"Should Scotland become an independent country?”
By Global Counsel
On the 18th September 2014 Scotland will hold a referendum on the single question “Should Scotland become an independent country?” Campaign activity on both sides is underway, and the debate has begun. The end of the summer break and the publication in the autumn of the SNP Scottish government’s major policy statement on independence will see the pace of campaigning go up a gear.
Support for independence has waxed and waned over the last three decades. It has not followed the short term ups and downs of the economy, but has usually grown stronger during periods of Conservative government at Westminster.
Since 1999 Scotland has had its own parliament, with significant spending powers – including spending on health, education, policing and local government. It has markedly fewer tax-raising powers and no powers over foreign and defence policy, energy policy or social security.
A vote for independence would raise major questions about Scotland’s future on a number of big issues: membership of the EU and its terms; Scotland’s currency; monetary and fiscal policy; border and immigration policy.
The answers to these questions are complex in part because Scotland leaving the UK would be a move with few or no precedents. As a result, many of the post-independence arrangements and mechanisms would have to be created from scratch and would be decided by the politics of the time. As a matter of tactics the UK government and the pro-union parties want to create as much uncertainty as possible about what would happen were Scotland to vote yes. As a result, a high degree of uncertainty surrounds what a post-independence landscape for Scotland and the rest of the UK would look like.
Opinion polls point strongly to a no vote in 2014. However, a year is a long time in politics. Alex Salmond has described the campaign so far as the “phoney war”. Even if Scotland votes against independence a continuation of the status quo looks unlikely.
Although there will only be a single question on independence on the ballot paper, there is significant momentum among the Scottish electorate for a third outcome: further devolution or ‘devo more’. What the ‘more’ should be is already the subject of party policy commissions and think tank reports as the pro-UK parties seek to formulate an offer for the Scottish electorate of further powers in the event of independence being rejected.
Pro-union parties will want to convince Scottish voters that a no vote in 2014 is not a vote for the status quo, but will be wary of devolving away the union, or reopening difficult questions over Scotland’s uneasy constitutional status. This will be a difficult balance to strike. With this in mind, ‘devo more’ is likely to focus on balancing Scotland’s considerable spending powers by increasing its tax-raising powers.
In the medium term it is within this ‘devo more’ debate that the terms of Scotland’s future in the UK are likely to be decided. The outcome will be a product of the content and tone of the pre-referendum debate, the level of support for independence in the referendum, and the outcome of the 2015 general election.
However, the experience of Quebec suggests that a no vote in 2014 is unlikely to be the end of the Scottish independence question. The SNP is unlikely to disappear as a political force. And with potentially more powers going to Holyrood the trend will continue for politics in Scotland to be increasingly focussed on what happens at Holyrood rather than Westminster. David Cameron and George Osborne look very determined to fight for the union in 2014. However, demographics and political patterns make it an open question whether the next generation of Conservative leaders will be quite so determined.
Download the full article