By Viktor Sundman
They were dismissed as scaremongers, but now those who warned that Brexit could trigger renewed calls for Scottish independence have been proven right. On Tuesday the 28th of March, the Scottish Parliament voted to ask permission of the UK government to hold a new referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, and the request was formally handed in on the 1st of April.
In 2014, Scotland voted 55 % to 45 % to stay in the UK, in what was described as a once-in-a-generation event. That description was sign of an important insight: holding multiple referenda where the options are maintaining the status quo or upsetting it is highly problematic, as a vote for the status quo could easily be followed by a new vote on the same issue, while a vote for change would alter the conditions instigating the referendum in the first place, preventing future votes on the issue. Thus, those who want change may call for referendum after referendum, refusing to accept the status quo as a final decision, while the same option is not available for those who prefer things as they are.
Despite this issue it is difficult to argue that there is no basis for a new referendum. In June, 62 % of Scots voted to remain in the EU, but as a whole, the UK narrowly voted to leave, and as Brexit has now been formally initiated, the circumstances have certainly changed since 2014. What the Scottish people now have to decide – given that the UK government grants them permission to – is whether the circumstances have changed in such a way that independence has become the best option.
Ahead of the 2014 referendum, one argument for staying with the UK was that it secured Scotland’s place within the EU. As the UK is now leaving, membership has instead become an argument for independence. However, it is far from certain that an independent Scotland would be accepted as a member. Spain, which has to vote in favour of Scottish membership, are unlikely to look kindly upon Scottish independence, as it is likely to bolster the Catalan independence movement which Spain has been struggling to quell.
If Scotland would not become a member of the EU, they could at least strike a deal similar to that of Norway and Switzerland to ensure access to EU’s free market. This would perhaps be the most likely option, and would mean a Scotland significantly closer to the EU than it would be if it remains in the UK, which seems intent on a hard Brexit, which would mean leaving the single market. But a range of issues would remain. Currently, the most important trading partner of Scotland is England. If Scotland were to secede from the UK and re-join the single market, there would definitely be consequences for this trade, although the exact effects are difficult to determine in today’s uncertain situation. This should be cause for voters to stop and think before clamoring for independence.
Apart from the relation to the EU, the situation is roughly the same as it was in 2014. Then the main argument for independence was the political differences between Scotland and the rest of Britain. It was argued that an independent Scotland could establish a more extensive welfare state, modelled on the Scandinavian examples, that would be impossible under British rule.
But Scotland is not alone in the UK in wanting a more social democratic development. There are other Labour strongholds through the country, but these do not call for independence to establish their own welfare states. It would be quite unreasonable if this was the case, and if every area supporting the opposition would clamor for their own independent state: for one thing, it is impossible to create politically homogenous areas, especially if these areas are supposed to stay homogenous over time, and for another, it would be problematic from a democratic point of view, as democracy is built on political competition and disagreement.
Of course, the Scottish case for independence is not made solely on political differences, but is also underpinned by cultural differences and the existence of a distinct Scottish culture that sets it apart from England and the rest of Britain. But there are some issues with this justification as well. Scotland is not a culturally homogenous country: it contains several different cultures, minority groups, and identity formations. What is to say that today’s desire to take back power from London would not transform to a frustration with The Highlands being ruled by the elite in Edinburgh?
There is not much to suggest that Scotland would not be a viable state. The Scottish parliament is already given autonomy in certain policy areas, and it should be quite easy to expand its functions to cover those areas it does not include at the moment. As for the economy, it has been a point of contention between those supporting independence and those wanting to remain in the UK. Those in favour of independence argue that the North Sea oil and gas would provide a stable basis for the Scottish economy, while the sceptics point to the comparatively low price of oil, and emphasise the volatility that comes with basing an economy on natural resources. Another debate concerns whether Scotland receives more money from the UK treasury than it pays in, and what this would mean for the ability of an independent Scotland to expand the welfare state. A third question regards the effect of independence on trade with the EU and with the rest of UK, but it would be impossible to answer this question before it is clear what trade deals Brussels and London would be willing to make with Edinburgh. Despite these lingering issues, it is difficult to argue that independence would leave the Scottish economy in shatters. However, it is also difficult to argue for independence with no other argument that an independent state would be functioning.
It would be another thing if the Scottish people were in some way repressed by Britain, for example if they lacked political representation or were denied their cultural or civic rights.
But this is not the case.The Scottish people are not denied their cultural or civic right, their representation in the UK parliament is roughly equal to their share of the UK population, and their own Scottish parliament has plenty of influence in Scottish affairs. There is thus not really an argument of UK repression against Scotland to use an argument for independence.
Instead, the argument for Scottish independence comes back to its political difference to the UK at large, underpinned by the existence of a distinct Scottish people. These arguments do not really make a conclusive case for independence. But in practice, whether or not Scotland will become an independent country comes down to what the Scottish people want, and whether the UK government is willing to give them another shot at the urns. It is by no means certain that it will – UK Prime Minister Theresa May was quite clear in her message that a Scottish referendum should not be held until after the Brexit negotiations are concluded, lest the vote would be made without sufficient information (which, ironically, was exactly how the Brexit referendum was conducted).
Denying Scotland a new referendum would be a mistake; the circumstances have indeed changed since the last vote, and denying a new referendum would likely increase Scottish frustrations with London, and increase support for Scottish independence. If Theresa May wants to keep the Union together, she would be wise to allow the Scottish another round at the polls. It is difficult to say what the results of a new referendum would be, but as long as the status quo is being upset by Brexit, the Scottish people should be allowed their say in what the new status quo should be.
By Viktor Sundman