Both sides have confused the principle of independence and the policies a future Scottish Government might follow. So writes Derek Hutcheson, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Malmö University.
The referendum in Scotland will have profound consequences for the United Kingdom (UK), which comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The question Scots were asked is ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’. For most of the campaign, it looked like the answer would be ‘no’ – but over the last couple of weeks, the gap between the two sides narrowed to almost nothing.
Scotland and England have been united politically since 1707, and have shared a monarch since 1603. There are strong family and social links across the border: approximately 800,000 Scottish-born people live elsewhere in the UK (and, like Scots abroad, they will be unable to vote in today’s referendum), while about 400,000 people live in Scotland who were born elsewhere in the UK.
Throughout their three centuries together, Scotland has a retained strong identity in the UK, with its own church, legal and education systems.
The proponents of a ‘yes’ vote – led by the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is also leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) – argue that Scotland has a modern, prosperous economy that is richer than the rest of the UK’s (especially if the revenue from North Sea oil is included). Despite its strong national identity, Scotland remains dependent on a political agenda and budget set in London. Nobody can take political decisions on Scottish affairs better than a Scottish government, and Scots should take this once-in-a-generation opportunity for political independence.
But there is a difference between acknowledging that Scotland could be a separate country, and deciding that it should become one. The ‘no’ campaigners argue that Scotland and the rest of the UK are ‘better together’ (which is also the name of their campaign organisation). They point out that
Scotland already has considerable devolved powers – and they promise more autonomy even if it votes ‘no’. As a part of a larger country, Scotland has more economic security and international influence. And there is ‘no turning back’ if independence doesn’t work.
Ironically, while the campaigners for independence argue in favour of retaining the British pound, those campaigning to hold the UK together claim that they will refuse to share the currency with an independent Scotland. The ‘yes’ campaign argues in favour of the other ‘unions’ that bind Scotland and the rest of the UK together – the monarchy, the currency, membership of the EU and the passport union – while arguing the case for political separation.
Better Together has focused mainly on highlighting why the two countries would be worse apart. They paint a gloomy picture of job losses, price and mortgage cost increases, pension losses and economic uncertainty in an independent Scotland. Both sides’ arguments have at times conflated the principle of independence (which will be decided today) with the policies that a future Scottish government would follow (which obviously would depend on which parties eventually form the government).
For the ‘no’ side, today was never meant to happen. The creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 was expected to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ (as one prominent Labour politician put it) by giving Scots autonomy within the UK system. But it had an unexpected consequence: the hitherto marginalised SNP embraced the new institutions and displaced the Labour Party from its longstanding dominance of Scottish politics. Since 2007, it has been in government in Edinburgh, dealing with the domestic affairs of Scotland. After winning a majority in 2011, it negotiated with the UK government to hold today’s referendum on rules that both sides would agree to, in the symbolic 700th anniversary year of the famous Scottish military victory against England at the Battle of Bannockburn.
If Scots vote ‘yes’, independence will not start tomorrow: the Scottish and British governments will spend the next few months negotiating how to disentangle the two states’ affairs. There are many pitfalls along the way, including a possible change of government in London next May.
Unanswered questions over the currency union and EU membership will also need to be negotiated – there are no precedents for the disintegration of an existing Member State. If the verdict is a ‘no’, that is not the end of the story either: panicked by the narrowing of the polls in the past few weeks, all three unionist parties have pledged further devolved powers for Scotland in the future, and the Scottish Parliament will in any case have additional autonomy over its revenue collection from 2016 onwards, thanks to laws already passed in 2012.
One thing is certain: the debates that the referendum has unleashed have irrevocably changed the future of the UK.