In advance of the vote tomorrow, which will decide the fate of the three-centuries-old voluntary union between Scotland and England, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. The Politics in Spires blog series ‘A Separate or United Kingdom’ has attempted to contribute to an expanded discussion of the independence debate with voices from across the social sciences, including law, economics, sociology, psychology, human geography, political philosophy, and more.
Much of the popular discussion has centred on the fiscal and economic consequences of separation. Prof Simon Wren-Lewis agrees with the UK Treasury that in the next decade, at least, Scottish people ‘will be significantly better off by staying in the Union’. Wren-Lewis warns that independence would involve high set-up costs which would need to be funded in large part by an extremely volatile and diminishing source of revenue (oil). I would add that further complicating matters is the likelihood that Scotland’s credit rating would be lower than that of the United Kingdom, which would make it more expensive for the new government to borrow in order to provide an equivalent level of public services, a point made by Prof Iain McLean.
Furthermore, as Prof Jim Gallagher argued, certain public sector institutions would lose significant funding currently provided by the rest of the UK. For instance, Scottish universities are set to lose the £150 million per year they receive by charging tuition fees to English, Welsh, and Northern Irish students. However, Wren-Lewis is not entirely pessimistic about the macroeconomic future of an independent Scotland. He argues that the rest of the United Kingdom could adopt policies which could have a deleterious impact on its own macroeconomic growth, such as harsh immigration controls and exit from the European Union.
While many would be inclined to argue that such economic considerations are driving public opinion, Chris Prosser suggests that personality plays a significant role. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘conscientious’ voters are more likely to oppose independence whereas voters who are ‘open to new experiences’ are more likely to lend their support to separation. Prosser argues that this has had implications for how the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns have conducted themselves. For instance, ‘Yes Scotland’ has taken its predisposed supporters (i.e. voters who are ‘open to new experiences’) for granted, focusing instead on persuading ‘conscientious’ voters that a ‘yes’ vote will not result in a radical departure from their present way of life.
Two articles in the series examine Scotland’s relationship to the European Union but from different perspectives. Jure Vidmar argues that Scottish exit from the EU is an inevitable consequence of separation from the UK. He writes, ‘By becoming independent, Scotland prima facie exits the EU and will need to reapply’. Vidmar predicts that the elegant solution of simply conferring EU membership to Scotland on the day of its independence may be hampered by negotiations between the Scottish government and the EU being delayed by other member states’ domestic politics. As Vidmar writes, there is no automaticity to Scottish EU membership.
Prof Sionaidh Douglas-Scott adopts a more optimistic perspective on the prospects for Scotland’s continued EU membership. She contends that the ‘long and winding road’ claim about Scottish re-entry in to the EU ‘misrepresents the situation and has more than a touch of elitist scaremongering’. She argues that the European Union has no interest in dispossessing EU citizens of their citizenship rights. She points to the example of the unification of Germany, in which lengthy negotiations for the incorporation of East German citizens were deemed unnecessary, as an example of the ‘pragmatic and expedient’ approach she expects the EU to take.
Douglas-Scott and Vidmar appear to disagree centrally on the status of Scottish citizens living in other EU countries if Scotland were to fail to secure EU membership. Douglas-Scott warns that in the unlikely event that Scotland were blocked from automatic renewal of EU membership, ‘Scottish migrants to other EU countries…could be rendered illegal immigrants overnight’. Her claim flies in the face of a legal precedent raised by Vidmar in his article. He argues that Scottish citizens would not lose their right to reside in those countries even if Scotland itself were unable to remain in the EU. In Kuric v Slovenia, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that once legal residency is established, the right to continue living in a country is not affected by the change in the legal status of either the country of origin or of residence.
Several authors discussed the consequences of independence for the rest of the United Kingdom. Prof David Miller wonders what British identity would mean without Scotland. With Scotland gone, 92% of the population of the United Kingdom would live in England. What would distinguish British identity from English identity?
Also thinking about developments south of the border, Rob McNeil and Carlos Vargas Silva point out that 850,000 Scottish-born people live in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. While none of them are allowed to vote in the independence referendum, the Scottish government’s White Paper has indicated that Scottish citizenship would be extended to them.
Miller also posited that Scotland could join the Schengen zone, entailing ‘a hard national border with the full apparatus of controls’. Scott Blinder believes that this is a highly unlikely prospect. He notes that the Scottish government in its White Paper aspires to join the Common Travel Area that currently exists between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which necessarily implies a rejection of membership in the Schengen zone.
Emblematic of Miller’s question about what British identity looks like without Scotland, a key symbol of the union, the Union Jack, faces an uncertain future. Noah Carl offers a vexillological analysis of the implications of separation. Carl begins from the premise that the Union Jack is ‘the best national flag in the world’. In addition to its visual appeal, Carl praises the flag for its positive symbolic associations and its resonance around the world. In the comments to Carl’s article Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy rebuffs Carl’s description of the flag, contending that the ‘whole point of the Union jack is that it is NOT a national flag’. While Carl subsequently points to evidence which substantiates his original claim, Barnett raises a good point about the multi-national character of British identity, which would inevitably be diminished by Scottish separation.
Nikhil Venkatesh considers the fate of Scottish MPs after the next general election if Scotland votes for independence. He predicts that a Labour government dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority is ‘one of the most likely outcomes of the election’. He argues that on independence day, Scottish MPs could exit the UK Parliament, leading the Queen to invite a new prime minister to form a government or dissolve Parliament entirely, prompting a new general election. This prospect would give the Labour Prime Minister an incentive to draw out independence negotiations.
Venkatesh also raises the possibility that Scottish MPs could stay for the rest of the Parliament even after Scotland separates. ‘There is no rule that says they have to go’, Venkatesh writes. While MPs do not need to be British citizens or registered to vote in the UK in order to serve in Parliament, I challenge his contention on the grounds that they would lack parliamentary constituencies after Scottish separation. I would add that Venkatesh neglects to consider another important factor in the electoral calculus – the possibility that Alex Salmond might lose the 2016 Scottish parliament elections. We may very well see Labour leaders occupying both Downing Street and Bute House before the negotiations have been completed.
Despite an expected turnout of 80% or more, Marius Ostrowski is dissatisfied with the quality of the independence campaign. He argues that much has been ‘left off the table’ in the debate, such as options for selective pooling of sovereignty or maximum devolution. I am inclined to disagree. I argue that these options have been implicit in the campaign, with the unionist parties effectively offering something that increasingly resembles maximum devolution and the SNP’s monetary proposals effectively amount to pooled sovereignty.
More convincing is Ostrowski’s criticism of the distillation of the whole campaign to a personal contest between Alexander Salmond and Alistair Darling. This has excluded other shades of opinion such as republican visions of independence, the Lib Dems’ preference for UK federalism, or the Conservatives’ (lamentably unarticulated) historic support for unitary sovereigntism. I would add, more to the point, that given the caesarist character of the campaign, a backbench opposition MP is no match for the leader of the devolved Scottish government. I ask, where was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for most of the campaign? Putting aside the toxicity of the Conservative Party in Scotland, in my view, the campaign to save the United Kingdom from breaking apart ought to have been made by the leader of the United Kingdom.
The outcome remains yet unknown, but what is clear is that even after all of the votes have been counted the debate over Scotland’s future is far from over.