Last month, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond announced plans to hold a referendum on independence some time in Autumn 2014. And not a moment too soon; the campaign for Scottish independence has been in existence since the 1700s when Scotland was unified with England. Even then it was all fiscal; England and Scotland saw this as a marriage of convenience as both countries were in desperate financial situations.

England was about to embark upon the War of Spanish Succession, and had neither the funds nor the manpower to fight wars while expanding their empire and continue manufacturing. Scottish political elites feared English invasion and were also bankrupt from a failed attempt to set up a colony in Panama. The Treaty of Union was signed in 1707, and despite attempts by the English to portray it as an act of altruism to rescue Scotland from economic ruin, the reality was the treaty was highly unpopular among the wider Scottish population. It was widely believed at the time that those who signed the treaty were bribed, and thus began the campaign for Scottish independence.

Nearly 300 years later in 1999, through devolution, Scotland was granted its own directly elected parliament. Westminster retained power over areas such as fiscal policy and foreign affairs but the Scots gained full legislative and administrative control over domestic policy areas such as health, education, criminal law and economic development. Scottish devolution also gave rise to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

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The SNP were established in 1934 from a merger between the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. Before devolution, the SNP was often written off as a single-issue, minor party. The SNP spent nearly 60 years in the political wilderness but the campaign for Scottish independence was reinvigorated when Salmond became leader in 1990 and was strengthened by the creation of the Scottish Parliament, as previously the SNP struggled to make its case at Westminster.

Salmond has received criticism from Scottish opposition parties who are less than impressed with his one-track mind during Britain’s current economic crisis. The reaction from Westminster has been somewhat predictable. British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of “dictating terms” of the referendum, with reports suggesting that the Coalition government would set an 18-month limit on holding the poll.

Salmond and Cameron must work together as the legality of the referendum lies with the British government. During the split of powers after Scottish devolution, Westminster retained its powers over constitutional issues so this means that for a legally binding referendum to take place, the British government must agree to transfer these powers to the Scottish government. While Cameron has remained somewhat mum on the issue, and has agreed to meet with Salmond, it is uncertain whether or not the Coalition’s desire for a referendum sooner rather than later could lead to disputes over the handing over of powers.

Opposition Leader Ed Miliband was far more vocal about the prospect of Scottish independence. Miliband accused Salmond of pursuing a single policy that would lead to increased economic and social divisions in Britain. Miliband attempted to shift the focus towards social justice; however, it is difficult not to take a cynical view of Labour’s motives behind supporting a unionist result in the referendum.

As argued by The Guardian, it appeared that Miliband was attempting to challenge Salmond’s attempts to position the SNP as a champion of progressive, socially aware politics in Britain. And with policies such as no tuition fees for universities (something New Labour introduced and the Tories increased) and free care for the elderly, it is easy to see why Miliband is nervous. There is also the very real possibility that Scotland breaking away would see a large proportion of Scottish New Labour MPs disappear. Already, Miliband’s attempts at a “we are all in this together”-type campaign against the referendum appear to be weak and somewhat unpersuasive. It is more than likely Cameron and Miliband will have to contemplate a joint, coherent campaign.

The two most important questions arising out of the possibility of a Scottish republic is; do the Scots actually want independence and is it financially viable for Scotland to leave the UK? A YouGov poll conducted in April 2011 placed support for independence is at about 28% while 57% opposed it. It is entirely possible that Salmond’s bravado may come from the SNP’s impressive performances at recent elections, however, as the BBC argued, support for the SNP does not necessarily translate into support for independence.

Scottish voters, fuelled by antipathy towards New Labour and the Liberal Democrats, began to see the SNP as a safer option since they know they have the ability to veto any move towards independence at a referendum.

With the referendum more than two years away, it is difficult to predict how the Scots will vote. Salmond’s hardest task may be to convince voters that separation is financially viable. Future Scottish governments would face tension between fiscal policies that promote low taxation and financing universal state provision. There are also questions about Scotland’s future trading relationships; namely, its relationship with the European Union (EU).

Scotland would enter the EU as an independent state but with little bargaining power. In terms of currency, an independent Scotland would face a conundrum; either remain with the sterling but be forced to allow the UK Treasury and Bank of England to set monetary policy or change over to the euro where fiscal policy would be set by the European Central Bank and Scotland as a smaller state would have little influence over monetary policy.

In a recent lecture, Salmond quoted Robert Burns, a predictable move that highlighted the romanticisms behind the idea of the Republic of Scotland. However, the reality is far from ideal.  Two years is a very long time in politics, and while Salmond may very well get his referendum, it is impossible to predict if the Scots have enough faith in Salmond’s vision for an independent Scotland.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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