Strategic Myopia in the Fight for Scotland and the UK

On 18 September the inhabitants of Scotland go to the polls to decide whether to end their 300 year union with the United Kingdom and instead become an independent state. Whatever the result of this historic vote, a lack of strategic thinking means the vote looks set to raise more questions than it will settle.

On 18 September the inhabitants of Scotland go to the polls to decide whether to end their 300 year union with the United Kingdom and instead become an independent state. Whatever the result of this historic vote, a lack of strategic thinking means the vote looks set to raise more questions than it will settle.

Like any union, the UK has its peculiarities. The many distinct regions and cultures that make up the British union long predate the creation in 1999 of devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Greater London. Scotland was once an independent state, counties such as Yorkshire have proud histories, and the 2011 census showed only Londoners tend to feel very strongly British.

Devolution has institutionalized these divisions, giving certain areas like Scotland powers over issues such as health or education. This triggered demands for further powers which, once devolved, no longer reside in Westminster, the London-based political center of the UK. Scotland has gained the most, emerging as a more distinct political space. In strict constitutional theory Westminster remains sovereign and can take powers back. Realpolitik dictates otherwise.

Despite this, the belief in Westminster's sovereignty has stunted efforts to move the UK towards a federal system. Most UK laws or policy on domestic matters such as health or transport are now intended in large-part for England. There are inevitable implications for areas such as Scotland. But this is often overlooked, and instead there is the impression that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members of the Westminster parliament get to unfairly vote on laws that apply only to England.

This is not to argue that devolution is a bad thing. The UK, and especially England, remains one of the most overly-centralized states in the developed world. But a UK government of any political persuasion now struggles to present itself as a government serving the whole UK population and in which all of that population has an equal interest. There is a growing realization that the increasing economic and social differences between different parts of the UK, combined with the lack of any joined-up UK wide federal style powers is only driving the union apart.

A vote by the Scots to stay in the UK should therefore not be taken as a sign that all is well. For Scottish nationalists a defeat will be a tactical defeat, not a strategic one. Winning the chance to hold a referendum was a spectacular victory in developing Scotland as a place distinct from the rest of the UK.

Scottish nationalists will regroup and return to the fight for further devolution of powers, or 'devo-max.' This will likely see most of Westminster's remaining domestic powers over Scotland devolved, leaving the UK Parliament responsible for some limited issues, mainly defense, foreign policy and some UK-wide taxes. All else will rest with Scotland. Until recently unionists seemed oblivious to how their failure to consider how this scenario will coexist with the rest of the UK gave Scottish nationalists a strategic advantage.

A vote by the Scots for independence would represent a strategic failure by the UK to manage the union in a way that ensured its viability. It is likely this failure would continue. Questions will be asked about the future of Wales in the UK. The situation in Northern Ireland could be dramatically changed. London's dominant place in England and the remaining UK will become even more apparent. The north and south of England will continue to bicker at one another.

Perhaps a Scottish exit could prompt the remaining UK to think more strategically about how to manage the remaining union. But we should not be hopeful. While the Scottish debate has been building up, many in the House of Commons have been worrying less about the future of the British union and instead obsessing about the UK's participation in the European Union.

Allegations by Conservative MPs that the EU is undermining the UK led the current government to commission a detailed review into the balance of powers between the UK and the EU. It has so far found the balance to be about right. It is doubtful any such a review of the balance of powers within the UK would reach the same conclusion.

But all is not well on the nationalist side, either. For Scottish nationalists a vote for independence might seem like a stunning strategic victory, delivering their long-sought dream of independence. But look closer and you see a hazy vision of independence.

The Scottish National Party's detractors never cease to point out that the Scottish National Party (SNP) want an independent Scotland to retain a long list of links to the remaining UK, whether symbolic such as retaining the Queen, or more substantial ones such as retaining the Pound Sterling. This in itself is part of an SNP strategy of seeking gradual change from Britain to Scotland instead of some sudden abrupt transformation. But it also creates dangers and awkward questions.

It would be going too far to argue a vote for independence would be only a tactical victory for the SNP, but the strategic limitations of such independence would soon become clearer.

An example of these limitations could be Scotland's entry into the EU. While membership is highly likely, it would come at a cost. Objections have already been raised by countries such as Spain, who fear setting an example for their own potential break-away regions. Others have questioned Scottish nationalist hopes that an independent Scotland be allowed to retain the UK's exemptions from the Euro, the Schengen common travel area, some justice legislation, as well as have its share of the much resented €3.6 billion British rebate from the EU's budget that was negotiated by Mrs Thatcher. In a twist, the remaining UK will be Scotland's biggest, perhaps only ally, for getting it into the EU on such terms. And some ask whether a Scotland in the EU would be truly independent, or even more subservient to distant rulers than it is now.

Both unionists and nationalists also make a mistake when they take the USA's support for granted. A vote for independence will provoke popular ideas of liberty and freedom, but Scottish nationalists should not be surprised when Scotland is then largely forgotten and ignored. Even Ireland worries about the relevance of the US-Irish relationship today to a USA with a changing population. The remaining UK would be a slightly reduced player, but news of UK defense cuts is a familiar one. Unionists should note that even if the UK stays together, for the USA it could become a more introverted actor because of fears that controversial foreign policy decisions will provoke another referendum. That the USA fought and overcame a deeply divisive civil war in order to maintain its unity leaves some bewildered by Scottish nationalist desires, the lackluster approach of the UK to holding its union together, and the inability of the UK to grasp the idea - before it's too late - of how to become a federal union.


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