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Will Scotland break away from the Union with England in 2014?

Alex Sal­mond, leader of the Scot­tish National Party, and First Min­is­ter of Scot­land has often prom­ised that Scots would get the chance to vote for an inde­pend­ent Scot­land out­side the Union with Eng­land. Some claim that this pledge has been one of the main reas­ons why the SNP decis­ively won the last elec­tions by a land­slide. So far, gov­ern­ments in Lon­don had rejec­ted any talk about ref­er­enda or an inde­pend­ent Scot­land. Indeed, no Brit­ish prime min­is­ter wished to become the one under whom the Union between Eng­land and Scot­land would be dis­solved. Tony Blair, under­stand­ing the grow­ing appeal of sep­ar­a­tion, tried to con­tain polit­ical forces by devel­op­ing the “devol­u­tion” policies that gran­ted each part of the UK some degree of autonomy to gov­ern them­selves. North­ern Ire­land, Wales and Scot­land were given par­lia­ments and a lim­ited port­fo­lio of policy areas in which they could develop their own agen­das and approaches, inde­pend­ently and without med­dling from Lon­don. The most cru­cial policy areas, such as fin­ance, for­eign policy or defence, how­ever, have remained with the gov­ern­ment in Lon­don. Whereas the gov­ern­ment in North­ern Ire­land has been mov­ing between sus­pen­sion and short terms of policy-making, the gov­ern­ments in Wales and Scot­land have been more stable and act­ive, and in par­tic­u­lar in Edin­burgh politi­cians have taken a lik­ing in con­duct­ing polit­ics without inter­fer­ence from the South. Devol­u­tion has calmed sep­ar­at­ist sen­ti­ments for a while, how­ever, since 2007 the SNP has been on the rise, repeatedly put­ting the inde­pend­ence vote onto its agenda, for­cing Down­ing Street 10 to take into con­sid­er­a­tion such a scenario.

Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, cer­tainly not known to have ever pro­moted the idea of sep­ar­at­ing the Eng­lish and its north­ern neigh­bour, has agreed with Sal­mond that a ref­er­en­dum on the Union shall be held in 2014. The aim is simple: to resolve the issue and silence voices call­ing for an inde­pend­ent Scot­land. Scots will be asked a simple Yes/No ques­tion (though sim­pli­city is in the eye of the beholder) and will thus be able to determ­ine the future of their country.

The ques­tion arises why Cameron would agree to such a move and what bene­fits Scotland’s lead­er­ship believes a break­away from the Union will have.

Polit­ical considerations

  • Cameron claims that he could not ignore the elec­tion res­ults in Scot­land which swept into gov­ern­ment a sep­ar­at­ist party. Even though that is true the ques­tion remains whether voters were influ­enced chiefly by the pledge to secure a ref­er­en­dum or by dis­ap­point­ment of the other (Labour, Lib­Dem and Con­ser­vat­ive) parties’ records. The gov­ern­ment in Lon­don felt that after SNP secured 69 out of 129 seats in Holyrood ten­sion over the state of Union would only con­tinue to rise, espe­cially after the coun­cil elec­tions in May 2012 con­firmed the strong sup­port for SNP when the party con­tin­ued to increase its share of coun­cil­lors by secur­ing almost 60 addi­tional seats (424 out of 1200).
  • For SNP secur­ing a ref­er­en­dum agree­ment on the inde­pend­ence vote with Lon­don was essen­tial as it was one of the core prom­ises of the party. Fail­ure in this mat­ter might have res­ul­ted in a dis­en­chant­ment of voters with Sal­mond (some­thing Cameron prob­ably would not mind a bit) – not dis­sim­ilar to the fate of Lib­Dem leader Nick Clegg in the cur­rent coali­tion gov­ern­ment in Lon­don, whose has been mar­gin­al­ised by Cameron.
  • Both party lead­ers have hin­ted at the pos­sib­il­ity that, should the ref­er­en­dum fail to pro­duce a major­ity for an inde­pend­ent Scot­land, talks about fur­ther devol­u­tion might be held. This would fall short of full sov­er­eignty for Scot­land but might non­ethe­less res­ult in a greatly expan­ded port­fo­lio of areas future gov­ern­ments will be able to legislate.

