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Scotland the Brave

Scots debate independence

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
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Moreover, unionists grimly prognosticate, Scotland would lose its membership in the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations. According to José Manuel Barroso, the Spanish president of the European Commission (who doubtless has an eye on Catalonia, as it flirts with secession from Spain), Scotland would have to apply for EU membership from scratch: a position that, given Scotland’s share of national debt after the global financial crisis (a probable budget deficit of around 5 percent), would mean stringent terms and a variety of undesirable deals on trade, agriculture, and member contribution. Such problems could lead investors swiftly to withdraw funds or at least relocate their head offices over the border and could mean monetary mayhem if Scots shut the door on England. Scotland, after the initially satisfying slam, might well find itself out in the cold, knocking pathetically, wanting back in. The risks and endless wrangles that would be necessary—over how much of the U.K.’s national debt Scotland should assume; how much of the oil revenues are Scotland’s; how the border should be controlled; and which currency Scotland would adopt—all of these, from the “Better Together” perspective, are avoidable disasters for a United Kingdom with a strong, respected global “brand” and an economy now pulling out of recession.

The “Yes” campaigners who back Scottish independence fiercely dispute these projections. They observe that Scotland is a relatively wealthy country: In terms of GDP per person for its small population of 5.3 million, it is the 14th-wealthiest country in the world. It would thus be embarking on independence in more promising circumstances than many nations: When Norway became independent in 1905 it was one of the poorest countries in Europe; Ireland, when it gained independence in 1922, was dogged by poverty and civil unrest. Scotland boasts oil and gas resources that Ireland lacks; it lands more fish than Sweden and Finland combined; has more wind-power resources than Denmark and more wave-power potential than Portugal. Other important industries include drinks, manufacturing, financial services, and tourism. If oil and gas revenues are included, Scotland generates $43,946 per person in GDP, as against the U.K. average of $37,148. Secessionists thus argue that, rather than being a benign benefactor in public spending, it is the U.K. that has profited from Scotland, often without reinvesting in Scottish infrastructure. Salmond promises that an independent Scotland will invest in expanding its own economy, as Westminster has failed to do, and prosperity will result. He forecasts, in a recent white paper, that Scots will be $1,500 better off per person, per annum, after independence. Alistair Darling, of the “Better Together” campaign, has counterargued that they will be $2,345 a year better off if they vote to stay in Britain.  

“Yes” campaigners also argue that the current system of voting for a Westminster government doesn’t reflect Scottish voters’ wishes, noting that in 31 out of the last 55 years, the majority of voters in Scotland did not opt for the party that came to power. It is certainly true that Scotland’s political landscape is very different from England’s, reflecting its different history and priorities. Scotland already has its own legal system, its own education system, and its own banknotes. Since 1999, Scotland has additionally, as it did before 1707, had its own parliament, albeit with limited powers: Matters such as defense, immigration, and core fiscal policy are reserved to Westminster. 

An independent Scotland, needing an influx of youthful labor to its economy, might well wish to attract immigration more than its southern neighbor; it might adopt a lower corporate tax rate to attract new business; it would almost certainly adopt a different social agenda in state spending. Secessionists look to the successful Scandinavian states as models of what they would like Scotland to become. Scots currently punch above their weight, except in the matter of weight: They are among the least fit, most lettuce-averse and gym-defying individuals in Europe, and rates of heart disease and premature mortality remain high, especially in overcrowded urban areas. Many Scots became trapped in poor tenancy arrangements dating from feudal rules of aristocratic landholding that persisted until very recently. Greater ability to build in and inhabit the stunning scenery that surrounds them—a habit of summer cabins, of boating and fishing—might, some argue, make Scots more like their lither Scandinavian counterparts.

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