Is It Time for Scotland to Be Independent?

06/07/2016 11:21 | Updated 06 July 2016

On the eve of the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014, I wrote that 'it is difficult to see exactly what will be gained by breaking up one of the most successful and powerful countries in the world.' I felt that Scotland had already achieved a significant amount of self-determination, and that more was coming to allow people in Scotland to choose a somewhat different political path while still enjoying the benefits of being in the UK. And in the context of the European Union (EU), sovereignty perhaps means something a bit different than what is frequently asserted - less absolute and more nuanced.

I argued that in the context of a democracy, political differences are not necessarily a reason to break up a country, because sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and perceived political differences are frequently much more complex than may be portrayed.

I concluded by saying that while I supported staying within the UK, I might change my mind if the UK decides to leave the EU.

Well, against expectations, the UK has, indeed, voted to leave the EU. Thus, it is time to consider whether it might be better for Scotland to leave the UK and find a new future as a small but valued country within the EU.

A second independence referendum is almost inevitable. Why? 62% of the voting population in Scotland wanted to stay in the EU, compared to 48% across the UK. This is a dramatic rejection of the arguments which led voters to decide that it was desirable to extricate itself from decades of political and economic integration.


Beyond the economic and other damage this decision will do to the UK, it ignores some pretty basic realities about globalisation and economic and political interdependence. Even when it leaves the EU, the UK will still need access to markets and institutions in Europe - and beyond. Although there have been many assertions by the Leave side that the UK will be able to forge new economic links with better terms, there is little evidence to support this.

Further, this vote laid bare a significant chasm in political vision. The Leave side campaigned on insularity, controlling borders, and 'sovereignty' - independence from 'unelected bureaucrats' in Brussels. A significant majority in Scotland have a different vision of society - one that is open to the world, multicultural, recognises that sovereignty is actually much more complex and nuanced than Brexiters claim, and generally more humane than what the UK is becoming.

An ideal of open borders for people, trade and ideas is not just a neoliberal fantasy of elites and the dreaded 'experts' the Leave campaigners dismissed - although continuous work is required to ensure that it is implemented in a more progressive manner. No, it is how many, many people actually want to live their lives. Young people, especially, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, want to be able to travel and work freely throughout the EU - and also want to benefit from the influx of people and goods and ideas into the UK from Europe. That vision is gone, denied by the generation which helped to create the EU and which is now turning its back on the greatest experiment in supranational political and economic integration and interchange the world has seen. Those who have the least to lose from leaving the EU have denied the opportunities to those who could have most benefitted from EU membership.


Does the EU have problems? Of course. Is there an element of democratic deficit? Of course. This is the nature of political institutions - again, they require constant monitoring and adjustment.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that she will do whatever she can to ensure that Scotland stays within the EU - including potentially leaving the UK. While she has begun talks with the EU to consider what that might look like, there is little prospect that Scotland could remain part of the EU without seceding from the UK and joining (or maintaining its membership in) the EU as an independent country. Thus, there will be a second independence referendum, which Westminster would find very hard to stop. And, this is likely to happen quickly, particularly if Scotland has any hope of staying in - or moving swiftly into - the EU while the rest of the UK leaves.

If the second referendum results in a vote to leave the UK, this will make a complex legal, political, and economic situation even more complex. There are significant questions regarding the legality of joining the EU, for example - could Scotland stay in or would it need to leave with the UK and then apply to rejoin? But these questions are as much political as they are legal. And if the EU wants Scotland to be a part of the EU - which most member countries appear to support - there may be political ways to make the process smooth (whereas it is clear that the process for the UK to leave the EU will be anything but smooth). Indeed, given the circumstances it might be smoother than if Scotland had voted to leave the UK two years ago.

Yet, there are still massive questions to be addressed which, as I noted two years ago, have not yet been dealt with in any substantial way. What will the currency be? Alex Salmond asserted that Scotland would just keep the Pound. This is not nearly as straightforward as was asserted two years ago, and would lead to some loss of control of the economy. It would also be a strange choice for a newly independent country. It is an open question as to whether Scotland would have to take the Euro if it left and then applied to rejoin the EU - using the Euro would have plusses and minuses. Maybe it will be the Groat.

There are other economic issues. In 2014 we were told that Scotland would be OK because of its North Sea oil reserves. There are two issues here. The most obvious is that the price of oil has gone through the floor, which has left many thankful that Scotland averted a potential economic disaster. Further, there will have to be negotiations over the division of assets. It is not clear exactly what Scotland would end up with should it vote to leave.

Similarly, what debt would Scotland be saddled with if it left? Again, there were assertions that Scotland could just leave without taking any of the debt with it. I am not sure this is a realistic proposition, so there could be very serious questions about Scotland's economic position from the outset.

I am not so naive as to think that, should Scotland vote to leave the UK, it would turn into some progressive paradise. There are economic and political realities to be faced, and practical questions, such as what the border with England would look like. And the political coalition which led to independence would likely fall apart to resemble normal politics (how long would the Scottish National Party (SNP) be the dominant political party once it achieved its main goal and all the divergent ideologies and interests represented in the SNP began to reassert themselves?).

But, the politics in Westminster Is anything but normal. It is nasty and self-destructive. It is inward looking and xenophobic. And the vision represented by the politicians who brought us the Brexit mess is at such significant odds with what I would hope politics would look like - and, I believe, at such odds with the dominant political ethos in Scotland - as to be fundamentally incompatible with Scotland staying in the UK. Self-determination may have reached its logical limits. It may well be time for Scotland to chart its own path within an open and welcoming European Union.

Determining whether this is indeed the case should start with a broad national conversation, centred not around unsubstantiated brash claims about the certainty of what Scotland would be like after independence - either positive or negative - but rather focused on developing a positive national vision based on outward looking democratic ideals, recognising the realities (both positive and challenging) of regional and global interconnectedness.