'British defences will be hit if Scots go it alone'

'British defences will be hit if Scots go it alone'

Scotland's potential independence from the United Kingdom would gravely weaken the rest of Britain and its defences, warns the overall commander of Britain's Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir George Zambellas said: "I believe very strongly that, for a premier league navy, respected around the world, with a big responsibility, for us to be divided would be less efficient for both the UK and Scotland."

It is highly unusual for senior British military officers to express any opinion in what is one of their country's most politically-sensitive disputes. But Adm Zambellas felt compelled to intervene after latest opinion polls indicate that, for the first time ever, supporters of Scottish independence have a realistic chance of winning a referendum on this topic, scheduled for Sept 18.

Scotland, which united with England more than three centuries ago, already enjoys wide autonomy in the UK, which also includes Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own legal and education systems, a separate flag, local Parliament and government, and even prints its own banknotes but these have to be guaranteed by the Bank of England.

Given the fact that the Scots make up only 8 per cent of the UK's 63 million-strong population, that Scotland's once-abundant oil and gas reserves are now dwindling and that its generous welfare system is largely subsidised by the rest of the UK, the assumption was that Scotland would be happy to continue with current arrangements.

The odds appeared so heavily stacked against separation that even the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has ruled in Edinburgh, the capital, since 2007 on a platform promising independence, was reluctant to call a vote on this matter. September's referendum was forced upon it by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who believed that supporters of the current union with England would prevail.

This now looks like a miscalculation, for an average of the latest opinion polls indicates that pro-independence supporters stand at 45 per cent of the Scottish electorate, a full five percentage points more than a month ago and within striking distance of victory.

"This is an exceptionally encouraging result for us," said a triumphant Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's deputy leader.

One reason for this remarkable turnaround is that the anti-independence campaign bombed with voters.

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