By Sophie des Beauvais
After 307 years of allegiance to the United Kingdom, the people of Scotland are ready to answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” On Thursday September 18, they will vote on an answer.
The Nationalists from “Yes Scotland” and the Unionists from “Better Together” have squared off during the year-long campaign. For a while, the polls were stable—with the Unionist camp maintaining a steady lead. Then, a few days ago, there was a shift. In a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times, the Nationalists were carrying 51 percent of the vote. The climate for Scottish secession, in other words, has suddenly become favorable.
The Economic Uncertainty
The secessionists from “Yes Scotland” have made the prospect of independence appealing, using a study from Financial Times as their campaign poster’s headline: “An independent Scotland would be richer than the rest of the U.K. and in the top 20 countries globally.” These secessionists claim that oil will be key in supporting the new Scottish economy.
However, excluding oil, Scotland runs a public-sector deficit of £14 million, and the Scottish National Party is planning to increase public expenditures by 3 percent each year. Although there is plenty of oil left, the industry’s best days are behind it, so a newly independent Scotland will have to rely on other industries—yet to be established as profit making centers.
Many Scottish companies—especially the Scottish whisky industry—are concerned with an independent Scotland. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has access to a stable regulatory and tax regime, as well as British economic diplomacy and E.U. membership, both of which open up a variety of new markets.. On August 27, 130 Scottish CEOs signed a common letter against the independence. To them, the doubt concerning the economic stability of a newly independent Scotland is too important—particularly in light of the reality that the Scots may not be able to maintain the pound.
In an article titled “Alex Salmond’s Big Problem,” The Economist notes that with integrated banking and monetary systems, but separate fiscal and political systems, a sterling zone would resemble the fragile Eurozone. Because of this, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned the Scottish government that “such a sterling zone would not work and would not have his support.”
Sadly, one of the critical issues—the future of Scottish currency—is not being given the attention it deserves. In the midst of rallying votes for or against independence, few are taking notice of the possibility that Scots could be left currency-less if they are not able to maintain the pound or gain immediate EU membership. According to Ian Docherty, Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Glasgow, there will only be room for this kind of debate after the election results have been tabulated.
Political and Institutional Transitions
While the economic fears are quite real, the political ones are of less concern. Since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, London has ceded many powers to Edinburgh—creating an infrastructure for governance. Moreover, the Scotland Act of 2012 gave the Scottish Parliament the power to set a Scottish rate of income tax for Scottish taxpayers.
Scottish membership in the EU, however, remains unresolved. The Scottish government asserted the country could remain in the Union using Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)– an ordinary revision procedure that would allow the E.U. treaties to be amended before Scotland becomes independent, enabling it to become a member at the point of independence. It is unlikely all member states would agree to Article 48, particularly given that England is one of those member states. Unionist voices subsequently argue that the only available option is Article 49, which explicitly provides the procedure that must be followed for any state to become a member of the EU. The applicant must apply to the European Council with assent of the European Parliament by absolute majority. New conditions and subsequent adjustment to the treaties then need to be agreed between the member states and the applicant state.
For Docherty, an independent Scotland without the E.U. is unthinkable. The only uncertainty is the procedure it will use to formalize its new membership, and if its status will be similar to that of the U.K. – which has four opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon and he Treaty of Amsterdam. Those opt-outs allow the U.K to be part of the Union and to sign those treaties without participating in certain policy areas the treaties mention: the Monetary Union, the Schengen Agreement, and some parts of the European legislation, to name a few.
If “yes” dominates the polls, it is not yet clear how the newly independent country will manage its transition from the union to independence. And, more concerning, some commentators argue that a Scottish independence would trigger a wave of British nationalism. Without Scottish members of the Parliament, the Euro-skeptic conservatives are most likely to win a majority in 2015, and the pro-European Scottish vote would be discounted in a potential E.U. referendum.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editioral assistant at World Policy Journal.