On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote “Yes” or “No” to a simple referendum question : Should Scotland become an independent country?
The debate surrounding this vote has electrified the political atmosphere in Scotland over the past year, and more recently, interest in the referendum has increased in the rest of the UK (United Kingdom) and elsewhere. In this article, I am setting out a brief and neutral summary of the historical and political background to this momentous vote. Readers require no prior knowledge of the history and politics of the UK.
The Formation of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is the official name of the multi-nation state which is composed of the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England has around 54 million people, Scotland has around 5 million, Wales has around 3 million and Northern Ireland has around 1.5 to 2 million.
For good or for bad, England has long been the dominant nation in the history of the UK by virtue of its population, geographical size and corresponding military, economic and political power. A long period of military domination by England culminated in the full annexation of Wales by the parliament of England in the 16th century. In 1706 and 1707, the parliaments of England (including Wales) and Scotland voted for their nations to merge into the single state of Great Britain, governed from Westminster in London.
Thus, the island of Great Britain became a single political entity for the first time. As part of this national merger, Scotland retained some of its existing distinctive national institutions, such as its legal and educational systems and church.
In 1801, Great Britain united with Ireland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland seceded by treaty from the United Kingdom. However six of the northern counties of Ireland remained in the UK as Northern Ireland. This explains the UK’s current official name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Rise of the Scottish Independence Movement
For the last 100 years, the two political parties which have dominated the UK parliament have been the Conservatives (right wing) and Labour (centre / left wing). They both resolutely remain in favour of Scotland’s continued membership in the United Kingdom. Support for independence in Scotland has historically been the preserve of a small minority. However, over the last few decades, support has steadily risen for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which seeks independence for Scotland. The SNP styles itself as a centre/left-wing, moderate nationalist party, and is generally considered as such by its political opponents in the UK.
Popular support for independence in Scotland has grown at the same time, and at a similar rate, as disenchantment with policies implemented by the Westminster government. For example, the majority of current Scottish voters take issue with UK government policy on various taxation issue, overseas military intervention, the retention of nuclear weapons and so-called austerity measures which have reduced public expenditure.
In order to reflect particular Scottish policy needs and political preferences, in 1999, the UK government legislated for the devolution of powers over many internal affairs, such as healthcare and transport, to a democratically elected Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive. Since then, Westminster has continued to retain control over fiscal and monetary policy, welfare, energy, defence and foreign policy for the entire UK.
Commentators generally agree that the experience of limited self-government together with more entrenched opposition in Scotland to the Westminster political system and many UK-wide policies, has contributed to the growing electoral success of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament. In 2011, the SNP won, for the first time, an outright majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. Its success provided it with a democratic mandate to progress the cause of independence. Consequently, Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, agreed with David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, in 2012, to hold a referendum in Scotland on its independence. We are now only a month away from this vote.
Arguments For and Against
The UK government and the three main political parties in Westminster are officially against independence for Scotland. The SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Green Party are in favour of independence.
Both sides have formed cross-party and non-party umbrella campaign groups called Yes Scotland (pro-independence) and Better Together (pro-union or anti-independence). Informally, they are known as the “Yes” and “No” campaigns.
At the time of this writing, 8 August 2014, opinion polls suggest around 50% to 60% of voters intend to vote “No” and 40% to 50% of voters intend to vote “Yes”.
The principal arguments in favour of independence from the “Yes” campaign are as follows:
1. National independence is normal, and people who live in Scotland are best-placed to make decisions about its future;
2. The Westminster political system has failed Scotland because it does not adequately represent its interests or its political preferences. In particular, the conservative governments elected by a UK majority in recent decades, and their policies, have had little support among Scottish voters.
3. Scotland is a wealthy country overall, but despite enjoying a measure of devolved government, it has significant social inequalities which the SNP wishes to address more effectively by using all the political tools available to an independent country.
4. Scotland sees its position on the international stage quite differently from the UK. For example, it wants to rid the UK of its nuclear weapons, which are located on Scottish soil; and it rejects the UK government’s approach to military intervention overseas; it can only achieve these aims as an independent country.
5. The three main Westminster parties have already stated that a currency union,
such as sharing the pound with an independent Scotland, will not happen because it is not in the interests of the rest of the UK. The “No” campaign consequently accuses the “Yes” campaign of not having any clear alternative currency plans.
6. Scotland wishes to continue to be good neighbours with the UK and co-operate for mutual benefit on equal terms. For “Yes” supporters, independence need not be a barrier to this.
The principal arguments for continued union from the “No” campaign are as follows:
1. Overall, political union has worked well for both Scotland and England for the last 300 years. During this time, Scotland has made significant contributions to the UK and the world in the fields of medicine, science, philosophy, economics, politics and culture. “No” supporters consider that Scotland has thrived in the UK and there is no reason to suggest it would not continue to do so.
2. Scotland has the best of both worlds in that it has devolved powers to administer its internal affairs, while, as part of the UK, it has retained a strong international influence that it would not have as a small independent country.
3. Separating out the complex mesh of interconnected political links and structures, which have developed in the UK over the last 300 years, would be a lengthy process and cannot be justified by the suggested, uncertain benefits of independence.
4. It is not clear how an independent Scotland could become a member state of the European Union, nor how long this process would take.
My Personal Views
In this article, I have only touched only the tip of a political and historical iceberg, beneath which lies a myriad of perspectives which vary between the nations of the UK, within those nations and across the political spectrum.
I have tried to be as fair as I can in discussing a controversial political subject. Readers from the UK will instantly notice that I have glossed over many strands of our history and politics which deserve more in-depth treatment. I have done so only for the sake of brevity, and I hope that discussions surrounding this article can tease out some of the complexities that an introductory article like this cannot hope to explore properly.
It is clear that the prospect of independence has massively increased political awareness in Scotland. Nevertheless, people on both sides of the debate are concerned that the vote will be so close that, whichever way it goes, Scotland will be a sharply divided nation in need of reconciliation. A clear-cut consensus, one way or the other, on such an important issue for the future of Scotland is preferable but unlikely.
The view of most people in England is that they would like Scotland to stay within the UK. Being English myself, I will not claim to speak for the peoples of Wales or Northern Ireland. I am, however, in a minority of English people living in England who are in favour of independence for Scotland.
I hope that Scotland votes “Yes” to independence, and I wish them well as a friend and neighbour. You can read articles with my views on specific referendum-related topics on my blog upholdingenglishhonour.com
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Hero Image (Map of Scotland within the United Kingdom) by Peeperman - derived from:British Isles United Kingdom.svg. (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons -