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Scotland to hold referendum on independence from the UK

Polls indicate an extremely tight race ahead of Thursday’s vote

After more than 300 years of being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland will decide this week on whether to become an independent nation. Until recently, the idea seemed far-fetched, but recent polls show that the yes campaign, in favor of breaking away, is gaining ground, leaving the pro- and anti-independence camps in a virtual tie.

If the yes vote wins, independence would take effect on March 24, 2016, giving the government 18 months to iron out the details for a new country. In a nation of just over 5 million people, anyone 16 years of age or older may vote. That does not include Scots living abroad or Scottish residents of England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Randall Pinkston discussed the referendum with David Scheffer, a professor of international law at Northwestern University, and with Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.

“There are lots of pros and cons in this debate, but there are a lot of advantages for the Scottish people,” said Scheffer. “There’s a cultural advantage to resurrect their national identity. Also, the Scottish National Party and much of the Scottish parliament makes the argument that in the long run, Scotland will be better off economically by breaking ties with Westminster.”

The vote for secession, however, remains highly divisive. Last month, 130 business leaders published an open letter warning of the economic setbacks that would affect currency, taxes and pensions, among other issues if Scotland breaks from the U.K. The very next day, 200 other business leaders signed a letter in support of an independent Scotland.

Although many anti-secessionists say Scotland’s economy would suffer if it becomes independent, the Scottish government says it can use its oil resources — something England does not want to give up — to help grow its economy.

British Prime Minister David Cameron went to Scotland on Wednesday to make his case for unity, but the trip was short and involved mainly private events. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, has ramped up his campaign, making door-to-door stops to garner support for independence.

For the United States, an independent Scotland would mean the breakup of one of its strongest allies, the United Kingdom. Traditionally the British government has stood with the U.S. on major foreign policy issues, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“This was a very unpopular move in Scotland itself,” said Scheffer of the Iraq War. “It did tend to incentivize voters to look at what Scotland would be like if it was not tied to some of the more controversial foreign policy decisions of the British government.”

Similarly, an independent Scotland would likely not participate in the current U.S. coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and would remove the British Trident nuclear submarine fleet from its territory, having set that as a condition for joining NATO, for which it would have to apply. Scotland’s status with the European Union would be unclear, but many assume it would have to apply for membership there, too, in the event of independence.

“Having Britain preoccupied with a basic constitutional domestic question takes attention away from these vital foreign policy concerns,” said King. “It is of vital concern to the United States.”

Scheffer agrees. “There are strategic reasons the status quo would be favorable to U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “But this is an expression of democratic will by the Scottish people, who have very strong ties to the United States. If it’s a yes vote, I think the United States should embrace that as an expression of democracy, and we already have one ally in the United Kingdom, and the end result should be that we have two allies.”

He explained that the difference between Scotland and the separatist movements of other countries is that the British government has sanctioned and legally approved this referendum.

“Even in the event of a no vote, I think the issue of Scottish independence is not going to go away,” said King. “And certainly the Scottish National Party is not going to go away.”

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