Scotland decides

scottish parliament Peter Cheney analyses the implications of Scottish independence and further devolution for Northern Ireland and the British Isles.

The status of Scotland is at the core of the UK’s physical shape and political make-up. On 18 September, its voters could deliver the greatest constitutional change in the UK since the partition of Ireland. Whatever the result, the union is due to enter into a time of flux as Westminster works out how to accommodate Scottish demands for greater self-rule.

The earliest form of union was the joining of the crowns of England and Scotland under James I in 1603. The two countries co-operated (e.g. in the Plantation of Ulster) but their parliaments remained separate.

A century later, Scotland was close to bankruptcy after a famine and a failed colonial venture. The Scottish Parliament signed the Treaty of Union, thus cancelling its debts and combining itself with Westminster from 1 May 1707. The Anglo-Scottish union was complemented by the union of Great Britain with Ireland from 1801.

Demands for home rule – in both Scotland and Ireland – increased in the early 20th century. The Government of Scotland Bill 1913 would have introduced a devolved parliament but was halted by the First World War. The formation of the Irish Free State prompted demands for Scottish independence: a cause taken up by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1942.

A referendum held in 1979 would have allowed for devolution if 40 per cent of the full electorate had voted in favour. There was a 52 per cent ‘yes’ vote but this represented only 33 per cent of all voters. The 1997 referendum resulted in a 74 per cent ‘yes’ vote and the Scottish Parliament was therefore formed in May 1999. The SNP took power for the first time in 2007.


Narrowing opinion polls over the last year suggest that Scottish independence is a real possibility.

The SNP wants to declare independence on 24 March 2016 but would retain the monarchy, sterling and Scotland’s Commonwealth, NATO and EU memberships.

All policy areas would be controlled by the Scottish Parliament under a written constitution. This document would be underpinned by popular sovereignty, which implies that Scotland could vote for greater independence in future. Several SNP members would prefer to abolish the monarchy and leave NATO.

The SNP claims that an independent Scotland would eventually have 70-90 diplomatic missions and a defence force with 15,000 personnel.

Similarly to the Republic, Scotland would stay part of the Common Travel Area but also set its own immigration policy and establish some border controls. The SNP also envisages a national broadcasting service, postal service, passport agency and tax collection service.

Full membership of the European Union is a key ambition for the ‘yes’ campaign. There is no precedent for part of an EU member state breaking away and becoming a new member state, and the SNP recognises that a treaty change will be needed. This may be opposed by other countries with secessionist movements e.g. Spain and Cyprus.

Scotland would also have its own European Commissioner and a similar number of MEPs and votes in the Council of Ministers as Ireland, Finland and Denmark.

alex salmond The most complex part of the debate has focused on the Scottish economy and its prospects for independence. The SNP claims that each Scot will be £1,000 better off outside the UK while the Better Together campaign says that the union is worth £1,400 per person.

According to Scottish Government economists, Scottish GDP stood at £148 billion in 2013. Public sector revenue for 2012-2013 was £53 billion and expenditure was £65 billion. The SNP maintains that tax revenues will increase in the coming years and it plans to invest North Sea revenues into a long-term sovereign wealth fund. Norway’s oil fund is currently worth £510 billion.


Regardless of the referendum result, the union is set to change. Under the Scotland Act 2012, the Scottish Parliament will have the power to set its own income tax rate from 2016 onwards. Stamp duty, drink driving policy and speed limits will also be devolved. The main Scottish unionist parties have now published their plans for further devolution.

Labour emphasises the welfare state as being the UK’s main achievement. The party would:

• allow the Scottish Parliament to vary income tax by 15 per cent;

• reduce the block grant to allow for devolved taxation; and

• devolve housing benefit and attendance allowance.

The Conservatives also see the case for devolving housing benefit and attendance allowance and would fully devolve income tax. John Major, though, has suggested the devolution of all policy areas – except foreign policy, defence and economic management – to reduce any sense of resentment towards Westminster.

The Lib Dems have always called for a federal UK, with Scotland having full power over income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax.

