The victory of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in May, 2021 for the fourth consecutive term has reignited the call for independence in Scotland. Scotland and England became a single state – The United Kingdom of Great Britain – in 1707 when The Acts of Union were passed in the parliaments of both during the reign of Queen Anne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Since then, the union has always been based on consent and not compulsion.
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The issue of Independence of Scotland started gaining ground in the 1970s and 1980s, in part because of the rise of SNP, and in part due to various unpopular policies of Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of the UK. The surfacing demand for greater autonomy led to two referendums being held on devolution of powers from Westminster to Edinbrugh. The first Scottish Referendum on devolution was held on 1st March, 1979, wherein the scots voted in favour of the devolution by 52% to 48% – however, only 32.8 percent of the electorate had joined the majority, which fell short of the 40 per cent threshold set by many backbench Labour MPs. The second and successful Referendum on Devolution was held on 11th September, 1997, which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The devolved Parliament had powers in the Agricultural, Education, and Health Care sectors, while Westminster managed Immigration, Foreign Policy, and Defence.
The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) gained electoral victory in 2007 and secured an absolute majority in the subsequent Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 and promised to call a referendum on Scottish independence. With the consent of David Cameron, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Referendum was ultimately conducted in 2014. Scots rejected the referendum by 55% to 45% and the very next morning PM Cameron declared the issue settled for generations. The issue of Independence would have been settled for generations had it not been for Brexit. One of the major reasons Scots voted against the 2014 referendum was the UK's longstanding membership in the EU. However, the 2016 vote on Brexit changed the calculus as 62% of Scots voted against it.
Scotland and Brexit
In 2016, the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on its membership in the European Union (EU), with 52% of Britons voting to leave and 48% voting to stay. However, the scenario in Scotland was considerably different, with 62% of Scots voting to stay in the EU, but they were outvoted because they only account for 8% of the UK's population. As a result, Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, claimed that the country was being dragged out of the EU against its will, claiming that this was a "substantial and material alteration of the conditions in which Scotland voted against independence in 2014." So, Brexit has reinvigorated the desire for independence in Scots.
Boris Jhonson chose a hard Brexit, which had devastating effects on Scotland’s economy. Scotland is being kicked out of a single market worth €16 billion in exports to Scottish enterprises, all against its will. Scottish Government modelling estimates that Brexit could cut Scotland’s GDP by around 6.1% by 2030 compared to EU membership. Because of new tariffs and border procedures, all good sectors will now face higher expenses of trading with the EU. As a result, some industries, such as food, manufacturing, agriculture, and forestry, may be more vulnerable. Boris Jhonson also spurned the membership of Erasmus, an exchange programme for the Scottish students, as a result of hard Brexit. In the midst of Pandemic and economic recession, a hard Brexit left Scotland's economy in shatters.
For Scots independence now has become an escape route from Brexit. A breakaway from the United Kingdom would lead to Scotland facing similar challenges Britain faced after Brexit. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said that they can avoid such challenges and learn from Britain’s errors. However, because the union has existed since 1707, Scotland is significantly more entwined with Britain than Britain has ever been in the EU. Tax collection, immigration, electricity distribution, and other aspects of daily life must be untangled. It would have to open negotiations on the fate of Nuclear weapons, oil and gas reserves, sovereign debts, etc. Scotland would also have to follow a legal path to independence in order for other countries to recognise it. The first step would be to call an independence referendum with the approval of the UK Prime Minister.
Is a 2nd Independence Referendum Possible?
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If Scotland were to gain independence, it would need to follow a legal process to guarantee that the rest of the world recognises its independence. Following Brexit, Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, began campaigning for a second independence vote. It is usually referred to as indyref2. The Scottish govt has also published a draft legislation for a possible second Referendum. But can the Scottish Parliament hold an independence referendum on its own? The answer is No, it can’t. According to The 1998 Scotland Act (which created the Scottish parliament), matters relating to the ‘Union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England’ are reserved for the UK Parliament. Thus, the Scottish Govt would have to seek the assent of the UK's PM to hold another referendum.
