This blog series analyses the issues surrounding Scotland’s impending referendum on independence. The series attempts to shed light on why the referendum is taking place, the context and substance of the debate, and the implications of either a yes or no vote. The prospect of splitting up the British state after more than three-hundred years of voluntary union represents one of the most dramatic developments in the history of the United Kingdom. The popular and scholarly debate has become increasingly sophisticated in recent months, but attention remains excessively directed to short-term economic concerns. A wider comparative frame is essential to understanding the referendum, which will have both international and domestic implications. The blog aims to draw from across the social sciences to shed light on the political, constitutional, economic, and social contexts and consequences of the choice which Scotland faces.

On 25 March this year, a bill disenfranchising around 4 million people was introduced to Parliament. It barely received any press coverage, and though it was defeated it raised an important and oddly neglected constitutional question. The bill in question was proposed by Tory John Stevenson, and asked “that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to disenfranchise all residents of Scotland eligible to vote in any United Kingdom General Election held after 18 September 2014 in the event of a positive vote in the Scottish Independence referendum; and for connected purposes.”[1] It attempts to solve an anomaly caused by the electoral calendar: Scotland votes on independence on 18 September this year, but would only become an independent nation some time in 2016 (the Scottish government is planning for 24 March[2]). In between those two dates, of course, the UK will hold a general election. Some Conservatives argue that Scots shouldn’t return MPs to Westminster in 2015 because most laws passed by the 2015 Parliament will not apply to Scotland. The problem is exacerbated by the Labour Party’s dominance in Scottish constituencies: 2015 could well see a Labour majority in Westminster and a Conservative majority in ‘rump UK’, i.e. the United Kingdom minus Scotland. In this situation – one of the most likely outcomes of the general election – by whom would Britain be governed?

As the Scottish independence referendum campaign enters its final stages, both sides will still be hoping that they can persuade as many voters as possible that their side is right. Although undoubtedly some voters are still to decide which way they will vote, the minds of most voters were made up long ago and the campaign will have made little difference. Political psychologists have convincingly shown that voters aren’t particularly good at making objective assessments of arguments about political issues – regardless of their actual validity, we tend to think that arguments that support our positions are good and arguments that don’t are bad. Even when voters have the same factual information, partisan bias leads to very different conclusions. The stability of the referendum polls despite the long and intense campaign suggests that these factors are almost certainly playing an important role in opinions on the independence debate. If vote intentions in the referendum aren’t a result of objective evaluations of the pros and cons of Scottish independence, where do these opinions come from? Political attitudes are not simply created in a vacuum, nor do they just reflect self-interest according to socio-economic position. Scholars have long suspected that political attitudes arise from deep-seated psychological dispositions – particularly from differences in personality. For psychologists, ‘personality’ captures the patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour that are relatively stable within individuals in different situations and across time: people who are organised at work are also likely to be organised at home; shy children often grow up to be shy adults. For the past few decades, the leading paradigm in personality psychology has been the ‘Big Five’ approach, which has shown that much of the variation in personality traits between people can be captured by five dimensions – agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability (sometimes labelled ‘neuroticism’), extraversion, and openness to experience.

Martin Wolf is quite right when he says that the debate about Scottish independence should not focus on relatively short term macroeconomic costs and benefits. I personally would be very sad if Scotland became independent, but that has nothing to do with money and (just as for Martin) everything to do with a British identity of which Scotland is an important part. But I also understand, having lived and worked in Scotland for five years, how these issues are more difficult when you are a minority part of a bigger nation. Nevertheless my expertise is in macroeconomics, so I should say something about recent claims by both sides. It seems fairly clear to me that the Treasury report is right when it argues that, for the next decade or so at least, people in Scotland will be significantly better off by staying in the Union. The main reason is that additional public spending in Scotland as part of the union exceeds any benefits Scotland would get from having more of the revenue from the North Sea. This is also the conclusion of independent bodies like the IFS or NIESR, and it is only avoided by the Scottish government because they have unusually optimistic projections, particularly for North Sea revenues.

For quite understandable reasons, much of the debate about independence for Scotland has so far focused on the economic consequences of seceding from the UK. This, after all, is what most political argument inside liberal democracies is about – small economic gains and losses that might accrue to different sections of the population. For politicians brought up in this culture, it is not surprising that they should appeal to voters in the referendum on that basis: will they be £500 pa better off or £1,000 pa worse off if Scotland becomes independent? But should this really be the focus when what is at stake is a fundamental redrawing of the boundaries of a democratic state, and the ending of at least three centuries of political co-habitation in a single unit? Admittedly Alex Salmond does intersperse his economic arguments with appeals to democratic principle. He objects to Scots being ruled by a Westminster government that they did not elect. But the trouble with this argument is that it can be reiterated endlessly wherever the political boundaries are drawn. In an independent Scotland governed by the SNP, Labour voters in Glasgow or Liberal Democrats in the Shetlands could make exactly the same complaint. Should we conclude that these places should withdraw from Scotland and become mini-states on their own?

In July 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker was designated as new President of the European Commission. It may be that he will take a more neutral approach to the question of an independent Scotland’s EU membership than that of his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso, who famously stated that it would be: ‘extremely difficult, if not impossible’for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. The puzzle is why Barroso (and some other EU officials) should appear negative about the prospect of an independent Scotland’s continued EU membership. For while either side of the independence debate may have a strong interest in portraying Scotland’s future in the EU as either plain sailing, or as a via dolorosa, the EU itself should have no such vested interest. I write ‘should’, for in the EU, as in other areas of public life, the fractional and the partisan of politics all too often dominate over matters of principle.

When the Scottish government released its White Paper outlining what an independent Scotland might look like, migration policy was a small but essential element of it. The White Paper promises a change in the direction of travel in migration policy for an independent Scotland. In recent years the UK has enacted a number of measures restricting various migration flows, and the present government aims to reduce net migration – the difference between immigration and emigration – below 100,000 annually. The White Paper outlines a vision for a set of migration policies that encourage skilled migrants to come to and remain in Scotland, in order to meet different demographic and economic objectives, which it explicitly contrasts with the present ‘Westminster approach’.