the Queen, or insists that his preferred arrangements for monetary union or defence will be rubber-stamped by our ex-partners — he is talking about issues that Scotland will need, in every case, to negotiate.

Other prominent opponents of independence include Sir Alex Ferguson, Susan Boyle, and Emma Thompson, whose mother is the Scottish actress Phyllida Law. Glaswegian former Doctor Who star David Tennant probably wins the enthusiasm award, however, by barreling straight through support for the UK and into what sounds worryingly like advocacy for the resurgence of the British Empire, asking, "Why do we want to become smaller? Surely we want to expand and look outward?"

Beloved Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has refused to reveal his position on the referendum, saying only that the Scots will "get what they deserve."

7) Is the independence referendum going to pass?

Sweatshirts and Yes poster

A Yes campaign placard in a window in the Scottish capital. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It's too close to call. Most of the polls have shown "no" in the lead, until September 7th, when independence supporters won a narrow lead in the polls for the first time, with 51 percent supporting independence and 49 percent opposing, in a YouGov poll. A month earlier, on August 7th, the Yes campaign was trailing the same poll by 22 points.

YouGov Sept Scottish Independence Poll

Much of the Yes campaign's late surge has been attributed to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's performance in the second of two televised debates on independence, which he was widely judged to have won.

The timing and structure of the referendum favor the Yes campaign. Anyone living in Scotland who is a citizen of an EU or Commonwealth country can vote on the referendum, but Scots living abroad or in other parts of the UK (who are seen as less likely to favor independence) cannot. The voting age has also been lowered to 16; young voters tend to be more pro-independence than older people.

The referendum is also timed to take advantage of national pride following the Commonwealth Games, which were held in Glasgow in July and August, and the yearly Edinburgh festival, the largest performing arts festival in the world.

8) What happens if Scotland wins independence?

pound coins question mark saltire

Pound coins form a question mark on top of a Scottish flag — are they trying to tell us something? (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

If the referendum passes, then Scotland will become an independent country "after a process of negotiations." Those negotiations would need to resolve a long list of major issues, including: how much of the UK's national debt Scotland would take on; what currency the new country would use; whether it would be able to join the EUwhether it would be able to join NATO; whether the British Royal Navy would have to remove its Trident nuclear submarines from their current base near Glasgow; whether there would be a closed or open border between England and Scotland; and who would be eligible for Scottish or dual citizenship. And those are just the technical questions — the new government would also need to develop a tax structure, fund its social-welfare platform, and make decisions about immigration and a host of other policy questions.

A number of those issues, such as EU and NATO membership, the status of the border, and Scotland's share of the national debt would require consent from the UK and other countries before they could be resolved, and there is no way to be certain how that would go — particularly if tensions with the remainder of the UK spike due to a "yes" vote. There are also areas of economic uncertainty, such as disagreement over how much oil is left in the North Sea reserves and how foreign and domestic businesses would respond to independence.

If the referendum fails, then there won't be another independence vote in the near future: the SNP leadership has indicated that it will abandon its push for independence if the referendum backs union with the UK, saying that the vote is a "once-in-a-generation opportunity."