In 1706 and 1707, the Acts of Union joined the Kingdoms of England and Scotland into one country, Great Britain. On Thursday, the people of Scotland will vote “yes” or “no” on whether to become an independent country again after three centuries of union. Over the last year, the leading voices of both sides, as well as Brookings experts, have offered their perspectives on the historic vote and potential security, governance, and economic implications of a victory for the independence movement.
First Minister Alex Salmond Makes the Pro-Independence Case
In April 2013, Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, told a Brookings audience that “We will use the powers of independence to strengthen Scotland’s voice in the world, and we’ll use that voice, together with our allies, to promote democracy, international law, climate justice, and human rights.”
Minister Salmond spoke also of an independent Scotland’s desire to join the European Union and NATO. He noted that more than half of EU states have a population of less than 10 million (Scotland’s population is about 5.3 million), and stated that if “yes” prevails, “the Scottish Government would immediately make a notification of intent, confirming that as an independent nation, we want to continue within the European Union.”
A critical issue on the independence question concerns Scotland’s professed stance on nuclear weapons. The British nuclear submarine fleet, some armed with Trident ballistic missiles, is based in Scotland, yet the Scottish government has declared that “we believe nuclear weapons have no place in Scotland.” Minister Salmond addressed the issue at the Brookings event, stating that his country would seek to be an active member of multilateral organizations, including NATO, and that:
[A]t a time when President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address the world’s focus must be to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, for an independent Scotland, a country of five and a quarter million people, to host nuclear weapons would be absurd. No one seriously believes an independent Scotland should be a nuclear power. Only three of NATO’s 28 members are actually nuclear weapons states. The majority, including Canada, Norway, [and] Denmark, are fully committed members of the alliance without hosting nuclear weapons.
Now we recognize that the safe removal of the UK’s Trident system will require careful discussion with the United Kingdom government and with our NATO allies. But the aim would be clear: we would require the speediest, but safest, removal of Trident from our waters.
The first minister also emphasized that because Scotland has been a global leader on climate change issues, “why on earth shouldn’t we have control over our own defense, international development, and foreign policy, let alone our tax rates and the welfare system?”
Lord George Robertson Addresses Scotland’s Stance on Nuclear Weapons
Almost one year later, in April 2014, Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, former NATO secretary general, former, UK minister of defense, and member of the House of Commons, offered his views to a Brookings audience on the pro-union perspective. He warned that “The loudest cheers for the breakup of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies.” Continuing, he said:
For the second military power in the West to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms. If the United Kingdom was to face a split at this, of all times, and find itself embroiled for several years in a torrid, complex, difficult and debilitating divorce, it would rob the West of a serious partner, just when solidity and cool nerves are going to be vital.
Lord Robertson addressed Scotland joining NATO, stating that the Scottish National Party “has been for all its history bitterly opposed to NATO. The conversion came by a very slim internal majority, just as the referendum campaign started, and in my view, still lacks credibility.” He said that given Scotland’s stance on nuclear weapons, “it’s difficult to see the NATO-friendly policy as more than an electoral fix.” He added that non-nuclear weapons states in the alliance, like Norway and Iceland, accept the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance. “So it is manifestly different to have a country,” he said, “that now says that it will be anti-nuclear, not just non-nuclear, and is willing to expel a nuclear weapons base from a neighboring country and therefore sort of remove it from the NATO armory.”
Lord Robertson also warned of the “ripple effects” of Scottish independence in places like Spain’s Catalonia and Basque country, in Belgium’s Flemish region, and even in Kosovo. “So I contend,” he said, “that it is far from scaremongering, to use the term Balkanization to predict what might happen if Scotland was to break from its 300-year-old union. The fragmentation … of Europe starting on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War would be both an irony and a tragedy with incalculable consequences.”
“Nobody should underestimate the effect all of that would have on existing global balances,” Lord Robertson asserted, “and the forces of darkness would simply love it.”
The Scottish Question Featured at a Recent Brookings Event
Last Friday, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America hosted a panel discussion to consider the pros and cons of Scottish independence and to elaborate on what either outcome would mean for Scotland, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Panelists included Geoff Dyer, a Financial Times journalist; Charlie Jeffrey, VP for public policy and impact and director of the Future of the UK and Scotland at the University of Edinburgh; Juliet Kaarbo, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh; and Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow in CUSE and the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings.
