The Case Against Scottish Independence

Scottish Independence
By Roland Bensted

The political success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in recent years, driven by the charisma of its leader, Alex Salmond, has brought into sharp focus the UK’s still nascent devolved authorities, in existence only since 1998. Furthermore, in the Scottish case, repeated public statements by Salmond about possible independence, with a putative referendum on the issue to follow in the next few years, have brought into question whether Scotland, after more than 300 years, will withdraw from the UK.

In reality, although Salmond has strong popularity north of the border for his advocacy of Scottish issues, full independence is not in Scottish interests. An independent Scotland would not be financially viable, especially in the straitened times Europe is currently going through. Contrary to some of the claims of the SNP, an independent Scotland also would not be welcomed with open arms into the EU. Instead of true independence, any significant changes to the current powers of the devolved Holyrood administration in Edinburgh are likely to involve greater autonomy rather than a full split from the Union. Hence Salmond has made clear that he would support a "maximum devolution" (or devo max) option in any referendum.

Devolution of power from Westminster to authorities in Scotland, Wales and, in fits and starts, to Northern Ireland, has undoubtedly proved a success in many ways. Whereas the English-dominated Parliament in Westminster previously may have overlooked Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish issues, regarding them as relatively peripheral, devolution has brought government closer to the governed. In a much repeated quote, George Robertson, former Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and later Secretary-General of NATO, said in 1995 that devolution should “kill nationalism stone dead”.

Yet nationalism appears to be far from stone dead in Scotland, where the SNP has won majorities following elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and 2011. The SNP has championed Scottish issues. It has legislated on important policy areas such as abolishing the Graduate Endowment and NHS prescription charges.

The party has benefited from the charisma and political nous of Alex Salmond, a leader far more effective than his counterparts in the Scottish Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties, who are often viewed by Scots as stooges of their parties’ Westminster hierarchies. In a January 2012 IpsosMori poll, 58 per cent of Scottish people said they were satisfied with Salmond’s performance; a similar poll one month earlier had put his approval rating at 62 per cent.

Yet, many of the same Scottish voters who like Salmond personally do not favour independence for Scotland. On a financial level, a fully independent Scotland would not be viable. Even if Scotland did get a favourable settlement with Westminster over North Sea oil, which is far from guaranteed, supplies peaked in 1999 and are unlikely to last more than a few decades. Questions over defence policy, NATO membership, a diplomatic corps, and many other issues further test the credibility of the case for independence.

Politically, it would be extremely difficult for a newly independent Scotland to walk straight into the EU. Spain, which has for years faced secessionist drives from regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country, would not be enamoured by an independent Scotland joining the EU. Nor would Belgium, which has encountered frequent deadlocks from pro-independence campaigns in Flanders. A breakaway Scotland would not be welcomed in. However frustrating the negotiations over fiscal compacts and the European Stability Mechanism may be, they show that Europe’s desired method to try to resolve its present challenges is for countries to work together more closely. A small country of just over 5,2 million pulling away from a sovereign state does not fit with this strategy. 

Beyond the economic and political arguments, perhaps the most compelling reason for Scotland to continue in the UK is that, culturally and socially, it is not as distinct from the other constituent parts of the UK as SNP leadership claim. Emphasising separateness, and holding a referendum on independence, could do considerable damage. Michael  Ignatieff, former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, in a January 2012 Financial Times article urged Scotland to learn from Canada’s experience over Quebec and eschew a referendum. They key issue for Ignatieff is that, as with the Canada/Quebec scenario, “Most people do not want to choose between different parts of their identity”. In short, the fortunes of Scotland, and the lives of the Scottish people, are intimately tied in with those of England, and of course Wales and Northern Ireland.

Alex Salmond is a highly skilled and intelligent politician. His true goals may be to secure both continued SNP majorities in the Scottish Parliament, and greater autonomy for the Holyrood administration in policy making. It is highly unlikely that he would ever back a straight Yes/No vote on full Scottish independence because he knows that this would be unlikely to succeed, and that Scotland would not benefit from the split. If there were a referendum, Salmond would ensure there was a "devo max" option on the ballot paper.  

The key question, if Scotland does indeed claim greater autonomy, is therefore about which extra areas of domestic policy the Holyrood administration should assume from Westminster. This would continue the process of bringing government closer to the governed while preserving the UK. Such an outcome would likely be the better for both England and Scotland than independence. Although Salmond may not like to say it publicly, Scotland is far better off as part of the UK.


12 February 2012