Scot­tish eco­nomic considerations

  • Scotland’s wealth, derived among oth­ers from its vast oil and gas fields in the North Sea, cer­tainly plays an import­ant role in the debate as the gov­ern­ment aims to ensure the major­ity of oil and gas rev­en­ues will flow into the cof­fers of the gov­ern­ment in Edin­burgh, not Lon­don. Fur­ther­more Edin­burgh is one of Europe’s most import­ant fin­an­cial centres, and in the past few years the coun­try has become one of the strongest sup­port­ers of renew­able energy sources (RES) in Europe. Already now it is a net exporter of elec­tri­city and given its ambi­tious goals of gen­er­at­ing 80% of its energy needs from renew­ables by 2020, and 100% by 2025 (later announced to be reached by 2020!), huge elec­tri­city export sur­pluses are expec­ted to con­trib­ute to the state budget in the future. The gov­ern­ment is very optim­istic and devel­op­ments are very prom­ising indeed, with RES provid­ing around 35% of energy needs in 2011, and reports sug­gest­ing steady pro­gress. Whether the 2020 goals are entirely real­istic is an alto­gether dif­fer­ent issue, how­ever. Legis­la­tion and gov­ern­mental sup­port greatly encour­age investors to believe in Salmond’s green Scotland.
  • How­ever, oil and gas rev­en­ues are chron­ic­ally volat­ile, rising and fall­ing depend­ing on world mar­ket demands and there­fore not a reli­able source of state rev­enue. The cash flow from oil and gas sales will cer­tainly provide a nice addi­tional source of rev­enue, but should not be the main pil­lar for the government’s budget (as for example in Rus­sia or Venezuela, where fall­ing oil rises often trans­late into gov­ern­mental action, such as cut­ting social ser­vice budgets or mil­it­ary expendit­ure). Addi­tional pres­sure would arise from tak­ing over respons­ib­il­ity for pen­sions and other social ser­vice related costs that might eas­ily exceed the rev­enue from oil and gas.
    There are, how­ever, many areas that could provide the gov­ern­ment with a more pre­dict­able income, such as the ser­vices sec­tor, export­ing tech­no­lo­gical solu­tions to har­ness the power of RES or the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and tourism.

The status of EU membership

What will hap­pen after Scot­land gains inde­pend­ence? Will it auto­mat­ic­ally receive EU mem­ber­ship status or will it have to apply for it and if so, would the pro­cess be fast-tracked given its pre­vi­ous mem­ber­ship as part of the UK? There seems to be cur­rently no clear answer to this ques­tion. Whereas the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment seems to be con­fid­ent that Scot­land would auto­mat­ic­ally be gran­ted mem­ber­ship status, state­ments from Brus­sels seem more cau­tious and might even hint at the pos­sib­il­ity that Scot­land would ini­tially find itself out­side the EU. Com­mis­sion Pres­id­ent Bar­roso seems to sug­gest the lat­ter, indic­at­ing that any new coun­try wish­ing to join the EU would have to (re-)apply for mem­ber­ship: “A new state, if it wants to join the European Union, has to apply to become a mem­ber like any state. In fact, I see no coun­try leav­ing and I see many coun­tries want­ing to join.”

Whether the inde­pend­ence vote will suc­ceed or fail, whether Cameron has out­smar­ted Sal­mond, and whether sup­port for inde­pend­ence actu­ally picks up (cur­rently around one-third of the pop­u­la­tion), is all to be seen. For the time being many ques­tions remain.

More on Renew­ables in the EU and glob­ally can be found in the REN21 global status report (2011)

A great over­view over the Edin­burgh Agree­ment and ques­tions relat­ing to its con­tent, con­sequences and pro­spects can be found at the Guardian’s web­site.

–  David Grodzki

This article first appeared with the European Student Think Tank


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksScottish Government, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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