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Scotland’s choice

Salmond appeals to the research vote

‘You will lose out if Scotland votes for independence.’ This, in crude and condensed language, is the message from the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to Scotland’s citizens, including of course its researchers.

Campaigning in the run-up to the independence referendum started in earnest yesterday with the publication of the Scottish National Party’s white paper setting out detailed plans for independence. In the near future we will no doubt hear similar conclusions to the above from other parts of the UK government and opposition—in effect warning Scotland’s different communities not to dance to the beat of independence.

Invoking the spectre of poverty is important and understandable for a government and parliament determined to keep the union in place. But for David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, it could backfire. If there’s one thing we know from Britain’s distinguished tradition of giving nations the right of self-determination, it is that talk of a little less money in the bank won’t stop people voting yes. The impulse to be free is a feeling that First Minister Alex Salmond understands far better than his opponents at Westminster.

The SNP’s push to win over skilled voters has begun: scientists, engineers, and professionals in the humanities and arts are being carefully wooed. Independence, say the nationalists, is a rare chance to build a nation. If you have skills, apply them so that you can determine your own future. Yes, funding is important and no, there won’t be less of it. But more important are ideas: where there are good ideas, money will follow. Help Scotland become one of the world’s great exporting nations.

For scientists, independence has additional attractions. The SNP’s politics, for now at least, are outward-facing, pro-European, multilateralist and welcoming of diversity. The party wants us all to know that Scottishness is an inclusive identity. Unlike each of the Westminster parties you won’t hear the SNP talk of being ‘tough’ on migrants, nor will you hear it backing calls for a referendum to leave the European Union. Such messages will perhaps resonate with the majority of researchers, especially those with strong global links. By and large, the values expressed by the SNP are ones they will share.

But before deciding which way to turn, Scotland’s researchers (and others) will also want to consider the implications of their actions.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Scotland does gain from independence, what does that mean for the rest of the British Isles? Could Wales become more restive? Is middle England likely to experience the rise of a very different kind of nationalism? Will London demand more autonomy? Could an independent Scotland leave behind an unstable, argumentative and ultimately disunited kingdom? And if it does, what impact could this angrier neighbour have on Scotland itself?

The referendum campaign is about more than independence for Scotland. It concerns the shape and nature of the United Kingdom. The stakes in the campaign are high because, in reality, Scotland’s choice is a question for us all.