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Scotland to decide on secession from United Kingdom

On Thursday, the people of Scotland will decide whether to become its own country after centuries of unity with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Thursday is Election Day in Scotland -- perhaps the most important one in Scottish history. But this one has no candidates, no parliamentary seats at stake, and only a single ballot line, with one simple question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

No matter how the people of Scotland choose to answer that question, this week marks the climax of a years-long debate over the fate of the region. Even if Scotland opts to remain a part of the United Kingdom, its relationship with the central government in London will likely never be the same. And if the Scots go their own way, no one really knows what could happen. A majority "yes" vote on the referendum will trigger prolonged negotiations between Edinburgh and London over the terms of the secession. Official independence wouldn't come until March 24, 2016.

Leading the charge for independence is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which in 2011 was elected to a ruling majority in the Scottish parliament on a platform that called for the independence referendum to be held. The opponents of secession include virtually every other political party, in particular the center-right Conservatives, who currently holds power in Westminster, and the center-left Labour Party, which relies on Scottish votes for a significant chunk of its electoral base. Over the past several months luminaries from both parties have toured Scotland, urging its residents to vote for continued unity with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Although Conservatives would probably benefit from Labour's declining fortunes, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron "certainly doesn't want to go down in history as the prime minister who presided over the dissolution of his own country," said Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and a contributor to Foreign Affairs, where he has written about the push for independence. "Then he becomes the Mikhail Gorbachev of the United Kingdom."

Cameron himself appears to be painfully aware of what Scottish independence could mean for his own political career. During a recent speaking engagement, he reportedly joked about welcoming his own death during the final days of the campaign for independence.

"After the events I have been facing over the past few days, assassination would be a welcome release," he said, according to the British tabloid the Evening Standard.

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SNP, for its part, is not a typical European nationalist party. Unlike right-wing nationalist parties like the United Kingdom's own UKIP, the SNP is pro-European Union and embraces multiculturalism. Although its constituency includes a handful of traditional nationalists, most of its appeal relies less on ethnic solidarity than it does on political values intended to transcend race.

"They're social democratic in orientation and believe there's a strong role for the state in helping to level the playing field for all people in society," said King. "Free public education all through the university level, free prescription drugs for the elderly, and other things that make Scotland look much more like a Scandinavian country than the rest of the U.K."

The SNP has promised that an independent Scotland would become a member of the European Union, provide generous retirement benefits to its citizens, be free of nuclear weapons, and share the wealth from its sizable oil industry. In other words, an independent Scotland would hope to become a lot like Norway: A prosperous, Northern European nation that uses enormous oil revenues to fund a generous social safety net.

One of the big questions confronting Scottish voters is whether they could actually pull it off. Opponents of independence warn that growing pension obligations, declining oil revenues from drilling in the North Sea, and a host of other economic threats stand in the way of a social democratic Scotland. Then there are the other practical difficulties: Deciding on what currency to use, attaining EU membership, negotiating a mutually satisfactory divorce from the rest of the United Kingdom, and so on.

Secessionist movements around the rest of Europe -- and indeed, the rest of the world -- are watching. If a majority of Scots vote for independence, separatist groups from as far away as Quebec and Kurdistan may try to follow their examples. Either way, the British Isles stand at a fork in the road as big as any they've faced in living memory.