Will Scotland Go It Alone?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article  appeared in the August issue of Echelon Magazine.


Billy Connolly said: “I don’t want to influence anybody so I shut up. I think the Scots will come to a good conclusion in the referendum. They’ll get what they deserve.”


Voters in Scotland will go to the polls on 18 September to answer the “Yes/No” question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Scotland has had its own legislature since 1999. The Scottish National Party, led by Alex Salmond, who is first Minister for Scotland, dominates the Scottish Parliament. Those arguing for full independence say the current arrangement does not allow sufficient powers to govern Scotland effectively.

Who Can Vote?

Residence is the important factor. Around five million people aged 16 or over living in Scotland will be able vote, while 1.15 million Scots who are living outside of the country, including dedicated Scottish nationalist Sean Connery, will not be allowed to vote. Certain foreign nationals living in the country can register.


With independence, Scotland would leave its centuries-old political union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, taking with it nearly ten percent of the UK’s population and one third of its landmass. Scottish soldiers, engineers, and merchants played leading roles in building the British Empire, for example, in establishing the tea industry in Ceylon. Edinburgh and Glasgow became global centres of finance and industry.

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove said Scottish independence would invigorate Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader would think the UK’s split puts him in a “stronger position” to dictate to the world. Enemies of the West would cheer a “Yes “vote because the “second principal beacon of liberty” in the world would become more unstable.

Spain will be watching the outcome in Scotland with interest. The EU has taken the position that issues such as those currently posed by Scotland and Catalonia are for member states to resolve internally.

Scotland’s New Status

The “No” camp sees dangers in Scotland going it alone. In international negotiations, it will, they say, be a small unimportant nation of five million, instead of being part of an important nation of 63 million. All agreements previously created were with the UK as a whole. Scottish independence will mean a need to renegotiate membership of NATO, the UN and the EU. The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU. Spain may be reluctant to set a precedent for separatists in Catalonia. The “Yes” camp argues that independence will mean that Scotland will get a new seat at the UN, its own EU Commissioner and twice as many MEPs. Salmond insists that a newly independent Scotland would effortlessly take its place as the twenty-ninth member state in the EU.

Alistair Darling, leading spokesperson for the “Nos”, predicts that Edinburgh’s large financial sector will migrate south on September 19 because it will not want to remain in a country foreign to the 80 percent of its customers who live in England. Darling warns that the remaining UK might not keep paying for Glasgow’s Clydeside shipyard to build UK naval vessels.

Postive Aspects of New Status

Scotland did not buy into London’s abandonment of the post-war consensus of universalism and the welfare state. Scotland has only a few private schools. Its National Health Service remains in state hands, while, in England, the involvement of private companies in the provision of medical treatment has long been underway. The “Yes” camp believes Scotland has more in common with the high-tax, high-spend social democratic welfare states of Scandinavia than it does with the “greed is good” capitalism of the City of London. London and the southeast have effectively seceded from the rest of Britain and devised a post-industrial economy based on financial services and neoliberal tax policies. These which have caused a widening inequality that appals many Scots.

If even a strong Labour government in Westminster—one headed by two Scottish-born prime ministers, first Blair and then Brown—only made things worse, then maybe Scotland has to go it alone.

The “Yes” campaign’s manifesto, Scotland’s Future, promises “a transformational change in childcare,” the scrapping of London-imposed changes to welfare benefits, and, in the move most likely to attract international attention, the removal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system from Scotland.

Alex Salmond wrote: “I’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiments – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves… We seek a Scotland where sustainable prosperity goes hand in hand with solidarity and fairness.”

The Economy

Salmond claimed: “The reality is Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, more prosperous per head than the UK, France and Japan, but we need the powers of independence to ensure that that wealth properly benefits everyone in our society.”

Alex Salmond told a US audience: “Scotland’s economy is highly competitive – it’s one reason why we outperform the rest of the UK on inward investment. We are confident of our ability to succeed in the international marketplace. … Our prosperity is bound up in the wellbeing of others. We should see ourselves as a partner to other nations, not just a competitor.”


If oil revenue had been put into a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund (for the whole of the UK) rather than squandered on tax cuts, there would probably have been no referendum. Salmond says North Sea oil revenues would boost Scotland’s economy. Mr Darling underlined that while oil revenues currently accounted for about 15% of Scotland’s tax income, the North Sea’s reserves were in decline.

Pooling of Sovereignty

Idealists in the “Yes” camp are hoping for a new kind of country, not a nineteenth-century nation state, with hard borders and an army. They are looking for a state that embraces the pooling of sovereignty, as committed to interdependence as to independence.

Through the British Irish Council and the Common Travel Area, the Irish Government; UK Government; Scottish Government; Northern Ireland Executive; Welsh Government; Isle of Man Government; Government of Jersey and Government of Guernsey all work together. The SNP propose an expansion of these ties. A “yes” vote is a chance to balance out power across the archipelago.

Some in the “Yes” camp favour closer ties with Scandinavia. The Shetland Islands are closer to Oslo than London. Nordic Horizons is an informal group of Scottish professionals who want to raise the standard of knowledge and debate about life and policy in the Nordic nations. What can Scotland learn from the innovation systems in Sweden and Finland to support Scotland’s economy?

Who Is For, Who Against?

The SNP has the sharpest, most effective political machine in Scotland. Salmond is a wily strategist and a charismatic speaker. Scottish Labour’s biggest talents made their careers by leaving for London long ago. The Spectator has observed, “Alistair Darling’s ‘Better Together’ campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath”. Darling’s association with Blair and New Labour taints Darling. He was the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over the 2008 recession and predicted it would be “over by Christmas”. He is also very dull. Most of Scotland’s artists, writers, and musicians lean towards “Yes”, as do the young. Sixteen-year olds will have a vote. It is not cool to say “No”.

What if the Answer Is “No”?

Privately, well-placed Nationalists are girding themselves for a narrow defeat. They are sanguine about this. If the “Yes” side gets more than 40 percent then, they say, a new process of negotiations about devolution will begin. What has begun in Scotland is a rebellion against the highly centralized Westminster state, which still hands Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the English regions a “block grant” of cash rather than letting them raise and spend their own funds as they see fit.


The Nationalist campaign has not been a sentimental business about tartanry and Braveheart. It has lacked even the faintest hint of anti-Englishness. The case for “Yes” has been presented in mild, technocratic terms. For the Nationalists, Scotland has become a land of social democratic consensus. The Conservative Party is now negligible as a political force in Scotland. In the 1955 election, the Tories won more votes in Scotland than any other party did, but decades of decline followed, culminating in the disaster of 1997. Today, of the fifty-nine members of Parliament Scotland sends to Westminster, just one is a Conservative.

Salmond speaks of the “democratic deficit” that still afflicts Scotland, and indeed the UK as a whole. It is ironic that a “Yes” vote for Scottish independence would have a drastic effect on England. If Scotland no longer sends fifty-nine MPs to Westminster, many of whom represent safe Labour seats, then Labour’s chances of forming a UK government diminish sharply. An England-dominated UK could be a one-party state, a permanently Conservative polity.