Why the UK nations are better together

The big “new” reason the union faces such peril is Brexit, which remains deeply unpopular in Scotland

  
Anti-Brexit protesters hold banners outside the Scottish parlament, in Edinburgh, Scotland,A BritainA January 31, 2020. REUTERS

Anti-Brexit protesters hold banners outside the Scottish parlament, in Edinburgh, Scotland,A BritainA January 31, 2020. REUTERS

Russell Cheyne

The Scottish National Party (SNP) expects a triumph in May’s national elections, but internal feuds threaten not just this goal but also its aspiration for Scottish independence.

Tensions are boiling over between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond. Last week the political fireworks came in the form of Sturgeon’s evidence at the inquiry into the Scottish government’s unlawful handling of sexual harassment complaints against Salmond, who was acquitted on all charges a year ago.

In his own evidence to the inquiry last month, Salmond slammed several people within the SNP and Scottish government, including Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive. The former first minister claims that these people engaged in a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to damage his reputation, even to the extent of attempting to have him imprisoned.

While no fatal political blows were dealt to Sturgeon last week, the drama will continue to run at least until May’s national elections, for several reasons. First, the committee leading the inquiry will issue its report on the affair in April. Second, there remain outstanding questions from Sturgeon’s testimony that opposition parties continue to probe. For instance, the first minister previously said she forgot about a meeting in March 2018 at which it is claimed she was first told about allegations against Salmond. Critics assert that in claiming she was not told until later, Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.

Whatever the truth of the Sturgeon and Salmond debacle, it could have a significant impact on the SNP’s hopes of forming a majority government this spring. Already, it may be feeding through into independence polls, with one at the end of February suggesting a 50-50 tie among Scottish voters, the first time in around two dozen such surveys since last year not to give ‘Yes’ a lead.

Many defenders of Scotland’s union with the rest of the UK see in these latest events a glimmer of hope that Scottish independence can be derailed. However, barring a complete meltdown in coming weeks, Sturgeon’s SNP remains in a strong position to be the single largest party in Holyrood after May’s elections.

Sturgeon has said that, if the SNP retains power, especially with a majority government, she will push hard for the UK government to approve another independence referendum. While the last vote in 2014 rejected Scottish independence, it is increasingly possible that another one could lead to the unraveling of the world’s longest and most successful political union.

The big “new” reason the union faces such peril is Brexit, which remains deeply unpopular in Scotland; it voted 62-38 percent against leaving the EU in 2016. However, while Scottish voters have understandable concerns about the UK’s departure from the EU, independence risks taking the nation down a political and economic sinkhole.

Sturgeon is charting her path toward a second referendum despite the uncertainties that Scotland would benefit significantly from independence — not least given the significant difference between tax revenues and public spending, which Scotland can better stomach as part of the UK.

Moreover, the EU has confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to join the bloc. Accession may in fact require potentially difficult negotiation, not least because membership technically requires countries to run a deficit below 3 percent of GDP.

Plus, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favorable than those that the UK negotiated. For instance, the EU would probably insist upon Scotland joining the troubled eurozone —regardless of much of the country’s attachment to the pound.

There is also a significant possibility of a “harder” border between Scotland and its largest trading partner, England, because Scotland would be required to embrace European-style freedom of movement and thus a different immigration policy from that of post-Brexit England.

Scottish independence would not just weaken Scotland, but also all other parts of the union, given that their future is better together. An example would be the UK’s weakened presence on the international stage, in international forums such as the UN, G7, G8, G20 and NATO. Some nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, or other UN members, may insist on review of UK membership of the council. To be sure, reform of that body is overdue, but Scottish independence may lead to less favorable terms for the UK.

The case needs to be made again for why the future of Scotland and the UK is better together. There are major uncertainties for Scotland from independence, and the costs to the UK would be significant too.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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