The referendum on Scotland's independence is only six months away, and suddenly the cautious sparring between the Conservative-led coalition government in London and First Minister Alex Salmond's pro-independence government in Edinburgh has turned into open war. London won the first battles, and the No side will probably win the referendum in September -- but it is going to be a long war.
The opening shot was fired by Chancellor George Osborne in London, who declared an independent Scotland could not negotiate a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. With only one-tenth of Britain's population, Scotland is just too small to demand an equal say in how the pound is run. Besides, why would London want to keep the responsibility for Scotland's huge and rather dodgy banking sector?
Alex Salmond responded by threatening to repudiate Scotland's share of the national debt if London wouldn't agree to a currency union, but the conclusion was obvious. Scotland could go on using the British pound if it wanted (like Panama and East Timor use the U.S. dollar), but it could have no formal link.
Next was the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, who warned it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. Other EU members that don't want their own autonomous regions to secede would almost certainly block Scotland's membership -- Barroso was talking mainly about Spain and the separatists in Catalonia -- and one veto is enough.
Independence was looking more complex and expensive by the minute -- and then Standard Life spoke up. The Edinburgh-based company is the largest pension provider in the United Kingdom, managing around $350 billion in assets and employing 5,000 people in Scotland.
Ninety per cent of Standard Life's four million U.K. customers do not live in Scotland, however, and it warned it might have to leave if the Scots voted for independence. A poll subsequently revealed 36 per cent of Scottish firms would consider leaving following a Yes vote.
It was a cold shower for the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the number of people planning to vote Yes in the referendum dropped to 32 per cent, while those choosing No remained unchanged at 57 per cent. Lots of Scots would like independence if it doesn't cost them anything, but they don't want it badly enough to risk any major changes. Unless something changes quite dramatically, the final vote will be 60-40 or more against independence.
So what are the Scottish Nationalists really hoping to achieve? Originally, Salmond planned to build support for independence through a long period of successful government within the U.K., but the SNP's landslide victory in 2011, in the depth of the recession, stoked unrealistic hopes among his militants and forced his hand. Nevertheless, he probably knew he was going to lose this one.
That's how it worked in Quebec in the 1980 referendum, which the separatists lost 60-40. The idea of leaving Canada and striking out on their own frightened the French-speaking majority in Quebec too much at the time. But it did put the question on the table, and it never really went away again.
Salmond will know the history of Quebec separatism well, for it is the best analogy to his own situation. He will be aware that the second referendum, in 1995, came within a hair's breadth of succeeding. And he will have noticed that the separatist Parti Québécois is still around, is likely to win the provincial election due on April 7 under Premier Pauline Marois -- and will almost certainly call a third referendum in the next few years.
It's what English-speaking Quebecers call the "neverendum," but it actually does end eventually. You only have to win the referendum once. After 34 years of this, the "Rest of Canada" really doesn't care anymore, so there will be no pleas to Quebec to stay this time, no special offers to sweeten the Confederation.
The "Rest of the United Kingdom" is already there: The English, in particular, seem distinctly unmoved by the prospect of Scottish independence. This may be because Scotland has much less of the U.K.'s population than Quebec has of Canada's (one-tenth versus one-fifth), and because Scotland is at the far end of Britain whereas Quebec is in the middle of Canada. So maybe it will only take two referendums in Scotland.
They should pray this is so, because the four-decade, three-referendum scenario is pretty grim. In Quebec, it caused the most spectacular case of "planning blight" in recent history. The perpetual uncertainty about Quebec's political and economic future drove the corporate headquarters out (they moved to Toronto), and the immigrants and the investment went elsewhere. The population numbers in Canada's two biggest provinces tell the story.
In 1980, the year of the first referendum, there were 6.5 million people in Quebec and 8.5 million in Ontario, and the ratio had been steady for most of the century. There are now 8.2 million people in Quebec -- and 13.4 million in Ontario. Montreal long rivalled Toronto in population, but today it is more than 50 per cent smaller.
Salmond must know this is where he is taking Scotland. He presumably thinks it is worth it.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.