Scotland: A question of independence

The Scots voted against independence in a referendum in 2014. The issue was revived when Scotland voted to remain in the European Union in 2016, but as part of the United Kingdom it followed the country out of the EU. As the next general election nears, a crisis is clearly brewing

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 2 Dec 2022, 11:15 PM

‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ This is not a casual question. It was on the ballot paper during the unique referendum in 2014, when voters were asked to tick Yes or No. The result: 55 per cent voted against independence and 45 per cent ticked Yes. It was the first referendum on the issue, and I remember many visitors in London at the time were bewildered, particularly those from countries where the very idea of secession raises hackles, leads to violence by state and non-state actors, and more.

How could a country allow such a referendum, and all sides go through it in such a calm manner, they would ask. The visitors came from democratic countries but could not make sense of the democratic ways in which the referendum was held, with all sides accepting the result, with not a streak of violence before or after. Their bewilderment reflected the many varieties of democratic cultures across the globe.

Cut to 2022 and the sensitive issue has acquired a new momentum. It had not really gone away after the 2014 result, since the main force seeking independence, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has been in power in Scotland since 2007, often harps on independence at various levels, including in the House of Commons, where it emerged as the third largest party after Conservative and Labour in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections.

The SNP-led Scottish government has been keen to hold another referendum in October 2023. It asked the UK Supreme Court to rule on its plan, but last week the court ruled that it cannot be held without the consent of the federal government based in London, moving the debate to a new level. The 2014 referendum was agreed by the then David Cameron government, which called it a once-in-a-generation exercise, but successive governments in London have since refused to allow another referendum. The next general election is due by January 2025 and the SNP now wants it to be the next referendum, a ‘de facto referendum’, as the party calls it.

The impulse to move away from the ‘United Kingdom’ has long existed to various degrees in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland; the demand is based on interpretations of history, how they came to be part of the UK. Scotland was an independent kingdom through the Middle Ages and fought wars to maintain its independence from England, but the two were joined in a union of sorts when the Scottish King James VI became James I of England in 1603. The two kingdoms later joined in a political union through the Union with England Act of 1707. Over the centuries, the union has been understood as a ‘voluntary partnership’ of nations, a formulation the SNP highlights to justify its demand to secede, to claim that when one partner is keen to move away from the voluntary union, there should be a clear path forward.

Besides laws and conventions rooted in history, a recent law is of more relevance: the Scotland Act of 1998, by which a Scottish Parliament and government were established, with devolved local powers that include economy, education, health, justice, rural affairs, housing, environment, equal opportunities, consumer advocacy and advice, transport and taxation. UK-wide issues such as immigration, foreign affairs, energy and constitution are considered ‘reserved’, within the domain of the federal government in London. Faced with a dwindling and aging population, the Scottish government is keen on greater immigration to boost the economy, but the subject is in the domain of the government in London, where the focus is to cut immigration — this gives the pro-independence forces another ground to seek its own path in international affairs.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government’s plan to hold a referendum in October 2023 relates to a ‘reserved’ matter, and as such it does not have the power to hold it, unless agreed again by the government in London. Since Scotland is not a colony and not comparable to a foreign power occupying territory, the court also dismissed the SNP’s claim that holding the referendum would comply with the right to self-determination in international law.

Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish government as its First Minister, was quick to highlight implications of the ruling: “Until now, it has been understood and accepted — by opponents of independence as well as by its supporters — that the UK is a voluntary partnership of nations…What (the) ruling tells us, however, is that the Scotland Act does not in fact uphold that long held understanding of the basis of the relationships that constitute the UK — on the contrary, it shatters that understanding completely. Let’s be blunt: a so-called partnership in which one partner is denied the right to choose a different future — or even to ask itself the question —cannot be described in any way as voluntary or even a partnership at all. So, this ruling confirms that the notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership of nations is no longer, if it ever was a reality”.

Sturgeon plans to announce details of the ‘de facto referendum’ in a special party conference in early 2023, but eight years since the 2014 referendum, it is still not clear whether there is a majority in Scotland for independence. A ‘de facto referendum’ has no basis in law, but if the SNP polls more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in the next election, it will add further grist to the independence mill and add new pressure on London to agree to another referendum. But when asked in a press conference after the court ruling, Sturgeon agreed that “if we can’t win 50 per cent of the Scottish population’s support for independence, we can’t be independent, if we can’t win, we don’t deserve to be independent”.

The SNP will use the court ruling to reiterate its claim that democracy and the will of the Scottish people is being denied by the powers in Westminster. Taking the case before Supreme Court was clearly part of the campaign to return the independence issue on top of the agenda, to divert attention from a close scrutiny of the SNP government’s performance that is facing some level of anti-incumbency from long years in office. There are also supporters of independence who believe now is not the time to highlight the cause when the country is facing a serious cost of living, energy and other crises.

Experts question Sturgeon’s claim that the next general election would be a ‘de facto referendum’, since election and referendum are two different things; for example, people vote in the first on a range of issues, while the question is focused in a referendum, as it was during the 2014 Scotland independence and 2016 EU referendum. The court’s ruling helped clarify issues of law, but ultimately Scotland’s future will be decided at the political level, with both the pro and anti-independence forces needing to evolve better arguments as the next election draws near.

Scotland and 'comparator countries

The Scottish government has produced a series of documents with economic and other data to justify its claim for a better future as a separate country. It says Scotland’s economy is one of the best performing in the UK, but “independent European countries comparable to Scotland are wealthier, in some cases much wealthier, than the UK. And they are fairer, with significantly lower income inequality and lower rates of poverty than the UK”.

The government identifies 10 ‘comparable countries’ of Scotland’s size that it says consistently out-perform the UK across a range of economic and social indicators. They are: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Scotland, the government says, possesses similar — or greater — natural resource endowments and intrinsic advantages to the ‘comparator nations’, and adds that Scotland has a range of assets, specialisms and capabilities that stand it in good stead to maximise the opportunities of independence quickly.

In addition to vast natural and renewable energy resources, the advantages include:

  • “A strong and globally recognised track record of invention, innovation and learning, stretching from the Enlightenment to the present day, and our universities’ place at the global frontier of research in areas such as life sciences and data analytics.
  • Strong business sectors — through longstanding comparative advantages in food and drink, financial services, energy and advanced engineering to emerging competitive edges in low carbon, sensors, advanced therapies, sub-sea technologies and data analytics.
  • Our natural heritage and capital — providing exceptional opportunities for tourism and underpinning a unique and recognised brand.
  • World class universities — in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022, Scotland has three universities in the top 200 (the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen). Scotland has more universities per million people in the top 200 when compared to the rest of the UK.
  • An outward looking culture which resonates around the world through a huge, enthusiastic and influential diaspora.
  • A welcoming business environment including a highly skilled workforce, an asset routinely identified by inward investors as a key attraction. Scotland continues to perform well in attracting foreign direct investment.
  • A strong commitment to building a wellbeing economy and a world-leading approach to Net Zero — no longer seen as barriers to sustainable economic growth, these are increasingly regarded as markers of any nation serious about long-term economic development.
  • A global outlook, pro-EU and supportive of international institutions.
  • A reputation for quality — provenance continues to be a key selling point for many of our goods, particularly in food and drink.”

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