Revisiting the road to Scottish independence

 Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during the Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in New York, Thursday, April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during the Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in New York, Thursday, April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,And I’ll be in Scottland a’fore ye.”

Whether this windswept craggy land of 5 million will decide in a new referendum to take the high road to independence or the low one to the status quo ante, Scotland’s 46-year-old leader, lawyer Nicola Sturgeon has no doubts. She is ready to seize a second opportunity to revisit a plebiscite on Scottish independence, the last one, in 2014, having been defeated by 52 percent to 38 percent.

Now why would the Scots want to abandon a connection to the United Kingdom that dates back to 1707? Well, the short answer is that many of them really would prefer not to. So what are the pros and cons for an independent Scotland today?

On the pros — the high road — there is the nationalism that has occurred in other European countries and, not to be discounted, the continuing and growing fervor of the Scots; their pride; their history; their traditions. The swirl of the bagpipes; the blessing of the haggis on Hogmanay, the kilts and the tartans. Scotland is an extraordinary country, famous for golf, which it invented in the 1400s; and, more significantly,  for inventing the telephone, television, penicillin, surgical anesthesia, the steam engine … and producing such luminaries as Adam Smith in economics and Sir Walter Scott in literature. Its four ancient universities — Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St. Andrews — date from the 15th century.

The call for independence is highest among the young, and, according to a survey conducted last year by ScotCen Social Research, 46 percent among the population as a whole.

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson once said that the noblest prospect that a Scotsman ever sees is the road that leads him to England. (Leaving aside that putdown, one of the greatest biographies ever written was that of Johnson himself, penned by the Scotsman James Boswell.) Millions of Scots have taken that road, and some 260,000 of them live in England, almost half of them in London.

So far as the cons are concerned — the low road — Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has enough on her hands with England’s exit from the European Union and has the power  to scotch — so to speak — any loosening of ties within the United Kingdom. She has therefore insisted that such a move not take place until 2019. Moreover, revenues from North Sea oil have dropped precipitously. Without that source of income and some $15 billion in transfer fees from the “mother” country, a newly independent Scotland would become one of the poorest in Europe.

Compounding the issue, even though the Scots preferred to remain within the European union during the Brexit vote, they have been characteristically canny in their suspicion of the EU. The Economist notes that “if the politics look favorable for Ms. Sturgeon, the economics do not.” Worse, Scotland sends two thirds of its exports to the rest of Britain; that road, which Johnson believed was a happy sight, might be barred to Scottish goods, including Scotch whisky which today accounts for billions of dollars in export sales.

So even though the odds may be stacked against its independence, the phenomenal achievements of this small country might make betting against it a fool’s wager. Well planned schemes can often go wrong.

Or, as the Scottish poet and national hero Robbie Burns put it: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.