Jeffrey called the vote “the biggest civic engagement recorded in Scottish history.” Dyer thought that “it’s not clear if Scotland can become a member of the EU.” Kaarbo said that while foreign policy is not a key issue for voters, it is “the most distinct area that will change with independence” and that an independent Scottish foreign policy would have “four pillars: profits, protection, principles, and pride.”
Shapiro guessed at the U.S. government view, observing that the U.S. is “a status quo power” and “secession for a status quo power is nearly a complete collapse of policy. … The U.S. essentially sees this as two of its best friends divorcing and that is never a joyful experience.” He continued on some of the most critical issues for the United States:
The critical one is the idea of the weakening of a key U.S. ally: the UK. … There is a general view that in the tumult that has been described after a “yes” vote, the UK or what remains of it will turn inward as it negotiates the exit of Scotland. It would be more likely to get out of the European Union in the putative referendum in 2017, which would further shrink British influence and British activism in the world. There’s also a view that a Scottish exit would put yet greater pressure on the British defense budget and the British armed forces, and overall might mean that the UK would no longer be able to play the kind of lead role in NATO that it traditionally has.
Get full audio of the program, which was moderated by CUSE Director Fiona Hill, here.
An Economist’s View on the Financial Market Effects of Scotland’s Independence
Economist Barry Bosworth, senior fellow and the Robert V. Roosa Chair, offered this perspective on how international financial markets might react to the vote’s outcome. He said that:
I think that if the independence vote passes, there will be a movement of funds out of the UK to the USA, raising the dollar-£ exchange rate. This will reinforce the current pattern of funds leaving the Eurozone for the U.S. The steady appreciation of the dollar will discourage U.S. exports. Independence will also reduce the attractiveness of the UK for Asian investors because of the uncertainty.
Among economists, there is a unanimous perspective that separation is bad for both the UK and Scotland, but the economic effects are long term and the vote is all about short-term emotions.
On Governance Concerns after the Vote
Fiona Hill and Jeremy Shapiro wrote in Foreign Affairs that the outcome “is less important than its broader political context—specifically, the festering governance crisis in the United Kingdom and the European Union.” In their analysis, Hill and Shapiro wrote of two “intersecting political issues”: the status of London in the United Kingdom, and the status of “large diverse countries such as the United Kingdom in the European Union.”
On the latter point, they argue that “Whether or not the Scottish independence movement succeeds, Scotland will not be the last region in Europe to seek a similar deal.” Pointing to what they call the “EU effect,” they write that “today it is not at all clear that a province [Catalonia, for example] still needs a larger national entity to thrive,” an entity such as a traditional nation-state.
“The EU must thus develop ways for regions with a strong sense of identity to co-exist with their capital cities,” they conclude, “or to divorce in manner that is consistent with a reasonably strong Europe. Scotland’s referendum, in that sense, is an important test case.”
What Scotland’s Vote Has to Do with American Federalism
“[A]n American state leaving the union is not even a remote possibility,” says Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, yet “the Scottish vote—and, more importantly, the broader devolution debate underway in Britain—does have timely lessons for the United States.”
In the piece, Katz, the Adeline M. and Alfred I. Johnson Chair in Urban and Metropolitan Policy, reviews the past 15 years of devolution from centralized power in Whitehall, the seat of national government in the UK, to Scotland, Wales, and many of Britain’s largest cities. “The demand for more devolution to major cities now dominates British politics,” Katz notes. And while in the United States power is already shared between the central government and states, “it is clear that American federalism is in a deep state of crisis and in serious need of repair.”
Read more here to find out what three things Katz says the federal and state governments should do “to unleash the latent potential for investment in cities and metropolitan areas and power the nation forward.”
Some of what Brookings experts are saying on Twitter
— EJ Dionne (@EJDionne) September 17, 2014
— David Steven (@davidsteven) September 17, 2014
— EJ Dionne (@EJDionne) September 17, 2014
— Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan) September 17, 2014
— Michael Fullilove (@mfullilove) September 16, 2014
— EJ Dionne (@EJDionne) September 16, 2014
Jeff Sachs on Scotland: Costs of separation are a matter of choice, not of inevitability. http://t.co/Qmi9aTGbCr
— David Wessel (@davidmwessel) September 16, 2014