Scotland might have new uses for St. Andrew's Cross. Photographer: Mike Wilkinson/Bloomberg
Scotland might have new uses for St. Andrew's Cross. Photographer: Mike Wilkinson/Bloomberg

In a bit less than five months, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to separate from the U.K. and become an independent country. Although opinion polls show the vote will favor an undivided kingdom, a recent drift in favor of separation suggests there’s a non-negligible and growing risk of an upset on Sept. 18.

Scotland’s Independence

The repercussions of an independent Scotland go way beyond the transfer of powers to Edinburgh, the elevation of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and the thorny issue of which currency the new nation might use. British Prime Minister David Cameron is backed into a corner partly of his own making on the issue of whether the U.K. should ask its electorate whether they want to abandon the European Union. A Scottish “yes” to independence would be a pointed reminder that breaking up really isn’t so hard to do.

The risk of a fractured kingdom has increased in recent months. A weekend poll by a company called ICM published in the Scotsman newspaper showed support for remaining part of the U.K. dropped to 42 percent from 46 percent a month ago, with those intending to vote for a breakaway unchanged at 39 percent. That's on the border of the poll's margin of error of about 3 percent. So while the separatists probably still lose the referendum based on current results, the trend is their friend.

A compilation by polling organization YouGov shows the average gap in the previous 10 surveys was about 12 points, down from 14.6 in the 10 before that, and from 20.1 points in the 10 before that. The momentum is clear. Pity the prime minister facing the prospect of prostrating himself before the queen and explaining “Hey Liz, guess Christmas won’t be at Balmoral Castle this year after all.”

An independent Scotland could quickly apply for its own EU membership card and, political discomfort aside, likely get one. “The EU is open to all democratic European countries that wish to join,” the EU web site says. “Enlargement serves the interests of Member States as well as acceding countries. It makes Europe a safer and more prosperous place.” So an unintended consequence of referendums about which gangs countries do and don’t want to belong to could be the U.K. exiting the EU not long after Scotland joins.

While there’s no causal connection between Scotland taking charge of its own affairs and Britain’s attitude to Europe, the diplomatic community is incredibly sensitive to the independence issue. Each of the four ambassadors to the U.K. that I’ve met in the past year raised the topic without prompting, backing into the question of Britain’s commitment to Europe via the Scottish referendum and the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for the end of next month. The U.K. punches above its weight in geopolitics, enjoying the halo effect of past glories; if the nation lost its voice in Europe by voting to quit the EU, the special relationship with the U.S., for example, might start to look a lot less useful to Washington.

To contact the writer of this article: Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net.