Surging Scottish support for independence threatens UK union

Surging Scottish support for independence threatens UK union

Surging Scottish support for independence threatens UK union
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While the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and Brexit are top of mind for UK policymakers, another interrelated political and economic earthquake may be on the horizon. Support for Scottish independence is surging and the UK is facing into perhaps the biggest ever threat to its long-standing territorial integrity.

Polls show that about 55 percent of the Scottish populace now favors independence from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And the nation’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out plans last week for a draft bill for a new Scottish independence referendum, after the first one failed in 2014.

Announcing her program for government in the Scottish Parliament, she said the bill will set out the proposed question people will be asked in a new poll that, in constitutional terms at least, requires the assent of the UK government before it moves ahead. So, while London can technically block it, it may become politically indefensible for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to stop the plebiscite if Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party wins big in next year’s national elections. She has said she will use that chance to “make the case for Scotland to become an independent country, and seek a clear endorsement of Scotland’s right to choose our own future.”

Sturgeon also said that tackling the pandemic remains her “most immediate priority — and it will remain so for some time.” However, she and her allies believe the COVID-19 crisis could become an accelerant, rather than a blocker, of a second plebiscite.

Aside from the pandemic, which many Scottish voters perceive Sturgeon has handled much more effectively than Johnson, Brexit is a key driver of the surge in support for Scottish independence. She last week highlighted what she called the “self-sabotage” of Brexit, saying that it “strengthens the case for Scotland (which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU) becoming an independent country.”

Yet, despite the understandable disappointment of Scottish voters at the 2016 Brexit vote and their opposition to Johnson’s cavalier approach to Brexit and indeed many other key issues, Sturgeon risks leading Scotland and the wider UK down a political black hole that could weaken all parties, given that their future is better together.

While debate continues within Scotland on the merits of independence, what is more widely accepted is that the UK would be damaged by that outcome, undermining its influence in multiple ways. For instance, there could be further budgetary cuts to the armed forces, while the UK’s large overseas aid budget and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions will also be impacted. 

Despite her understandable disappointment at the Brexit vote, Sturgeon’s desire for independence risks leading Scotland and the wider UK down a political black hole that could weaken all parties.

Andrew Hammond

Scottish independence would also erode the UK’s post-Brexit voice in international forums, including the UN, G7, G20 and NATO. Perhaps most prominently, it could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and/or other UN members to catalyze a review of the UK’s membership of the UNSC. To be sure, reform of the UNSC is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided in less favorable terms for the UK than may otherwise be the case. 

There is also a significant prospect that Scottish independence could weaken the bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales, especially post-Brexit. It is perhaps Northern Ireland that poses the greatest challenge here, given its significant opposition to Brexit and strong remain vote in 2016.

Moreover, Sturgeon is charting her path toward a second referendum despite the lack of guarantees that Scotland itself would benefit significantly from independence. This is not least given the significant public spending that has long been enjoyed by the country, despite not having the national tax base to cover this, which it can better stomach as part of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The EU has also confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to rejoin the bloc. So such an accession may, in fact, require potentially complex, protracted negotiations, including over Scotland’s budget deficit. Plus, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favorable than those that the UK enjoyed. For instance, Brussels would probably insist on Scotland joining the troubled euro zone and adopting the single currency, regardless of much of the country’s attachment to the pound.

Further, 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 the country would likely be required to embrace European-style freedom of movement and thus have a different immigration policy to the rest of the post-Brexit UK.

Despite Sturgeon’s understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote result, and concern about the competence of Johnson’s government, all of this underlines why the futures of Scotland and the UK are better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the UK of diminished international influence, plus the fraying of the remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales, are clear. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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