At present, the UK Government and devolved administrations co-operate through the informal Joint Ministerial Committee. Labour says that it would turn the committee into a formal ‘inter-governmental council’. The Scottish Conservatives prefer a less federal committee of parliamentarians from the UK’s legislatures, to consider the future of the union and financial relationships.


At the 2011 census, Scotland had 5.3 million residents with half of the population living in the central belt. The current electorate stands at 4.1 million people although this is likely to increase as registrations will continue up to polling day.

Unlike community backgrounds in Northern Ireland, Scottish and British national identities are fluid and often dual. The census indicated that 62 per cent of people saw themselves as Scottish only, 18 per cent Scottish and British, and 8 per cent British only.

This mixing of identities is reflected in political choices. Scottish voters often shift their preferences between the SNP and Labour. Turnout has varied between 50 per cent and 60 per cent in recent elections but the referendum is expected to bring out a large number of new voters.

Religious identity is a declining factor in Scottish politics. The country is the most secular part of the UK with 37 per cent of Scots expressing no religion. The Church of Scotland has declined to a 32 per cent share of the population but the Catholic proportion remains steady at 16 per cent.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey finds that Catholics are more likely to support independence than Protestants but it also indicates that Protestants are generally older and therefore more sceptical of change. The Orange Order is firmly against independence.


Over the last year, the ‘yes’ vote has generally increased from around 35 per cent to over 40 per cent. The ‘no’ vote has, in turn, dropped from around 60 per cent to the 45-55 per cent range. The next few months will see a major focus – by both campaigns – on convincing undecided voters, who may account for 10-30 per cent of the electorate.

SNP support is strongest in Aberdeen, Fife and the Highlands. Polling, though, indicates a surprisingly high ‘no’ vote in the Highlands as residents tend to be more conservative and the area tends to attract migration from England. Islanders and people living near the border with England fear that power in an independent Scotland would be concentrated in the central belt.

University of Edinburgh political scientist Michael Rosie anticipates a substantial transfer of powers if the ‘no’ majority is small. This would aim to satisfy the large pro-independence minority and prevent a second referendum. Rosie points to the Canadian province of Quebec in Canada, where there was a 60 per cent vote against independence in 1980. A compromise agreement on new powers for Quebec failed and the next referendum in 1995 resulted in a much narrower ‘no’ vote: 51 per cent.

If independence took effect in 2016, the UK would lose 32 per cent of its land area, 8 per cent of its population, almost all of its Atlantic coastline, and most of its North Sea oil. Academics tend to use the term rUK (remainder of UK) when speculating about the future of England, Wales and Northern Ireland after a ‘yes’ vote.

The rUK would be dominated by England, which would have 92 per cent of its population. Northern Ireland would sit on its periphery and the province’s two closest neighbours would both be outside the union. Reg Empey and Ian Paisley Junior have protested that Scottish independence would unsettle unionists and re-open the Irish question. Sinn Féin hopes that it will lead to a border poll.

If Scotland needed to adopt the euro, this would facilitate trade with the Republic of Ireland and create an exchange rate barrier with Northern Ireland. A standalone Scottish currency would ‘sandwich’ the province between Scotland and the euro zone. Similarly, if the rUK voted to leave the EU in 2017, the province could find itself outside the EU but bordered by two member states.

The Scottish Government would be free to vary its immigration policies, student fees, corporation tax levels and air passenger duty rates – all of which would indirectly affect Northern Ireland.

The debate also emphasises the political differences between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scottish unionism is led by the centre-left and covers a range of support bases while Northern Irish unionism remains largely conservative and Protestant.

Political allegiances have been expressed violently in Northern Ireland and were entrenched by the Troubles. Scotland’s constitutional debate, though, has been (and remains) non-violent and politicians on both sides are appealing to a large number of undecided voters.

Despite their widespread differences, the UK Government and Scottish Government have agreed to work together professionally regardless of the result.

As the Edinburgh Agreement on the referendum stated: “The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome … in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”

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