The rise of Scottish independence

These are perilous times for national constitutions in the European Union. The present political order is slowly moving in a direction characterized by potent separatism that threatens to break up several states, some of them longstanding players on the international scene. If the devolved government of Scotland gets its way in a referendum planned for 2014, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will cease to exist as we know it. If the leaders of the Catalonia region of Spain succeed in winning the right to hold a referendum on independence, modern Spain may break up, with huge implications for separatist movements in other parts of Spain such as the Basque region. Today this column will focus primarily on the case of Scotland.

The drive for independence in Scotland has been a long one. Since the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) establishment in 1934, a sizeable percentage of the country-region’s population – usually estimated to range between 20% and 30% – has demanded the cessation of the 300-year-old political union between the previously separate Kingdoms of England and Scotland, believing that it is time for Scotland to enter the international community as a member in its own right and repatriate governmental powers that would be best exercised by the elected representatives of the Scottish people. (The historical reasons for the existence of this union are fascinating, and are discussed in detail in other places. Suffice it to say, the relationship between England and Scotland is not one between a colonizer and a colony; it is strictly a voluntary association.)

While Scotland’s constitutional relationship with the government of Westminster – the shorthand expression for the national parliament based in London, and to which Scotland has long sent proportionally allocated representatives – has evolved over the centuries, culminating most recently in the establishment of a devolved parliament based at Holyrood in Edinburgh in 1999, the governmental powers presently allotted to Scotland are limited, since the most important powers normally exercised by sovereign states continue to be reserved to the Westminster government (e.g. defense, foreign relations, taxes, and welfare, to name a few). The present administration of Scotland is now demanding the return of all powers to Edinburgh. The reasons put forth by that administration – led by First Minister Alex Salmond, who came to power in 2007 and whose SNP has enjoyed a majority in the devolved parliament since last year – are diverse, but are summed up in the idea that Scotland is fully capable of functioning as an independent state without the direction of a government based in London. Salmond and his allies claim that without the full powers of a sovereign state, the people of Scotland will be unable to take their country in the national direction they democratically desire.
It’s certainly impossible to belittle anyone’s nationalist aspirations. People have diverse reasons for loving the countries to which they feel strong a strong connection, and that nationalism is a strictly personal matter that can’t possibly be subject to scientific or political scrutiny. But what can be studied are questions regarding the political form nationalism takes and whether a potential separation of Scotland from England would yield the sorts of material benefits Scotland’s leadersclaim it would. Since the announcement earlier this year of plans to hold a referendum on the issue of independence in 2014, more evidence has emerged to suggest that the logistical realities of separation give Scottish people more reasons to preserve the union than to abolish it.
For instance, a newly independent Scotland would likely have to apply to join the European Union in lieu of merely inheriting it from the United Kingdom. This would in a real sense block Scottish people from Europe, since the UK – which is not party to the Schengen Zone – would likely have to establish a land border between England and an independent Scotland. Until such time that Scotland could negotiate entrance into the EU, it would lose access to the common European market and the many international arrangements to which it is now party as a part of the UK. A new Scotland in the EU would have to agree to adopt the Euro currency (an obligation only the UK has succeeded in avoiding as a condition for joining the original European community), a very unattractive proposition in light of the Eurozone’s considerable fiscal problems and upheavals. Aware of the unattractiveness and unpopularity of using the Euro, First Minister Salmond claims that Scotland would be able to continue using the British pound as its national currency, but by leaving their national currency in the hands of a foreign power, Scotland would abdicate all influence in very important national issues: fiscal policy, monetary policy, interest rate policy, the establishment of financial regulations, and so on. Furthermore, it’s likely that a number of key financial institutions presently based in Scotland but operative primarily in England would move south of the border so that they wouldn’t have to deal with two sets of national regulation on banking issues.
A newly independent Scotland would have to establish its military from scratch. This would be costly and would leave both Scotland and the “rump UK” exposed to foreign dangers and less able to respond to national security threats. A newly independent Scotland would not inherit the enormous network of international agreements and treaties enjoyed by the entire United Kingdom, threatening to leave many expatriate Scottish citizens without substantial consular protections and travel freedoms. A newly independent Scotland would not inherit the triple-A credit rating enjoyed by the entire kingdom since no new state can justify a perfect credit rating where its national authorities have no independent record of managing national finances. (A lower credit rating would translate into higher interest rates for both the government and for individual citizens who borrow money.) And finally, a newly independent Scotland would retain the British monarch as its head of state – much like Canada, Australia, and several other Commonwealth realms do – forcing observers to ask: what kind of independence does Scotland want, and why?
For anyone interested in national constitutions, and in particular the fascinating history and character of the one governing the United Kingdom, it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of the Scottish referendum for independence evolve. Both sides will make passionate arguments, and ultimately it will be up to the people of Scotland – and no one else, after an agreement last weekbetween the British prime minister David Cameron and First Minister Salmond to devolve the power to hold referendums from Westminster to Holyrood – to decide their future. Whether the United Kingdom continues to exist will have enormous implications for the future of the European Union, the relationship between the remaining members of the kingdom and the United States, and the world at large. There is nothing that people outside Scotland can do about this course of events, not even the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom. But it is worth considering in this era of global challenges that require creative solutions and solidarity, not division, between peoples: is it worth going alone when so much more can be achieved together? Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland built a great history together, and together are far more influential in the world than either could be alone. The ongoing reality of that influence is a testament to the success of political solidarity in the 21st century. It would be a shame if it was relegated to the pages of history.

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