Jim Gallagher is Gwilym Gibbon research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and visiting professor of government at Glasgow University.
In September 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland about whether to leave the United Kingdom, and if Scotland votes yes that will signal the end of a 300 year union. How has it come to this, what would Scottish independence mean, and what’s going to happen?
Although Scotland and England have been in a union for over 300 years, they have never merged completely: there have always been separate Scottish institutions, a different national church, a different legal system, different administration of government and now a Scottish Parliament dealing with the majority of domestic Scottish affairs. This Parliament was set up in 1999, in a move which some UK politicians thought would stop the rise of nationalist sentiment which had been growing since oil was discovered off the Scottish coast in the 1970s.
The effect was more complex than that. By 2007 nationalists had become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, and by 2011 they had an overall majority: no mean achievement in a proportional representation system intended to produce minority or coalition government. Interestingly, around the same time Scottish voters overwhelmingly returned Labour MP’s to Westminster.
The Scottish National Party’s commitment had always been to hold a referendum on independence if they were elected to the Scottish Parliament. Winning a majority gave them the votes–if not the legal power, as this is a devolved parliament dealing with domestic matters–to deliver that. In what may turn out to be a shrewd move, the UK Prime Minister immediately offered to remove any legal obstacles to an independence referendum.
This is now been done, and the referendum legislation is before the Scottish Parliament, with a simple question–should Scotland be an independent country? – and a date some 10 months hence.
The effects of independence would be profound, but not wholly predictable. Some decisions could only be taken by the Parliament of the newly independent country, but it possible to guess from SNP policy what those might be. Their approach is conservative–to preserve as many UK institutions as they can, including the monarchy, the pound, and some shared UK services. They also want to remain in the European Union and, in significant shift of policy, remain members of NATO, though they would try to expel UK nuclear weapons from Scotland. This would be significant as the UK’s nuclear deterrent submarines operate from the West Coast of Scotland. Whether the UK, the EU and NATO would agree to these plans, and on what terms, remains a highly contested issue.
For many nationalists, independence is self-evidently a worthwhile end in itself. Others argue its purpose is to make Scotland richer, or more socially just. So far as wealth is concerned, Scotland does have substantial oil resources off its coasts, which will continue to provide much economic activity in parts of the country, as well as a stream of tax revenue. That tax revenue presently goes to the UK but would, in the future, go to an independent Scotland. It would be badly needed, as Scotland already has a significantly higher level of public spending than the rest of the UK. An independent Scotland would face the choice of cutting those services, or raising other taxes to higher than UK levels, so as to be able to put the oil revenue into a long-term savings fund, or spending it to support services now, and face that choice later when the oil runs out, but with no cushion of money in the bank. As for social justice, Scottish politicians often say that Scotland is a more communitarian and left-of-centre than England. Some data support this–but whether Scots would actually vote for higher taxes to support more generous public services is not at all clear: more than 60% are opposed to the idea.
The effect of Scottish independence on the rest of the UK will be important, but less significant. Scotland is one third of the U.K.’s landmass, but only 8.5% of the population. It seems likely that in strict international law terms, the UK will be a “continuing” state, and Scotland would be a new one. So the present UK institutions–Parliament, the Bank of England, the BBC etc – would continue to serve the remainder of the UK, although their assets and liabilities would no doubt be divided between it and the new Scottish state. There will certainly be some changes in the UK’s representation in Europe (adjusting the number of MEP’s, for example) but the real effects would be in the UK’s reputation, and perhaps its image of itself. British institutions, and Westminster in particular, have been remarkably durable: they have sustained Irish independence, the end of Empire, and a profound shift in Britain’s role in the world: but Scotland’s withdrawal might shake them further.
We will have to wait to find out what Scotland chooses: at the moment, the opinion polls suggest that although there is support for further powers for the Scottish Parliament, creating a new state is something only about one 3rd the Scottish voters actually want.
Further reading: Scotland’s Choices, by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge, published by Edinburgh University press April 2013