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Will the Scottish referendum come down to ‘Braveheart’ or cool head ?

Stephen Beard Sep 17, 2014
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Tomorrow, the people of Scotland vote on whether they want independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The economic case against going it alone seems compelling.

A string of major companies say they’ll pull their headquarters out of Scotland if it votes for separation, and big supermarket chains warn that they will have to push up their prices. Deutsche Bank claims the country could be plunged into another Great Depression.

And yet with each grim new warning of disaster, support for separation seems to grow. Is this a case of the heart ruling the head?

“I think it’s driven by a kind of collective madness,” says Niall Ferguson, expat Scot and professor of history at Harvard.

“I live in the United States but still feel myself every inch a Scotsman. This will be a disaster. This is a bit like Colorado seeking its independence. This is just astonishing to behold,” he says.

Other critics of Scottish independence say Scotland’s in the grip of “Braveheart”  fever, carried away on a wave of emotion by a fantasy of liberation.

But the calm, softly-spoken, supremely rational professor of economics – and supporter of independence – Mike Danson says, “that’s absolute nonsense.”

“Nobody talks about ‘Braveheart’ in Scotland,” he says. “For very, very few people is that what independence is about. Some have said it will be the first case of a country trying to become independent on the back of economics, rather than on the back of heart, emotion and identity.”

More than 200 small and medium-sized Scottish businesses and a handful of large ones support independence. They say if the country separates, it will be much more prosperous and fair than it is today. Frances Barron, who owns a small cheesecake manufacturing firm in southwest Scotland, says she’ll definitely be voting yes… and using her head.

“I would say the majority of people voting yes will be voting with their head,” says Frances as she stands in her factory, supervising the baking of another batch of toffee banana cookies. “People are getting their eyes opened, and their mouths hang open when they hear just how wealthy this country is, and how well positioned we are to move forward with independence.”

Including its geographic share of North Sea oil, Scotland is per capita richer than the rest of the UK – and it raises more tax. With oil, whiskey and other products, it’s a champion exporter.

But the oil is declining, and most of its exports go to England. If it has to adopt a new currency – and the rest of the UK has made it clear it will not allow an independent Scotland to continue using the pound with the protection of the central bank  Scotland could find it has higher transaction costs selling to its biggest market.

Feelings are running high. The referendum campaign has grown increasingly emotional on both sides, with angry exchanges in the street. But David Bell – professor of economics at Stirling University thinks that when most people enter the polling booths tomorrow, the head will rule the heart.

“There are a lot of very passionate people involved in this, no question about this,” says Bell. “But I’m not convinced that that’s what the average voter will be thinking about when they go into the booth. It’ll be cool , calm, economic calculation.”

By Friday, we will learn whether Scotland will go it alone. It could be some time before we know for sure whether that means the heart or the head has prevailed.

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