The End of the UK as We Know It? Scots Edge Towards Independence

scottish_independence_sign_9-11-14 Billboard with "Yes" written on it in Stornoway, Scotland. Refers to the referendum that will take place on September 18th, on whether Scotland should be an independent country. (Photo by DrimaFilm, Shutterstock.com.)

One week from now, it’s entirely possible that the United Kingdom will, in effect, no longer exist in its current form. Next Thursday the people of Scotland will vote Yes or No on the question, "Should Scotland be an independent country?" -- and according to recent polls, an increasing number of Scots are ready to end the 307-year union between their country and the rest of Britain. If the decision is indeed Yes, then the details will take a year or so to thrash out, but a political earthquake will be triggered that will shake Britain to its foundations, with the shockwaves felt across Europe and much of the world.

Calls for a vote on independence have been growing since a Scottish Parliament, with powers devolved from Westminster, was created in 1998. For much of the time since the independence referendum was announced at the end of last year, the No campaign had held a comfortable majority in the region of 60 percent to 40 percent; however, the polls have narrowed in recent weeks, and last week the Yes campaign took the lead in a poll for the first time.

The Yes campaign’s message is that it’s time for Scotland to strike out on its own, and that the country can achieve more as an independent nation than as part of the UK. Its leaders envision the country as a Scandinavian-style land of plenty along the lines of Norway and Sweden, economically prosperous but with a generous welfare state funded by income from North Sea oil and gas -- 90 percent of the UK’s oil reserves lie in what would likely become Scottish waters in the event of a Yes vote.

The Yes campaign began its surge after the second of two televised debates between Scottish National Party leader and campaign figurehead Alex Salmond, and Alistair Darling, a Scot who served as chancellor of the exchequer under Gordon Brown in the last Labour government, and who fronts the No campaign. Salmond easily defeated Darling in that debate, having been widely thought to have lost to Darling in their first encounter.

All three of Britain’s major political parties -- David Cameron’s Conservatives, their junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the left-of-center Labour Party -- oppose Scottish independence, and are promising Scots greater autonomy from Westminster and more financial powers for their Parliament if they vote to preserve the union, a proposal known as maximum devolution or "devo max."

The No campaign, whose slogan is "Better Together," has produced some unlikely bedfellows, with Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband campaigning with one voice, if not quite side by side. Both leaders traveled north this week to make last-ditch appeals to voters, and the appearance of Cameron in particular was seen by some as a sign of desperation; the Conservatives have become almost extinct as a political force in Scotland, and have kept a relatively low profile in the referendum campaigning. Instead the battle to save the union has been spearheaded by senior figures from Labour, which still has a strong presence north of the border.