Now, many Scots want out. On Thursday, voters in Scotland will answer a straightforward Yes/No question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then Scotland will declare independence and a 307-year-old union will be torn asunder. The U.K. will lose a third of its landmass and almost 10 percent of its population. We, like Macduff (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3), will be left to ask: “Stands Scotland where it did?”
In some quarters, the vote is already being hailed as the world’s first-ever referendum on economic inequality—an event that has less in common with other nationalist votes like Quebec's in 1995 than it does with recent developments such as Occupy Wall Street, the adoption of “the 1 percent” as a global catchphrase, and the runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s 700-page tome on the collateral damage of capitalism. It’s yet another manifestation, in other words, of the increasingly hot debate about rising global inequality and what we should do about it.
Scotland’s pro-independence movement differs from similar movements in places like Catalonia, Kurdistan, and eastern Ukraine in that it does not revolve around hard identifiers like language, religion, and ethnicity (or Russian military backing). What divides Scotland and England is a vocal lilt and a legacy of 14th-century clan warfare—seemingly surmountable obstacles to keeping a country together. As a result, Scottish nationalists have taken to claiming that London is to blame for all of Scotland’s economic ills. They contend that, with independence, Scotland can strike a different kind of compromise with its citizens. They argue that a vote for independence is a vote against inequality.
Throughout the two long years of campaigning for the referendum, there has been remarkably little anti-Englishness or blood-and-soil nationalism on display. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, champion of the Yes Scotland campaign, has come a long way since the 1990s, when he would quote the Scottish warrior William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson in the 1995 Scotland vs. England epic Braveheart) in campaign addresses. If today’s nationalists pit themselves against an ‘Other,’ it is not the average Englishman, but rather the London financier, as a stand-in for capitalism run amok.
In fact, leaders on both sides of the campaign have argued that, economically, Scots get the short end of a short stick. Economic growth in Scotland lags behind the U.K. average, as does GDP per capita and the unemployment rate. Scots tend to be older and sicker than English people—and babies born in Glasgow have the lowest life expectancy in the United Kingdom. More than 800,000 (out of 5.3 million) Scottish residents live in poverty, and income inequality is widening.
Depending on one’s view of things, Scottish nationalists are either the architects of a kinder and more egalitarian society, ready to cast off the yoke of English rule—or (as the pro-union Better Together campaign might argue) pushers of a seductive utopianism who would see inequality and impoverishment reign until “doomsday.”