There are two reasons why readers of The American Interest should not panic about the results of Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence. The first, naturally, is that the nationalists might not succeed in their push for secession from the United Kingdom. And the second is that it might not be such a bad thing if they did.
The debate about the future of Scotland had already been raging long before a union of parliaments constructed the new political entity called “Great Britain” in 1707. Over the past century, patriotic feeling in Scotland found expression in distinctive cultural movements and in the political trends that drove the formation of the modern Scottish National Party. During the 1980s, the policies of Margaret Thatcher provided the most visceral reasons for many Scots to consider constitutional realignment within the UK: Her government’s refusal to continue to subsidize Scotland’s failing heavy industries led to massive unemployment and was accompanied by the hated poll tax, which was imposed in Scotland one year before it was rolled out in England.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Scottish MPs in this period were the ones who most clearly pointed to the constitutional irregularities of the “mother of parliaments”, in which Scottish MPs could vote on English affairs without English MPs being granted similar powers. This “West Lothian question,” called after the constituency of Tam Dalyell, who first raised the problem during parliamentary debates about Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1977, has been at the heart of several decades of discussions about parliamentary procedure, and the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, which reported in March 2013, does not appear to have solved the problem.
It is this apparent lack of balance between Scottish and English votes in the House of Commons which has fuelled the most recent bouts of constitutional anxiety. For most of the past forty years, Scottish voters have been governed by administrations for which they have not voted, while the electoral preferences of English voters have at times been stymied by those MPs who have come south. For a generation, Scotland has routinely returned dozens of Labour MPs, whose presence in the House of Commons has recently been vital to the preservation of Parliament from the English electorate’s swing to the right. English and Scottish voters have regularly countered each other’s mood swings. This is the point which lies behind the panda costumes that have recently appeared in pro-independence rallies in Scotland: There are more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (2) than there are Conservative MPs in Scotland (1), and at least the pandas have a chance of increasing their numbers. The current arrangements within Parliament, which have evolved over centuries and reflect fewer procedural checks and balances than in the American system, don’t work to the satisfaction of many of the people they represent. For the United Kingdom is not a federal system. Its constitution lacks clarity on the most basic issues of governance—like who gets to make decisions, and on behalf of whom. Starting with a blank page, no one would design a system like this.
Despite this long history of constitutional dissatisfaction, opinion polls from as late as mid-summer indicated that the population of Scotland did not seem likely to vote in favor of leaving the United Kingdom. Until last weekend, these opinion polls consistently pointed to a victory for the constitutional status quo. The sampling methods have changed with the types of questions being asked, by whom, and of whom, but the polls consistently suggested that a majority of voters did not want to see Scotland secede. At times this majority was very small. An “ICM/Scotland on Sunday” poll in the middle of April and a “Panelbase/Yes Scotland” poll in early June both put the “No” lead at 3 percent. The Scottish government’s success in organizing the Commonwealth Games in July did not provide the “Yes” campaign with the boost it might have expected, and those polls which measured opinion in mid-August, after the first television debate between Alex Salmond (First Minister, leader of the SNP, and an advocate for independence) and Alistair Darling (Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2007–10, and an advocate against independence), suggested a much stronger lead for the “No” campaign. Two of the polls in early August suggested a lead for the “No” campaign of 13 percent—and that while 13 percent of voters remained undecided.
But polls measuring opinion after the second television debate between Salmond and Darling have suggested an extraordinary swing of support towards the “Yes” campaign. Two opinion polls released in the second week of September have suggested that the two sides are neck and neck, or that the “Yes” campaign has, for the first time, gained a marginal lead. So undecided voters could determine the outcome of this referendum. When voters go the polls on September 18, the future of the United Kingdom could be in the hands of those who cannot yet make up their minds.
There are reasons why, earlier in the summer, the pro-independence campaign began to founder. As readers of The American Interest already know, the campaign in favor of independence was undermined by its inability to provide clear and persuasive answers to central economic questions—and not least the question of which currency would be used in an independent Scotland. In the first television debate, on August 5, Darling made a damaging attack on Salmond on precisely this topic, despite his own record as Chancellor. Similarly, the relentless negativity of the “No” campaign took advantage of and contributed to public distrust of Salmond, and too much of the political rhetoric, especially in the English press, was ad hominem. Yet for all of these discouragements, the “Yes” campaign made some unexpected converts. For none of the UK parties—whether Conservative, Liberal or Labour—are arguing that the current constitution arrangements should remain unchanged. Leaders of the three largest UK parties are agreed that a rejection of independence will lead to greater powers being devolved to the Scottish parliament. And in the aftermath of the most recent batch of opinion poll results, the leaders of the “No” campaign have rushed to promise even greater degrees of devolution.
