What Scottish Independence Could Mean


George Christian is an adjunct professor of English at UT and an expert on British-Scotland relations.

Today is a day that could make history and change how the United States views Europe. Scottish voters will decide whether Scotland should withdraw from the United Kingdom and set up shop as a sovereign nation. If voters approve the referendum, the ruling Scottish National Party will be tasked with negotiating the country’s withdrawal from the 1707 Treaty of Union—the one that established the U.K. in the first place—proposing a new constitution for independent Scotland and dealing with myriad economic and foreign policy issues for which the U.K. Parliament is currently responsible.

Voter surveys have consistently shown that about half of likely voters oppose the referendum, while support for the referendum has generally hovered around 40 percent. Nevertheless, up or down ballots are notoriously difficult to forecast, particularly when the question has passionate minority support, as independence most certainly does. In any event, the vote marks an important historical moment in the past millennium of Anglo-Scottish relations.

If we can accept this rough-and-ready model of historical ebb and flow in Anglo-Scottish relations, what might the future hold? The possibilities are intriguing. As I see it, here are some of the potential outcomes of the referendum event.

A second Scottish Revolution: The referendum succeeds, a fully sovereign Scotland separates from the U.K. and joins the EU as its 29th member state. If this happens, it would be interesting to see how quickly Wales tries to follow suit. The U.K. is not the only European state facing significant constitutional change. The Catalan parliament is expected to enact legislation calling for a referendum on independence from Spain later this fall, though it is likely that Spain’s Constitutional Court will nullify the ballot.

The Third Devolution continued: The referendum fails in a close vote, leaving the Scottish National Party unfazed in its dominant political position and in a strong position to urge another independence vote in the future while negotiating more devolved powers, which the British government appears prepared to concede even if the referendum fails.

The Fourth Union: This scenario looks similar to the Third Devolution, but here devolution becomes part of a larger movement to establish a “federation” of British states (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) involving a substantial revision of the constitutional relationships between the British nations.

The Fourth Union II: The referendum fails in a landslide, discrediting the Scottish National Party and precipitating its fall from power and restoring the traditional U.K. party structure in Scotland. Scottish animus toward the ruling Tory/Lib Dem administration lessens when Labour eventually returns to power. The restoration of a Labour government stabilizes the status quo for the foreseeable future and indefinitely shelves moves toward further devolution or, for that matter, independence.

There is only one thing that history seems to rule out: a permanent status quo in which the current constitutional standing of England and Scotland stabilizes.

What does this all mean for the U.S.? While the formal diplomatic ties between Scotland and the United States has received little attention, the Scottish National Party currently opposes Scottish membership in NATO, claiming instead that it will join nations such as Ireland, Sweden and Finland that work cooperatively with NATO. If the Scottish National Party maintains that posture, U.S. foreign policy toward Scotland will probably be determined much in the same way as it is with respect to other small nonaligned but friendly European states.

While the independence referendum undoubtedly serves the SNP’s domestic political interests in the short-term, one cannot deny the historical character of the emotional response among its most passionate advocates. Problems will not be conjured away by the independence referendum, whatever its result, and the historical significance of the Sept. 18 vote remains to be seen by a future generation around the world.

A child at a Scottish independence rally in 2012. Photo by Phyllis Buchanan.


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