Scottish Independence: Renewed Democracy, New Danger

The Scottish independence vote has reinvigorated the nation’s democracy – but the prospect of secession is a dangerous one for Europe. By James Bartholomeusz


At 7am BST tomorrow morning, polling stations will open all across Scotland. By the same time on Friday morning, the nation will know how it has voted – whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom, with a new range of devolved powers, or to become an independent state within the British Commonwealth.

To many non-British Europeans, this might seem like a minor distinction. Scotland is clearly not going to abandon its close relations with the rest of the UK, even if it does become independent, and the changes made were it to stay part of the union would be only an extension (albeit a sizeable one) of the devolved powers Holyrood already enjoys under the 1998 Scotland Act. Yet the repercussions of a Yes vote will be felt throughout the entire European Union, and not in a good way.

We must, of course, congratulate the Yes campaign. Since 1999, when a degree of self-governance was allocated from the central British government in Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, the nation north of the border has seen a revival of participatory democracy. At a time when governments across Europe seem more remote and bureaucratic than ever, the Scots have enjoyed something of a political renaissance, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its charismatic leader, Alex Salmond, who has held power in Holyrood since 2011. It has been the SNP that has led the charge in the Yes campaign, and whether or not one agrees with their position, the spark they have reignited in Scottish public culture can only be welcomed. They have certainly given the complacent southern-English elite something to think about.

Part of the appeal of the Yes campaign is that it steers well clear of two common nationalistic narratives: that of the mythical ethnic struggle against outsiders (the kind we have seen in the Balkans) or of the isolated island walling out the rest of the world (the kind that seems to motivate many UKIP supporters). The SNP is pro-European and wants full member-state status of the Union for Scotland, even as it throws off the yoke of Westminster. But as appealing as this vision might be – of a newly-independent nation choosing to embed itself in a wider community – there are a host of problems that come with it. The most obvious one is the question of currency. The Yes campaigners want to retain the British pound sterling and the monetary sovereignty of the Bank of England even after independence, a suggestion that has been consistently rejected by the unionists. And they are right to reject it – the lessons from the recent past are clear. The main problem with the euro has not been the idea of a common currency per se, but rather the artificial division of control over monetary and fiscal policy between the ECB and the various member-state governments. A currency managed by a single central bank cannot long withstand the differing tax-and-spend agendas of two or more treasuries.

Another major question-mark arises over defence. The UK enjoys its permanent seat on the UN Security Council largely because it was one of the victors of the Second World War. Some have questioned whether the UK continues to play a relevant enough role in international affairs to merit its seat, and if Scotland is to become independent then this question will become all the more apparent. In the same year that Russia has invaded Ukraine and its designs on eastern Europe have become clearer than ever before, the loss of the UK’s seat could seriously shift the balance of power away from Europe and the West. There is also the problem that the British armed forces – and all their capabilities – are currently divided between Scotland and the rest of the union. (Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, is entirely based in Scotland, and there seem to be a lack of viable alternative seaports elsewhere in the country that could continue to service it.) If Scotland becomes independent, Europe will have to deal with whatever budgetary and geopolitical fallout results from the loss of British military strength.

And then there is the big question of Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe, to which there are so few answers. There is currently no precedent in EU treaties for a sub-national region becoming independent and then applying to be a member-state in its own right, and, in adjudicating on this, the European institutions will be mindful that Scotland is not a unique case. Spain, Belgium, Italy and others also face analogous challenges from some of their own regions – indeed, there is also a referendum imminent in Catalonia, though one claimed to be unconstitutional by the Spanish government. Though of course there is nothing wrong with granting greater autonomy to sub-national regions, without a proper federal structure in place this could easily result in secession. (Indeed, the refusal of the British government to grant a third option in the Scottish referendum – one for ‘maximum devolution’ – will surely push some undecided voters towards the Yes side.) At worst, Scottish independence could spark a domino effect whereby a new surge in nationalistic struggles succeed in ripping the Union asunder. The SNP could reach independence day in 2016, optimistic for its country’s new EU membership, only to find that there is no EU left to join.

These questions, and more, have largely been left unaccounted for by the Scottish nationalists. We at the PDU applaud any show of democratic will, but we want to see individuals making their democratic choices with a pragmatic understanding of the challenges at hand. Speaking as a Brit, there is no question that the UK can remain in its present constitutional state – we labour under a democratic deficit, and the effective disenfranchisement of swathes of the population, particularly in northern England. But to deal with these challenges – both in the union of Britain and the union of Europe – we are, indeed, better together. The risk otherwise is that Scotland wins the romantic fight, yet loses the real one.

Image: ‘I wonder if they are Yes voters’ courtesy of bryony2 via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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