Monday, 21 October 2013

United Kingdom: The question of Scottish independence

Since winning assembly elections in 2011, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond pledged the promise of a Scottish referendum
Photo: Alamy 

It is unlikely that full independence will be achieved but political history and recent trends gravitate toward a Union based on autonomy away from Westminster.


Given Europe's economic obstacles that it is has been confronted with since the 2008 global financial crisis, independence movements are in many ways an inevitable knee-jerk reaction to external forces that encroach people's prosperity. As confidence dwindles in the face of the establishment, Europe sees two secessionist movements take place, in Spain and the United Kingdom. Independence has always been a factor in these nation's politics and while they will not go away, they flux in the environment presented to them.

England and Scotland relations have traditionally been complex for seven centuries. The two countries have fought wars on numerous occasions against each other until they were unified in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became the monarch of the British Isles. During the 17th century, numerous rebellions occurred dubbed the "Wars of the Three Kingdoms". However, unification was sown in 1707 where Scotland entered political union with England, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Ever since, there have been numerous attempts on the power from London ranging from great autonomy to independence. In 1999, Scottish Parliament was reestablished under "Devolution" with significant policymaking and legal powers.

During the weekend of Oct. 17-20, the Scottish National Party (SNP) hosted its party conference in Perth, Scotland. This gave an opportunity for First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, to rally support for an independent Scotland. The highlights of the conference were largely reactionary policies, for example, the scrapping of the Coalition constructed "bedroom tax" and the re-nationalization of "Royal Mail", also made by the Coalition government. These highlights suggest more or less an alternative for Scots against mainstream political parties. Anti-establishment politics are a byproduct of economic uncertainty. It also important to recognize the political history of Scotland where the Conservative party have traditionally been weak in.

Balancing the divisions

There are, however, other long-standing grievances the SNP has seeked to address. One of which is that the SNP believe that the Scotland is not getting a fair share of tax revenue from London. The answer to this is through the full control of its taxes, facilitated by the North Sea energy revenue that will enable a strong welfare state while also participating in close political cooperation with London. This model is akin to the Norwegian model. The population of Scotland, by the 2011 consensus, is 5.295 million. Norway's is 5.019 million. Population is an important component on the longevity of generous welfare programs as smaller populations typically mean less demand to not encroach the supply.

These are going by Scottish projections and rationale, which are optimistic. The assumption is that the Scottish government, after the division of British territorial waters, will get about 90% of North Sea oil and natural gas reserves. However, this will be a key disagreement between Edinburgh and London should Scotland become independent.

So too, is the share of the United Kingdom's sovereign debt which stands at 1.2 trillion pounds, approximately 73.5% of Britain's GDP. The military question also stands. Currently, under the protection of the British military, Scotland will need to ensure its own defense and intelligence services should it become independent. Division of infrastructure sure as air bases and submarine bases (which currently host the vanguard-class nuclear submarines and trident nuclear delivery) will also be in contention.

Independence will also mean exclusion from the European Union, the importance of which would grant Scotland major export destinations. Even more so would be a free-trade agreement with the United Kingdom.

The British government's promise of a referendum is part of a plan to make it more unlikely for the Scots to vote for independence. There is an underlying fear of the unknown given the United Kingdom has been united for three centuries. While the opinion polls vary, most anticipate the Scots will remain part of the United Kingdom despite the desire for greater autonomy.

The consolidation of Scottish nationalism in British politics is because it is the United Kingdom's imperative to dominate the seas surrounding the United Kingdom. London has an interest in keeping Wales and Scotland politically and economically linked to it. However, the secession movements across the Continent will watch and wait, particularly in Catalonia, where similar geopolitical imperatives are at stake in the wake of these developments.

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