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By Roy Hay
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, could he the man who presides over the break-up of one of the oldest political unions still extant?
It was in 1707 that Scotland and England agreed to sink their longrunning squabbles and enter into a union of their parliaments which has lasted to this day.
There has been a degree of devolution of power to a separate Scottish parliament since 1999, but the Scots are still represented at Westminster and many of the major functions of government, including defence and the power to change the constitution, remain concentrated in the UK parliament.
Now a binding referendum on the issue of Scottish independence is proposed to test how far the Scots want to go in separating themselves from the rest of the inhabitants of the island, at least politically.
In Scotland. the nationalists have had a majority in the parliament in Edinburgh and there is only one conservative member of the Westminster parliament representing a Scottish seat.
So Cameron’s intervention has been greeted with suspicion and outrage.
Alex Salmond, the Scottish chief minister and head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has been planning to hold a referendum on independence, but this would only be advisory to the UK parliament.
Also he has not been clear about whether he would offer a range of options short of independence to Scottish voters.
Cameron fears that the unionist vote in Scotland would be split if the options were other than complete independence or the status quo.
Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, also says the SNP would prefer a straight yes/no question but accuses the Conservatives in London of trying to hijack the process instead of allowing the Scots to draw up their own referendum.
That was one of the planks of the SNP’s campaign at the last election.
Meantime, the controversy and the continuing delay in settling the matter has business and labour interests up in arms about the uncertainty which, they say, is deterring investment in Scotland.
While Scotland has retained its legal and educational systems under the current devolved powers of the 1998 Scotland Act, its economic and fiscal powers have been more circumscribed.
The Scots have continued to issue their own banknotes, though their value has been identical to that of the pound sterling in recent times.
I can remember when English banks and retailers used to try to extract a fee for exchanging Scottish notes and took great delight in arguing them into submission when I went south.
But if Scotland goes for independence will it join the Euro, which would mean that its currency could well diverge in value from that of England.
There are far more transactions between Scotland and England than between Scotland and Europe, so the potential for currency-based inefficiencies will grow significantly.
Pegging its currency to the pound would inevitably reduce Scotland’s appearance to be a full member of the European Community, an issue with which the Scots have historically been more comfortable than their cousins south of the border.
It is far from clear how a vote on independence would go in Scotland if it were to be held today.
The Conservatives in England fear that the SNP is dragging its feet and trying to engineer a longer and deeper list of grievances against the English to underpin a vote for independence in future.
Thus we have a political organisation that used to be called the Conservative and Unionist party promoting a binding vote that could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Roy Hay is an Honorary Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute
This article first appeared in The Geelong Advertiser