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Jan 11, 2012

Scots contemplate an independent future

Alex Salmond wants to be remembered as the founder of a new nation, but if he lets Cameron outmanoeuvre him on a referendum, then it could be a long time before Scotland gets another chance.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Despite the commitment in the United Nations charter to “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”, independence for new nations rarely comes easily. This week marks the first anniversary of the referendum that led to the creation of South Sudan, the UN’s newest member, but that came only after a civil war that lasted decades and killed maybe million people.

In the developed world it’s usually not quite so difficult — as with this week’s headline case of Scotland, where the regional government is haggling with Westminster over the timing of a referendum on independence. It’s not seriously disputed that if the Scots unambiguously vote to leave the United Kingdom, they’ll be allowed to go.

For now, that seems unlikely — polls consistently show only a minority in Scotland supporting independence. But last year the Scottish Nationalists won an absolute majority in the local parliament, so first minister Alex Salmond has a clear mandate to hold a referendum on the issue. But he wants to do it on his own terms, to maximise the chance of a “yes” vote either then or in the future.

This is where it gets complicated, since opinion within the government in London is divided. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (and Labour as well) are opposed to Scottish independence, but while the Conservatives never liked devolution in the first place and oppose the Scots getting any more powers, the Lib Dems have supported more comprehensive “home rule” under which Scotland would essentially control its own internal affairs, including taxation, and be subject to Westminster only for such things as foreign affairs and defence.

Salmond’s plan is to take advantage of that by offering home rule as an option in any referendum if he figures that full independence won’t win a majority. That would split the anti-independence forces, and a big vote for home rule might make independence an easier step in the future.

There’s an echo here of the issue that so bitterly divided Conservatives and Liberals a century ago, home rule for Ireland. The difference is that Ireland was always a conquered territory; union with Britain was never popular, and there’s no doubt that a referendum at any time in the nineteenth century would have voted for independence. With Scotland, however, it’s plausible that home rule without full independence would satisfy the majority of the population.

But another thing to have changed in the past 100 years is the development of the EU. Independence is now a less absolute and therefore a less scary prospect; an independent Scotland would remain in the EU and use either the British pound or the euro as its currency, so the differences between that and home rule would be largely symbolic. It would also keep the same monarch as England, just as it had for a century before the Act of Union of 1707.

Apart from the symbolism, the big difference with independence would be the disappearance of Scottish MPs from Westminster. Here the parties have a political interest that conflicts with their policy position: the Tories are most opposed to independence but have most to gain from it, since they rarely win seats there (currently they hold only one of Scotland’s 59 seats), while Labour and the Lib Dems would lose out.

There is also an issue about timing. David Cameron is keen for a referendum to be held as soon as possible, since he seems to have public opinion currently on his side. Salmond, however, insists on leaving it until 2014, to give him more time to make his case and also to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland’s Robert Bruce won the biggest victory in the Scottish war of independence.

Certainly timing matters. Although peaceful secession almost always seems to be later seen as a success (think Norway, Slovakia, Montenegro), some secession movements miss their chance. West Australians actually voted 66% for secession in a 1933 referendum, but at the same time they elected an anti-secessionist Labor government; the issue was allowed to die and, despite occasional revivals, it never really looks like happening. Quebec may have missed its opportunity as well, with a narrow vote against independence in 1995 having led to a sharp decline in the independence movement.

Alex Salmond wants to be remembered as the founder of a new nation, but if he lets Cameron outmanoeuvre him on a referendum, then it could be a long time before Scotland gets another chance.

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7 thoughts on “Scots contemplate an independent future

  1. Paul

    I’d always assumed that an independent Scotland would become a republic…

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I still don’t understand how Scotland would be able to maintain its living standard without the subsidy of south English taxpayers, even with a partial subsidy of German and other EU taxpayers.

  3. johnb78

    Paul: the SNP are explicitly pro-monarchy. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that the current royal line was Scottish to start with, with James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England.

    Gavin: in the short term, from oil revenues that are currently treated as part of Westminster’s budget. Last time I did the sums, a few years ago, the Scottish share of North Sea oil and gas income (about 90% of fields are closer to Scotland than to England) more than offset the extra net government spending in Scotland, and it’s hard to imagine an independence settlement which didn’t allocate the majority to Scotland. Obviously in the longer term, Scotland would need to find alternative income sources to maintain its living standards, like all oil producing countries.

    (I’m a mildly pro-unionist English-born Australian resident, in case you were wondering)

  4. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx johnb78

    I’m happy to accept that Scotland’s North Sea oil has been subsidising England for the last 50 years and that it would maintain the Scots’ level of income for the next 20, but after that I’d worry that Scotland would return to the desperate poverty it suffered for most of its history. Scotland has been investing heavily in education for a long time and has a comparatively well educated population, but this doesn’t seem to have given it an advantage in innovation or productivity.

    One the other hand, global warming may make Scotland warmer, increase its agricultural productivity and make it a much more attractive place to live. So maybe it does have a long term future.

  5. CL

    It all looks likely to be yet another referendum with the answer being determined by the form of the question, a bit like we saw here in the Australian republic referendum.
    I wonder if this debate will also launch questions about the UK’s name? The country couldn’t remain the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” if Scotland obtained separateness, as Great Britain itself would be broken in two. It’s a fair question as to whether the name of the country now is really right, for the Kingdom of Ireland was dissolved in 1801 and it’s pretty hard to argue (despite the 1927 legislation) that there is anything like a Northern Irish kingdom with which the 1707 Kingdom of Great Britain is united. So maybe the 1953 Royal Style and Titles Act is at risk from the Scottish referendum.
    More to the point though is a perceptible interest in the English ridding theselves of Scottish MPs interesting themselves in English life while Scotland has its own assembly determining local questions. Some people suggest there is a greater likelihood of an English devolution than Scottish independence. Interesting stuff.

  6. wbddrss

    UK has 40% of off shore european wind power. So I understand. Maybe green energy will save scotland. A wild hypothesis I know.


  7. Charles Richardson

    @John: yes, I think that’s right; many Scots still regard the monarchy as their own, so don’t see the need to get rid of it. Also the SNP probably wants to avoid alienating anyone unnecessarily.

    @Gavin: I can’t claim to be any sort of expert on North Sea oil. Certainly the Scots claim the English have been stealing “their” oil for decades, but I don’t know how reasonable the distribution of revenue is. There definitely seems to be a correlation between resource-rich regions and secession movements. As to global warming, one of the risks is that it could shut down the gulf stream, which would actually make most of Scotland even colder.

    @CL: yes, “United Kingdom” would definitely become a misnomer if the Scots leave – perhaps they could have a contest to find a new name. The problem of what to do with the Scottish MPs when it comes to English questions is a particularly intractable feature of home rule schemes, just as it was a century ago in relation to Ireland – various unsatisfactory solutions were proposed then, but they were overtaken by events.