Why Scots nationalists should be careful what they wish for
UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan was described as dead on arrival last week by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. While departure from the EU was the backdrop to the Edinburgh meeting, Sturgeon’s mind is at least as much focused on the political positioning that will best enable a second Scottish independence referendum in the early 2020s, which could break up one of the world’s longest and most successful political unions.
Sturgeon, who urged May to develop a Brexit “plan B,” and also deliver a fair agreement with Scotland over devolved powers to Edinburgh under such an agreement, is rightly concerned about the prospect of the United Kingdom leaving the EU with no deal. Yet despite her understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote, and opposition to May’s exit stance, she is leading Scotland and the wider UK down a potential political black hole that will probably weaken all parties given that their future is better together.
While fierce debate rages within Scotland on the merits of independence, what is more widely accepted is that the UK would be damaged by this outcome, undermining its influence in many ways. For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee warned in 2014 that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.
Moreover, the UK’s large overseas aid budget and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions would also be affected. Together with military cutbacks, this would undermine both hard and soft power that has enabled the nation to punch above its weight for so long.
Scottish independence would also erode the UK’s post-Brexit voice in international forums such as the UN, G7, G8, G20 and NATO.
Scottish independence would also erode the UK’s post-Brexit voice in international forums such as the UN, G7, G8, G20 and NATO. Perhaps most prominently, it could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and other UN members to catalyze review of UK membership of the council. To be sure, reform is overdue, but Scottish independence could mean this issue being decided on less favorable terms for the UK.
All this underscores that Scottish independence, combined with Brexit, would undercut the domestic underpinnings of the UK’s international influence. They threaten a double whammy undermining the sizeable political, military and economic force that the UK has preserved on the world stage in the post-war period, bolstering international security and prosperity to boot.
Moreover, Sturgeon is charting her path toward a second referendum despite uncertainty that the country itself would benefit significantly from independence. This is not least given the different between tax revenues and public spending in the country which rose to a deficit of around 9.5 percent of GDP in 2015-16 — which it can better stomach as part of the union. As May also said on Wednesday, “from Scotland’s point of view, their trade within the UK’s internal market is worth four times their trade with the EU.”
Moreover, the EU has confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to join. Accession may, in fact, require potentially complex, protracted negotiation, not least given that membership technically requires countries to run a deficit below 3 percent of GDP.
Moreover, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favorable than those that the UK negotiated. For instance, it is unclear whether the EU would insist on Scotland joining the troubled Eurozone and adopting the single currency — regardless of much of the country’s attachment to the pound — as all recent accession states have been required to do.
There is also a significant possibility of a harder border between England and Scotland if the latter joined the EU post-independence. This is because it would be required to embrace European-style freedom of movement and thus a different immigration policy to the rest of the post-Brexit UK.
Despite Sturgeon’s understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote, and opposition to May’s exit stance, all of this underlines why the future of Scotland and the UK is better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the UK are clear of diminished international influence, plus potential fraying of remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.