The not so United Kingdom

Is Britain heading for a « tartan divorce » ?

The UK Cabinet in Westminster has recently been discussing the possibilities of a divisive and controversial referendum which could fundamentally alter the UK, its relationship with Europe and its place on the world stage. The referendum being discussed does not concern the much debated question of Britain’s position in the European Union, but rather the future of another Union ; that of the United Kingdom itself. Following the impressive victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2011, which saw them win 69 of the 129 seats, the issue of Scottish independence from Westminster has transformed from a campaign slogan to a very real prospect.

Prime Minister David Cameron has attempted to pre-empt SNP momentum in the run up to 2014 by offering what he called a ‘binding referendum’, on a yes or no basis, for independence ‘once and for all’. Although this can be seen as something of a gamble by the Tory leader on the future of the UK, opponents in the SNP have claimed that the PM is attempting to dictate the terms of a referendum and interfere in Scottish matters. The offer of a ‘binding’ referendum, however, is largely illusionary, as constitutionally all referenda in the UK are only consultative due to the nature of the primacy of the parliament. But it would be very difficult for the UK government to ignore a strong ‘yes’ vote delivered by the Scottish people and would raise a whole host of other legal and constitutional questions, despite the prerogative of Westminster. Plus, Cameron’s impromptu offer of a binding referendum has lead to confusion and internal unrest in both the UK government coalition and the wider Unionist camp, and it risks provoking people towards a secession vote, through what many see as English Tory interference in Scottish affairs. After all, the Tories only have one Westminster seat out of 59 in Scotland and are already seen as unrepresentative of Scots.

While principled support for a referendum is high, support for independence itself remains varied, but currently stands at around 32% with a significant number of people remaining undecided. Thus the outcome of a referendum depends heavily on how it is framed, the timing and the possibility of a third option of ‘devolution max’, which would amount to full fiscal and political powers lying with the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, whilst defence and foreign policy would remain the remit of Westminster. The ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘what’ of the question is going to be the key battleground between Downing Street and Holyrood over the coming months. Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the SNP shall proceed with a referendum in 2014 as per the wishes of the Scottish electorate, demonstrating the Scottish government are pushing for a poll on their terms.

So what would happen if the Scots were to vote for full independence ? First off, as already discussed, the UK parliament would have to approve and legislate for independence, tearing up the original 1707 Acts of Union. Providing this would be possible, a consultative period of negotiations would have to take place between the two governments ; questions of access to North Sea oil and gas would play a prominent role, as would splitting the Scottish regiments of the armed forces from the UK, as well as the (Scottish-based) nuclear deterrent, which the SNP remains opposed to in principle, and other issues such as how to split the NHS and even non-state apparatus such as the BBC. While the Velvet divorce of the Czech and Slovak republics occurred with relative ease and peace, they were already constitutionally federal entities. Yet the Velvet divorce still required 30 bilateral treaties and a host of legal arrangements. Scotland’s relationship with the UK is complex ; Scotland is a devolved region within a unitary, central state that does not have a codified constitution to direct policy makers as to which assets, recourses and debts belong to which side of the border. A Tartan divorce would require significant legal and bilateral negotiations between the two governments.

There is no doubt that Scotland is different from the rest of the UK, from its infamous climate and beautiful countryside, to its legal system, centre-left oriented political spectrum and support for the welfare state. Despite these differences, for the last 300 years Scotland has remained an integral part of the UK, and while many both sides of the border wish it to continue as a constituent of the UK, there are growing political differences. David Cameron’s recent veto on European fiscal reforms attracted criticisms not just from UK-wide opposition parties but also from the national parties, in particular Plaid Cymru (the Welsh national party) and the SNP ; who resent a reduced role in European decision making which affects the entirety of the UK.

The SNP views a future independence within the EU. The ramifications of potential Scottish independence from the UK within the EU have yet to be overtly scrutinised by the British national press, however, they would certainly have a vast impact on London’s role in the EU. If Scotland were to join a fiscally federal Eurozone, the pressures would increase on the rest of Britain to join. Scotland signing up to the Schengen accord could also force the UK’s hand in playing ball on some of the more symbolic social aspects of the Union (although Scots could be kept out of the European-wide border free area due to existing agreements with London, in a similar vein to Ireland). Fisheries would need renegotiating with both London and Brussels, as would various shipping, tax, transport and territorial accords. The UK may find its voice in Brussels somewhat diminished, whilst Cameron, or whoever is British Prime Minister at the time, shall go down in history as the man or woman who dissolved the Union. For the sake of legitimacy, secession would prompt a UK General Election and the Labour Party would also find itself in a difficult position, losing, at present, 41 MPs from Scotland. The independence question is for many a thistle in their side.

Despite polls being just in their favour, the UK government and Labour Unionists will face a tense fight if they wish to retain the status quo. However, one thing is for sure : the Scots will have an opportunity to democratically decide the future of the country, and unless attitudes south of the border change, then this Kingdom is looking less and less united.

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« Alex is a Brit who has lived, worked and studied across Europe. He has interned in the UK House of Commons, worked in a key Brussels think-tank, and now works for a NGO in Berlin. His interests lie in EU external relations, environment and (...)

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