• Toby Irwin

Scotland: Independence Dream Dead in the Water

As recently as December 2019 one would not have to trawl far through social media to discover the widespread discontent emerging in Scotland. Exemplified by the general election there appeared at face-value a clear dichotomy between Scottish and English voters. Naturally one is inclined to remark that this would generally reflect a preference for independence. One YouGov poll in late January (the day before Brexit day) noted that support for independence stood at 51% against 49% for remaining. While polls are indeed dubious and often unreliable, it is an indication nonetheless. However, since then two things have changed perceptions and, in my view, make the dream for independence too far a feasible stretch.


The first factor is Brexit itself. While it is true that the UK is still in the transition period, the country did leave at midnight on the 31st of January and this (subject to no extensions re transition period) is a fact of life now. Scotland, being itself of course a constituent member of the United Kingdom has also left the European Union. Rejoining is no simple matter were Scotland to depart from the United Kingdom. Indeed, much in the same way that critics remark trade deals seem vacant in a transitional period post-Brexit, so too would a trade deal vacuum exist in the instance that Scotland left the UK. In the one foot, Scotland would shoot itself by leaving its most valuable trading partner (Rest of UK) and in the other foot an equally painful bullet would come in the shape of being excluded from the EU. Around two thirds of Scottish trade is with the Rest of the UK, and about a sixth with the EU. It is no small understatement that the trade imbalance favours the former immensely, and is also a great hypocrisy for economic critics of Brexit to also somehow muse that an independent Scotland could also seek prosperity void of all trade partners. The EU has made clear on multiple occasions that, due to the separatist nature of the movement, it would not automatically accept Scottish application. For instance, Spain has significant interest in denying Scotland's request since it would legitimise Catalan independence. Not only this, but Scotland would become almost certainly a net drainer of funds for the EU project. One can remark on this due to the incumbent financial situation in the UK which, through the Barnett Formula, disproportionately drains funds from the Rest of the UK to Scotland. For the sake of argument, one could suggest that Scotland is forced to pay a net contribution, in the same way Ireland does currently. Such a scenario would surely see such huge re-calibrations to Scottish state finances, going from a passive receiver of vast UK funds (strings unattached) to an unwavering commitment of net contributions to a project indebted with vast economic problems. Not to mention currency uncertainties. Brexit seems uncertain, but for Scotland it is the financial stability provided by the Rest of the UK that will remain pivotal to ensuring continued growth and prosperity north of the border. This is all the more evident given the collapse in oil prices: oil revenues were expected in 2014 to be a main driver for Scottish finances post-independence.


The second factor leads on from the second, and that is the corona virus pandemic. The ongoing crisis highlights the economic necessity of being attached to England. Due to the disproportionate sizes of the Scottish and Rest of UK economies, one notes that the reliance on the latter for business financial support is overwhelming. The prospect of Holyrood providing similar aid packages is unheard of absent crippling international borrowing and/or excruciating tax hikes (something undesirable given Scotland's already high tax rate). Rishi Sunak's stimulus plan of £30 billion is simply an unobtainable figure for Edinburgh to match were it independent. The harsh truth is that instability demands stability, and turbulent times such as this implore one to gravitate to existing, tried-and-tested state apparatus. This is not all to say that independence is simply impossible. Of course it is, but the electorate should surely be aware of the considerable likelihood of a fall in incomes, living standards and quality of life that a vote for independence would likely bring. The obvious solution to the paradox of political instability and the need for economic stability is to recognise that any vote for independence must be postponed well into the future, allowing the average voter time to weigh the pros and cons in an international environment not characterised by economic turmoil. And since a recession seems to be looming on the horizon, this may be some time yet.


https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-51342714

https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/11/uk-announces-largest-giveaway-budget-for-nearly-30-years-to-battle-covid-19

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-uk-continues-to-be-scotlands-largest-market-for-trade

https://www.statista.com/chart/18794/net-contributors-to-eu-budget/

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.

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