The Big Question: What would Scottish independence mean, and how would it work?

Why are we asking this now?

Wendy Alexander, who leads the Labour Party north of the border, has startled a lot of her political colleagues – not least, Gordon Brown – by suddenly announcing that she wants a referendum on Scottish independence, and she wants it now. "I don't fear the verdict of the Scottish people," she said. "Bring it on."

This was a remarkable departure from normal Labour Party policy, which is to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom. Put on the spot, Gordon Brown avoided saying whether he agreed or disagreed, by pretending she had not said what she said.

But this is a disagreement about tactics, not about policy. Wendy Alexander does not want Scotland to leave the UK. On the contrary, she is gambling that if asked now, the Scots would say no. The call for an early referendum was meant to wrongfoot the Scottish Nationalist Party, who run Scotland's devolved administration. They also say they want a referendum, but not until 2010.

What would happen if there was a yes vote for independence?

The SNP, the only party ever likely to organise a referendum, say that if there was a yes vote, they would open negotiations with London about the details, and pass a bill guaranteeing citizens' rights in an independent Scotland, which would no doubt be based on European law. The negotiations would be long and complex, because the peaceful splitting in two of a sovereign country is a rare event in history. The nearest precedent would be break up of what used to be Czechoslovakia.

British citizens would presumably be given time to choose which nationality they wanted to retain. This would be a difficult one for Scots who live and work in England, but have kept up their ties with Scotland – like Gordon Brown, for instance.

Everyone would need a new passport over time, but if the split was amicable, you might not be required to produce it at the Scottish-English border. Scotland would apply and probably be granted membership of the EU, whereupon it would abandon sterling and adopt the euro, so anyone travelling between the two countries would have to change currency.

If the Scots were in sentimental mood, they might retain the monarchy – which after all predates the 1707 Act of Union – but north of the border the Queen would be simply Queen Elizabeth, not Elizabeth II, and her grandson, if crowned, would be William II in Scotland and William V in England.

Would England be better off without Scotland?

The Act of Union in 1707 set off a wave of anti-Scottish sentiment in England, which has threatened to creep back since the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the electoral success of the SNP. An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph in November 2006 produced the startling finding that 59 per cent of English voters wish Scotland would leave the UK.

The reason is that Scotland is perceived to be living well off English taxes. New figures throwing light on this issue will be published next month. For now, we can only go on the published figures for the year 2003-04, when public spending in Scotland was £7,346 per head of population, compared with £5,940 in England. Scotland received £3bn more from the Exchequer than it paid in taxes. Scotland is seen as a country that gets Scandinavian levels of public services on US-level taxes.

For Conservatives, another argument in favour of a split is that it would vastly improve the Tories' chances of winning general elections in England.

Would Scotland be better off without England?

The SNP has two answers to the accusation that Scotland lives off English subsidies. One is that a self-governing Scotland could manage its economy better, attracting EU support and joining an "arc of prosperity" with its near neighbours, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

The other answer is oil. In the past 30 years, taxes from North Sea oil have amounted to about £200bn, at today's prices. Last year's receipts were around £8bn, and this year's will be higher, possibly up to £12.5 bn. That looks like enough to fill the gap between income and expenditure – but it assumes that an English government would roll over and concede that all tax revenues from oil belong to Scotland. Actually, London would fight for a share. And North Sea oil is a diminishing asset. Production peaked at 2.9m barrels a day in 1999, and by 2010 is expected to be down to a million barrels a day – barely a third of what it used to be. If the Scots want exclusive use of the taxes generated by "their" oil, they have left it too late.

Is independence likely to happen?

It seems very likely that there will be a referendum in Scotland in 2010 or soon afterwards, because the SNP have promised it, and there is no indication yet that they are going to lose their position as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. But even if it happens, and it produces the result the SNP want, it does not follow that Scotland will get independence. The London government would be morally obliged to abide by a properly run plebiscite that clearly showed a majority for independence – but it might not be that clear cut.

What are the possible scenarios?

The turn-out might be very small, or the majority very narrow, and there is an as yet unresolved dispute about what question to put on the ballot paper. If, as the SNP want, it is a vaguely worded question about the desirability of taking further steps towards independence, the London government might interpret that to mean nothing much. If the Scots tried to declare independence in defiance of the Westminster, they would get no recognition internationally.

What are the polls saying?

The evidence is that the Scots are happy to have an SNP administration in a devolved Edinburgh Parliament, but are not minded to vote for outright independence. The opinion polls do not all agree, but they seem to suggest that enthusiasm for self rule has cooled since the SNP won control of the Scottish administration. The Sunday Telegraph poll in 2006 said that 52 per cent of Scots wanted independence; a YouGov poll conducted in the past week put the figure at only 25 per cent, with 59 per cent saying they prefer things as they are. But in 2010, there could be a Conservative government in London, supported by less than a quarter of Scottish voters, which could stoke up separatist sentiment – and that, no doubt, was what Wendy Alexander was thinking when she said: "Bring it on".

Should England and Scotland separate?

Yes...

* Scotland's half-way status, partly independent, partly not, is an anomaly that cannot last

* There are smaller and much less wealthy countries than Scotland now in the EU

* Scotland's economy would benefit from the discipline of self-government

No...

* Most Scots like devolution, but that does not mean they want independence

* Breaking up the United Kingdom would leave each component weakened internationally

* Since 1707, both countries have benefited from the freedom with which people cross the border

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm that there was a 'minor disturbance'

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher Cornwall

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers ...

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album