The science of independence: has Scotland's number come up?

Scotland's constitutional debate does not lack for claim and counterclaim.

The disputes so far have ranged from whether an independent Scotland would be economically viable, to how many referendum questions can dance on the head of a pin. Well, almost.

Can science cut through the arguments and give us a clearer glimpse of our likely future?

The discipline of econometrics was established in an attempt to make the "dismal science" of economics more scientific. It uses mathematics and statistics to cut through the fog of economic debate, to reduce the big issues to empirical data.

Now an international team has been using the econometric approach to find which parts of Europe are most likely to become independent nations.

The researchers from Spain, France and the United States used factors such as GDP, inequality, culture and genetics to find which countries were most stable - and those most likely to break up.

The team, which drew its members from Spain, France and the United States, built what is in effect a mathematical model of Europe.

It's a complex set of formulae with a straightforward aim: to identify which nations are the least stable and where new nations are most likely to be born.

National stability

To test if their model worked, the researchers input data from the former Yugoslavia. Not only did the calculations conclude that Yugoslavia would break up, it said Slovenia and Croatia would be first to become independent, then Bosnia and Macedonia, then Montenegro. Which is what happened in reality.

So using present-day data, what does the model tell us about the likely future of Europe?

It found the two nations most likely to break away are the Basque Country and Scotland.

But Professor Klaus Desmet of Carlos III University in Madrid, who led the research, says that does not mean Scottish independence is a mathematical certainty.

He compares Scotland to Slovenia before it split from Yugoslavia.

"Slovenia was about three times richer per capita than the rest of Yugoslavia. Whereas the difference between Scotland and England is actually much smaller and slightly to the disadvantage of Scotland," he said.

"If Scotland were to be just a little bit richer or a little bit bigger, it would actually be enough for them to go independent.

"On the other hand, if you consider that the Basque Country is ... a region that is likely to secede, then it turns out that Scotland is not far behind."

Instead, Professor Desmet says the numbers suggest a future which sounds similar to the concept of "devo max".

He added: "Scotland would probably gain from some further degree of decentralisation without necessarily going completely independent, because the model does not predict that Scotland would gain from separating from the UK."

This econometric approach to national stability can be turned around, to find the nations that might merge.

Top of the list of neighbours most likely to get together: Austria and Switzerland, followed by Denmark and Norway. And in third place, although somewhat less likely: Britain and France.

The numbers also suggest a merger between Britain and Germany is possible - although that's many times less likely than Scottish independence.

There is of course a huge caveat here. What these numbers can't do is predict what will actually happen.

Scotland's future lies not in equations, but in the hearts and minds of her voters.

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