In this sense, the campaigns for and against Scottish independence have become political theatres of the absurd. English Conservatives campaign against a constitutional realignment that would give them a generational advantage over Labour, while the Scottish National Party’s campaign for independence would satisfy their raison d’être but raise profound questions as to what other policies might hold them together as a viable political force. Independence would, in a sense, separate the national conjoined twins, allowing each of them to go in the opposing directions signaled in the last general election: a strong swing to the right in England, counterbalanced by a solid return of Labour MPs from Scotland. There is no reason of substance for English Conservatives to campaign against Scottish independence. Their arguments that Scotland is the “poor man” of the union and a net gainer from the UK Treasury could, for example, be turned into an argument that independence would lead to greater English wealth. There would certainly be a substantial jobs boost if the naval shipyards were to move south. Much of the “No” campaign is driven by exactly the kind of banal nationalism it finds so disagreeable among Scots: supporting the 1707 union simply because it is there.
But nostalgia is a poor—and unpopular—political philosophy. Despite the recent petitions presented by celebrities in favor of the union, opinion polls have at times pointed to the enthusiasm of English voters for Scottish independence. In fact, some polls taken earlier in the campaign indicated that English voters were more in favor of Scottish independence than were the majority of Scots, while the most recent polls indicate that English voters are swinging to support the Union even as Scots are increasingly aligning themselves against it. Nevertheless, if English Conservatives could find a way to ignore the advice of pop stars and the Pope, they would have no reason to argue on behalf of a political union that no longer works to their strategic advantage. Scottish independence could mark the end of the British left as a viable political force.
So while the campaign for Scottish independence may not succeed, it might not be a bad thing if it did. While the results of the referendum are not binding, its affirmation of voters’ opinion would give the Scottish government a strong hand in discussions leading to the end of an often unhappy political marriage. Sometime over the next few years, with questions of currency and oil revenue decided, Scotland would leave the United Kingdom but most likely struggle to join the European Union. While this would disappoint the SNP and a large constituency of voters, it would preserve Scots from the irresponsibility of leaving the frying pan for the fire, abandoning one dysfunctional union for the vagaries of a more recent super-parliament established on even flimsier democratic processes. Scotland would likely do well as an independent country, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently concluded, and, as the celebrated novelist Alasdair Gray put it in his pamphlet, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland (1997), its people may well work harder in the early days of a new country. But if it continued to use sterling—the currency of another sovereign state—it would be forced to balance its budgets and could hardly afford the public spending to which its citizens have become accustomed.
Meanwhile, the government of the rest of the United Kingdom would swing more clearly to the right. Northern Irish MPs would enjoy less importance than when Unionist or nationalist MPs were necessary for Conservative or Labour majorities in the Commons, and thus would resort to more militant strategies for gaining attention on the “mainland.” Pushed back to the political hinterland, the Northern Ireland Assembly would initially lurch from crisis to crisis, as those parties from the political extremes that have recently managed to find common cause in maintaining their difference from the rest of the UK would need to find new ways of imagining their divided communities and the future they might share. The consequences in Northern Ireland of Scottish independence could be measured only in political roulette, but it is at least possible that the parties represented in the Stormont Assembly would finally realize they have to take responsibility for their own future.
With the constitutional genie unleashed, Welsh MPs would consider similar plans for constitutional realignment, but the traditional dominance of Labour and the relatively small representation of national Assembly Members in the Welsh parliament would likely forestall any move towards secession: MPs from Wales would simply become too valuable a commodity to be lost by Labour, while Conservatives would find it hard to resist arguments that Welsh voters are overrepresented in the Commons. Labour would face a serious decline in the rest of the UK. The diminution of its electoral prospects, with knock-on effects for the Liberals, who are already struggle in constituency elections, would give the Conservatives the opportunity of a lifetime.
Salmond is right, of course: This referendum is also the opportunity of a lifetime for Scotland. And to his advantage, he can call upon the broader historical trends that are pushing toward the end of the United Kingdom. While the National Assembly for Wales is dominated by Labour Assembly Members, members of parties that campaign for withdrawal from the United Kingdom are firmly in power in the devolved governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The results of the referendum on September 18 will not change this; none of the parties are arguing for the status quo. As even the defenders of the Union recognize, political power is increasingly flowing out of the center and towards the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. If English nationalists succeed in pushing for their own devolved parliament, the UK could be configured as a federal state. But this seems unlikely. The question is not whether the United Kingdom will dissolve, but when, how, and whether the new political entities that emerge from the chaos, like victims of other damaging relationships, enter a new partnership with a more powerful European institution that could do them much more harm.
In the short term, however, the referendum for Scottish independence may not succeed. But from the perspective of those who favor small government and balanced budgets, it might not be a bad thing if it did.