With renewed calls for Scottish independence dominating UK parliamentary debate, Evan O’Quigley discusses the issues facing both sides of the argument.
There has been much discussion recently of the possibility of Scotland becoming independent from the United Kingdom sometime in the next few years, a trend which many attribute to the recent success of The Scottish National Party, a social democratic party that has campaigned for Scottish independence since their formation in 1934. In last year’s Scottish Parliamentary election the party won a landslide victory, gaining a majority with sixty-nine seats. Much of their recent success has been attributed to their leader, Alex Salmond, who has led the party since 2004.
Salmond recently met with Prime Minister David Cameron in order to discuss plans for a referendum on independence. Cameron and the Scottish First Minister have clashed over the possibility of Scottish independence, with all three of the UK main party leaders; Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and Labour’s Ed Milliband opposing the proposals. Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor in Gordon Brown’s government, and currently an MP for Edinburgh South West, recently warned that independence could carry a “huge economic risk”. He stated in an interview with the The Observer that if the Scots voted to leave the Union, the country could plunge into economic uncertainty.
Darling has been seen by the Unionist camp as the most qualified to spell out the possible negative consequences of Scottish independence passing in the UK. Much of this is due to the general unpopularity of the Conservative party, and of David Cameron’s government in much of Scotland as well as his now famous, and correct, warning of Gordon Brown regarding the gravity of the economic downturn facing the UK and the world. While he does not support independence, Cameron has been careful to stress that he does not mean to suggest that Scotland could not survive independently, but has stated that it would be ‘best’ for Scotland to remain in the Union.
Many in Scotland, including the SNP, have been pushing for the a third option to be included on a referendum of Maximum Devolution, or ‘Devo Max’ as it has been dubbed by the media. This would essentially keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, while allowing the Scottish parliament to take a large amount of power away from London, including full fiscal autonomy, essentially handing over all powers to Scotland with the exception of defence and foreign policy. Polls have indicated that a majority of Scots would prefer this ‘Devo Max’ option, although both coalition parties and Labour have opposed it.
For this these parties have been accused by Unionists of ‘gambling’ with Scottish independence, by possibly re-enforcing nationalist sentiment in the country. The current system of governance in Scotland has been criticised for not allowing enough power to the Scottish parliament, and for Scottish MPs in London voting on purely English issues that do not affect their own constituencies. Cameron has pushed for the referendum to be carried out in 2013, while Salmond would rather it wait until 2014, when the possibility of achieving a yes vote would be more likely. Salmond recently criticised Cameron for the ‘bullying’ nature he has adopted. Stewart Hosie, a Scottish Nationalist MP, recently stated at Westminster that “every step the anti-independence parties have taken since Cameron’s chaotic intervention … has done nothing but boost support for independence and ensuring that the people of Scotland are able to see decisions taken about what’s best for Scotland in Scotland.”
While a majority voted for the SNP, according to a recent ‘YouGov’ Survey, most Scots (sixty-one per cent) oppose independence, although a majority of fifty-eight per cent indicated they would like the Scottish Parliament to have control of its finances. Many support the party, but not the cause, thanks to Salmond’s charisma and the party’s ability to attract non-nationalist voters due to their popular stances on other issues, as well as presenting themselves as a centre-left, electable and moderate nationalist party.
The Unionists’ biggest problem is that their opposition to an independent Scotland focuses entirely on the negative connotations associated with, and not the positive aspects of, remaining in the union. DUP councillor Lee Reynolds criticised the Unionist opposition to Salmond as being weak and unable to effectively argue their case, despite the fact that remaining in the union has consistently polled as more popular than independence. While Reynolds may have a point, he like other Unionists fail to understand the view many share that the status-quo is no longer working, which has been shown by the support for maximum devolution of power from London to Holyrood.
The pro-union camp refuse to acknowledge how the current economic situation has diminished voters’ belief in large economic structures such as the United Kingdom, which has also led to recent rises in Euroscepticism across the UK. This is likely to be an advantage for Salmond and the SNP, as recently in Scottish politics anything negative is more often than not attributed to participation in the union. If Cameron eventually backs down from his staunch opposition, it is entirely possible that Scotland will acquire fiscal autonomy. As for full independence, that will remain to be seen.