Boris Jhonson, in January 2020, refused to grant Nicola Sturgeon permission to hold such a referendum, claiming that the 2014 referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ event. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and other nationalists say that Boris Jhonson has no moral or democratic reason to refuse another referendum.
SNP, which is in power in the Holyrood Parliament, says that if Boris Jhonson continues to deny the permission, they would push ahead with passing the referendum bill in the Edinburgh Parliament and the Jhonson would have to go to court if he decides to challenge it and if not then it would be a legal vote. Some even argue that the referendum bill would be within devolved competence of Holyrood.
Sturgeon has stated that she wants to take the legal route to independence and that she does not want to conduct an illegal vote, citing the example of Catalonia which unsuccessfully declared independence from Spain in 2014 after the referendum was ruled illegal by the Judges.
Challenges on the Road to Brussels
Scotland, as a constituent of the United Kingdom, has been a part of the European Union (EU) for over a half century. However, joining the bloc as an independent state would bring its own challenges. For Scotland to even have a chance on EU’s membership, it would have to ensure that it gets its independence through constitutional and legal means. But before plying on the road to Brussels, Scotland would have many challenges at home. It would have to set up new institutions, regulatory bodies, and laws to set up things which were earlier done from London or at the UK level. It would have to set up the foreign ministry, a central bank, etc and would have to ensure that they meet EU’s standards and are robust and resilient.
Another major problem Scotland can face on the road to Brussels is Public Finances. According to a recent study conducted by the UK based Institute for Government think tank, an independent Scotland could have a much higher deficit than EU rules normally allow. The EU would also make sure that Scotland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget rather than a fiscal or economic burden. Choosing a Currency for Scotalnd would also bring in a lot of challenges. The SNP has suggested that they would continue with the British Pound even after Independence. This can prove challenging for Scotland as the EU would expect Scotland to use - Euro and would not be happier with a member state using the currency of a non-member state.
The continued wrangling over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also raises issues on the border between an independent Scotland (within EU) and the rest of the UK (outside of EU).
Scotland would also have to find a way to bridge a gap between leaving the UK, thereby also leaving the UK-EU deal, and joining the single market of EU as an independent country. It would have to come up with some solution to maintain trade between both the EU and the rest of the UK.
Impact on the Secessionist Movements across Europe
Scotland's independence would have ramifications not only for the UK, but also for the rest of Europe. If Scotland gets its independence, a light at the end of the tunnel will shine on various secessionist movements across Europe, such as Catalans and Basques in Spain, Flemish in Belgium and Northern League in Italy. These movements will be bolstered by Scottish independence.
Scottish Independence may also strengthen those who oppose the constitutional stipulation that France, Italy and Spain are indivisible. It may also trigger the ‘demonstration effect’, even if many pro-independence movements lack the political momentum or popular legitimacy to accomplish their goals in the near future.
Scottish independence will have an impact on separatist movements across the United Kingdom. It is anticipated to rekindle the fight for independence in Wales, while Northern Ireland has already been trying to secede from the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland. Scottish Independence will be the final nail in the coffin for the UK’s demise.
The prospect of Scotland’s independence appears to be closer to reality than at any other point of time in history. It is no longer an issue on the periphery of UK politics, but rather at its core. Scottish Independence has, undoubtedly, become an escape route from Brexit. Scotland, being more Europhile than the rest of the UK, has made every effort to remain close to the EU, as seen by the introduction of the 'EU Continuity Bill' by Holyrood.
For Scotland, the road to independence will undoubtedly be arduous. But it appears that Scots are prepared to go down this route. Whether Scotland comes out of the independence as a prosperous and thriving state or not remains to be seen.
By Aftar Ahmed
Aftar is an undergraduate student, majoring in Political Science from Hindu College. He loves engaging in rational discourses around social, and geopolitical issues.