Manpreet Sing Makkar -- active in the Yes campaign -- poses for a photograph in Edinburgh, July 16, 2014.
Paul Hackett / Courtesy Reuters

Debates over national independence are seldom rational. Since they deal with what may happen in the future, each side must convince voters that it is the better soothsayer. In the political battle over Scottish independence, which will come to a popular vote on September 18, two competing visions are clashing hard.

The “No” camp, which goes by the slogan “Better Together,” has run a campaign that focuses primarily on the costs of separation, which are hard to price but estimable. The “Yes” campaign’s response has been to dismiss such concerns as “fear-mongering,” highlighting instead how much better Scotland would fare after independence. In so doing, the Yes camp has rested its case on a counterfactual that can never be proven, seemingly a weaker hand to play.

Yet the key nationalist claims are not without merit. First, since the 1980s, Scotland has overwhelmingly voted for the Labour and the Scottish National Parties, whereas the United Kingdom has voted Conservative. As a result, most Scots feel that they often end up with a government they didn’t vote for. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 went some way toward addressing the democratic deficit. But since the body has limited fiscal powers -- and no independent monetary powers -- it has provided only a partial fix. Second, Scottish voters, the Yes campaign argues, favor a generous welfare state backed by a government that defends public institutions from austerity. And third, most Scots, so says the Yes camp, want to be part of the European Union at a time when the British government is thinking about parting ways with Brussels, so independence would safeguard ties to Europe.

As a wish list, such priorities may seem admirable, especially if one’s politics stand center-left. But to what extent are they achievable? That question has formed the crux of the No campaign, which has shied away from extolling the benefits of the union and stressed instead the economic risks that would come with independence. The core dispute in the independence debate has been over what currency an independent Scotland would use; after all, if you are not in charge of your own money, one has to question the extent to which, like a teenager who never leaves home, you are truly independent and can set your own goals.

As the polls narrow and the referendum nears, the money question has become all the more pressing. According to the latest poll, the Yes camp is trailing by only six points, with eight percent of voters still undecided. The result, in other words, remains very much up in the air. Markets are starting to get nervous, suddenly waking up to the fact that if Scotland goes, neither the British pound nor sterling securities will be what they once were. If sterling’s backers, the British taxpayers, are suddenly reduced by ten percent, should UK bonds reflect that risk?

The Yes campaign wants a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom that retains the pound. (Although London has ruled that out, how Westminster could prevent such a union without removing the coins and notes already in circulation remains an open question.) Yet a currency union would not do an independent Scotland any favors. The United Kingdom’s electoral politics would ultimately determine monetary policy, and Scotland could find itself facing an even tougher macroeconomic and monetary environment than it already does. If the Labour Party was deprived of its Scottish seats, it would struggle to form a majority in the House of Commons, strengthening Conservative control. And with Scotland gone, London’s finance-centric economy would have greater influence still. 

London could turn the screws on Edinburgh further, and not without reason. An independent Scotland would have a massively oversize banking system, with assets possibly exceeding 1,000 percent of GDP. This would represent an Icelandic-sized risk to British taxpayers, who would have to stand behind the liabilities of the Scottish banks if they ran into trouble. As the Financial Times put it in a recent editorial, no British government would back those banks “unless Scotland were to accept very heavy constraints over its public finances.” In short, budgetary austerity and conservative policies would remain the only game in town, even after independence. 

To get out of this bind, an independent Scotland would need its own currency, an option the Yes campaign has only recently acknowledged as a possible “plan B.” Without monetary sovereignty, a country can neither print nor devalue its way out of trouble. And if it doesn’t want to default, austerity is the only way forward.

Yet to establish an independent currency, Scotland would need three things: a central bank, a bond shop, and independent tax institutions. For now, Edinburgh has none of these. And it would take five to ten years to build them. In the meantime, the country Scotland just broke up with would be raising the taxes, paying the bond investors, and running the currency -- and charging a pretty penny to do so. Joining the euro, the only other alternative, would simply mean austerity would come from another direction, from Berlin rather than London.

Given all this, if Scotland votes in favor of independence, the United Kingdom’s reaction would not likely be the velvet divorce the Yes campaigners envision. Nationalism, like most forms of identity politics, thrives only in the face of a foreign other. Far from safeguarding Scotland’s position in Europe, the United Kingdom’s already resurgent nationalism will likely grow fiercer. Edinburgh’s exit would probably make London’s withdrawal from the EU more likely, complicating the Yes campaign’s desire to protect European interdependence.

Yet perhaps the oddest thing about the Scottish debate has been its lack of concern for issues of language, culture, or past sins -- all central features of Basque, Catalan, and other independence movements. On the surface, it’s been all about the money, which makes the recent turn at the polls all the more telling. Although the No camp has largely won the economic arguments, the Yes campaign has gained the upper hand. The question is why?

The journalist Paul Mason noted recently in The Guardian newspaper that age is becoming a key factor in determining how Scots vote, with older people being more likely to vote no. This sits well with the famous observation (falsely attributed to Winston Churchill) about being a liberal at 25 and a conservative at 35. Those with assets in the current system don’t want the system to change. Those with no or few assets are willing to see it transformed. Generational, rather than monetary, politics may well be the determinant of the final result.

Raised in a country where the policy choice of the past 30 years has been neoliberalism with airbags (New Labour under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) or neoliberalism on steroids (under the Tories), and faced with falling real wages and diminished opportunity, young people in Scotland want another choice. This is perhaps why nationalism retains the capacity to surprise. It’s not about costs, risks, or uncertainties; it’s about the idea that a different future is possible. 

As Mason noted, “Once established, political psychologies like this do not go away. History shows they intensify until something gives, and at some point it is usually the borders of a nation state.” Three hundred years is a decent run for any political project. If the United Kingdom’s borders give way in a few days’ time, nobody should be surprised that those who said Yes ignored the warnings about what their vote would cost them. For Scotland’s young, those who yearn for a different future, it was never really about the money.