One of these flags may soon need a redesign. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
One of these flags may soon need a redesign. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Scotland's referendum on whether to split from the U.K. is a bit more than two weeks away, and the opinion polls suggest the British government may have sleepwalked into a deep political fissure. A schism on Sept. 18 might be the best way for Scotland to stay in the European Union, and make it more likely that the rest of the U.K. disembarks.

Scotland’s Independence

The most recent Scottish poll shows the gap in favor of staying in the U.K. narrowed to six points from 14 points in the past few weeks, once undecided voters are stripped out. YouGov Plc's poll for today's Times and Sun newspapers showed 53 percent rejecting independence with 47 percent wanting Scotland to go it alone. Although no margin of error was given, that's close enough to cause Westminster palpitations, especially with 10 percent of voters still to pick a side.

Last week, betting four pounds ($6.60) on a Scottish "yes" vote stood to win 16 pounds plus the return of your stake; today, the odds have been cut so you'll only profit by 11 pounds.

The dirty little secret of the referendum is that it has the potential to radically alter the balance of power within Westminster, should Scotland's Members of Parliament decamp to a newly enfranchised national government. Of Scotland's 59 lawmakers in London, 40 are Labour Party members, 11 represent the Liberal Democrats, and just one is a Conservative. The remainder are Scottish Nationalist Party or Independent.

The disappearance of a clutch of Labour lawmakers would empower the Conservative Party. That in turn is likely to increase the clout of the anti-EU faction in parliament, with Tories typically more hostile to what they regard as ceding sovereignty to Brussels. Scottish voters, by contrast, tend to be more pro-European, so their absence from the referendum on EU-membership that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised for the U.K. by 2017 would also make an exit more likely.

Because the government is in deep denial about the possibility of Scottish independence, there's no clarity on exactly when Scotland would separate after voting to do so. Still, it would probably happen before 2017. With Labour and the Lib Dems losing so many seats on Scotland's departure, the likelihood that the Conservatives are in power to carry through their promised EU referendum increases. Moreover, the reduced pro-EU parties in parliament would have less political firepower to campaign for staying in Europe.

So there's a dichotomy. Quitting the U.K. paves the way for Scotland to pursue its own future membership of the EU, while making a British exit that much more likely. Staying in the U.K. keeps Scotland in the EU, but manacled to a partner that may soon leave. There's more at stake on Sept. 18 than the single ballot question.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.