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Upcoming Scottish Elections Could Have Major Impact On U.K.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Voters in Scotland go to the polls this week for parliamentary elections, which normally wouldn't get a lot of attention. But this vote could help determine whether the United Kingdom, America's closest ally, holds together as a country. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the Scottish Highlands.

FERGUS MUTCH: I'm all right, mate. Say yourself?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is Huntly. It's a small town in the northeast of Scotland. It's a nice open square. There's a farmer's market, lots of Gothic architecture. And Fergus Mutch is with the Scottish National Party. He's running for the parliament, and he's come here to get as many votes as he can.

MUTCH: I have been enjoying myself. I love the campaign.

FIONA THOMPSON: Yeah, I bet you do, actually.

LANGFITT: This is one of the people he's talking to. Her name is Fiona Thompson (ph).

Have you decided who you will vote for and who might that be?

THOMPSON: It'll be SNP.

LANGFITT: That's the Scottish National Party, which wants a public referendum on whether Scotland should leave the U.K.

And why is that?

THOMPSON: I suppose because we've left Europe, which I'm passionate about.

LANGFITT: Fiona's angry about Brexit. She and most people in Scotland voted to stay inside the European Union and feel they've been yanked out against their will.

THOMPSON: I've probably now become someone who's agreed to independence being the best way forward.

LANGFITT: How do you think the vote's going to go on Thursday?

THOMPSON: I think it'll be a massive independence vote.

LANGFITT: You think so.

THOMPSON: I think. Yeah, I do.

LANGFITT: It's not certain how many pro-independence candidates will win, but if the Scottish National Party gets a majority, it's sure to demand a referendum. Oh, who are these?

Over by the cake booth, we run into Donna Purry (ph). She actually works for the local government here, and she's walking her little dogs around the farmer's market.

DONNA PURRY: Yeah, this is Ordie (ph). This is Pixie (ph). And this is Gayor (ph).

LANGFITT: Purry likes the Scottish National Party.

PURRY: But my one problem is that I don't want independence for Scotland. If you look what we've done with Brexit...

LANGFITT: Purry points out that the U.K. leaving the EU has disrupted trade and damaged business. And there's another reason she opposes independence.

PURRY: I just can't financially see how Scotland can do it.

LANGFITT: Fergus?

MUTCH: I think the foundations of our economy are extremely strong. We control some spending over public services. We control very, very little of the taxation. So, actually, to have complete control over all the levers of our economy would be hugely beneficial.

LANGFITT: How did you come to independence, and how long have you been supportive of that?

MUTCH: It's just a simple case of Scotland as a country should make all decisions that affect us and for ourselves. And that way, we make better decisions rather than for most of my life, it's been governments that Scotland didn't vote for.

LANGFITT: He's talking about the U.K. government, which has been dominated by the Conservative Party.

So I'm now up north of Inverness with David Bell (ph), who's an economist here who's looked at independence. And we're at a beautiful golf course right along the beach looking out on the North Sea.

DAVID BELL: It's nice golf.

LANGFITT: Bell invited me up here to enjoy the view. So I asked him that same question. Can Scotland afford independence?

BELL: I think the answer to that is in the short term, it would have quite a lot of difficulty.

LANGFITT: Bell says Scotland spends more money than it raises. And the British government provides grants to fill that gap.

And so if Scotland left, it wouldn't have that grant any more. What would it do?

BELL: It would have to, in the first instance, go to the markets to borrow money.

LANGFITT: And if it couldn't get an immediate source of extra revenue...

BELL: It would have to cut back on spending in some ways, such as free tuition at universities.

LANGFITT: Why should Americans be paying attention to this vote?

BELL: It reduces the clout that the remainder of the U.K. has. And the U.K. is currently the U.S.'s strongest ally, particularly in defense.

LANGFITT: When people vote here this week, not only will the rest of the United Kingdom be watching. So will American officials. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Huntly, Scotland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.