Toil and Trouble in the United Kingdom: Why Scotland Won’t Be Europe’s Last Region to Seek Independence

On September 18, the people of Scotland will decide whether they wish to remain in the United Kingdom. As the referendum approaches, public attention has focused mostly on the implications of the vote for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Given Scotland’s central role in creating the United Kingdom over 300 years ago, that’s only natural.

But the outcome of the vote, in many ways, is less important than its broader political context — specifically, the festering governance crisis in the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Scottish referendum will likely affect the evolution of this broader crisis, but will not resolve it. To understand why, one first needs to understand the nature of the problem, which results from 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.

London vs. The United Kingdom

When Scots complain about England, they really mean politicians in the seat of government in Westminster, and London and the southern parts of England, which have grown increasingly large, expensive, and detached — economically and culturally — from the rest of the country. The United Kingdom’s political and financial power is heavily concentrated in and around London, as are employment opportunities. The United Kingdom’s infrastructure is far more developed in the south than in the north or in Scotland and Wales, with residents of those regions lacking easy access to other parts of the country, including London. The economic differences are clearly visible in everyday life. As the capital buzzes day and night, villages and towns elsewhere in the country seem deserted, even during the daytime.

For the people of Scotland, London may seem like another country. Indeed it feels foreign to many of the residents of England as well, including in the Midlands and the North. Large swathes of rural and northern England are as convinced as Scotland that politicians in London do not have their interests at heart. There is a clear north-south divide in the United Kingdom when it comes to satisfaction with the economy, for example. But the dividing line is not along the Scottish border. It extends down into England. Only 33 percent of Londoners and residents of southern England consider the economy to be “bad”; 46 and 42 percent of, respectively, Scots and residents of northern England feel the same.

Part of the problem is the ruling Conservative Party, which is seen as the party of southern privilege and self-interested elitism. It has few women and minorities in its ranks, and a deficit of political figures with regional accents. No wonder, then, that in a 2013 review of British voting patterns, The Economist reported that “of the 158 seats that make up the three northern English regions, only 43 are Conservative.” Meanwhile, the Labor Party, which is strong in Scotland and Wales along with northern England, holds a “mere ten” of “the 197 seats in the three southern regions outside of London.” And in a recent poll, fully 60 percent of northerners and Scots disapproved of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s performance (compared to 50 percent in London and the South).

In short, pro-independence Scots aren’t unique. They are voicing the same complaints as many residents of England. The main difference is that Scottish nationalism and the political framework of devolution have given Scotland a vocabulary and platform for doing something that people elsewhere in the United Kingdom cannot: seek independence from London. Whether or not Scots vote to stay in the United Kingdom, moreover, the problem of London will continue to grow as a political issue. It will require increasing efforts on the part of all British politicians, including those of the ruling Conservative Party, to bridge the economic and political divide between the capital and the south and the rest of the country.

Europe’s Napoleon Complex

Of course, the problem of capitals being detached from their hinterlands is hardly new or unknown in other parts of Europe. In France, the most centralized of Western European states, Paris has long been a cultural and political behemoth, provoking resentment from the provinces. But this perennial struggle is now taking place in a political landscape shaped by the European Union. It should not come as a surprise that a key plank in the Scottish National Party’s independence platform is continued membership in the EU. Although the EU is very unpopular in the United Kingdom, in Scotland it is seen as providing protection from the depredations of London.

In many respects, the current Scottish independent movement would not be possible without the EU. In the past, as annoying as provinces found their capitals, they needed them to exercise the critical functions of nationhood — to defend them from outside predators, provide economies of scale necessary for modern economies, and establish a market for their goods. Today it is not at all clear that a province still needs a larger national entity to thrive. National capitals have been reduced to the middle managers of European governance, and they can easily be replaced by smaller entities. That is why one of the questions in the referendum debate — whether Scotland is large enough to be a “viable” state — is misplaced. If the EU and NATO provide defense from external aggression and the EU guarantees free access to the world’s largest market, then a state of any size can be viable.

Consider Luxembourg, the smallest state in the EU, with only 500,000 citizens. It is also the richest one — a status it has achieved essentially without any provision for national-level defense or other traditional means for maintaining its sovereignty. For tiny Luxembourg, shared sovereignty within the EU has been a small price to pay for the opportunity to focus on local issues and achieve prosperity. It is also a good deal for local elites who have the opportunity to compete for the prestige of serving as prime minister of Luxembourg, with that office’s seat at the head tables of the EU and NATO, rather than being obliged to serve as the governor of, say, a province of southeastern Belgium.

If Scottish leaders secure membership in the EU, they can have the same deal as their counterparts in Luxembourg. The leader of a prospective independent Scotland could also aspire to a leadership position at the head of the EU, like Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg who recently became the president of the European Commission.

A Secessionist Future

Whether or not the Scottish independence movement succeeds, Scotland will not be the last region in Europe to seek a similar deal. It has shown the way for every province that has a regional identity, ambitious politicians, and a loathing of its capital city to seek independence, or at least much greater autonomy, within the protective embrace of the EU. It is not surprising that another European region with a strong identity, Catalonia, seems poised to head down the same path. Nor is it surprising that the United Kingdom, with its explicitly multinational construction and its deep and growing divide between capital and provinces, has been the first country to feel what might be called the “EU effect.”

The EU must thus develop ways for regions with a strong sense of identity to co-exist with their capital cities, or to divorce in manner that is consistent with a reasonably strong Europe. Scotland’s referendum, in that sense, is an important test case. The precise details of Scotland’s fate will be less important than whether London and Edinburgh are able to cooperatively develop a new relationship. If they remain in one country, London will need to find a way to reduce its overbearing presence in Scottish life and to reinvigorate Scotland’s regional autonomy and economic vitality — in part by giving Scotland greater decision-making power over accessing EU policies like the Schengen visa-free travel area. If they separate, London and Edinburgh need to show the way by demonstrating how both countries could continue as EU partners in a common market and under a common security umbrella.

Equally urgent, London will have to explore new mechanisms for governing the United Kingdom if it hopes to keep the rest of the country united. Some piecemeal devolution in the 1990s, which came in response to demands from disaffected local populations, has created a patchwork of governance arrangements in the UK that have satisfied no one. It is perhaps time for London to take the initiative and propose a wholesale restructuring along more federal lines that will give other constituent parts of the United Kingdom, including London itself, formal constitutional standing as well as equal local powers within a larger European framework.

That would be a radical step for a country that has traditionally thrived on informal governance arrangements that preserve the fiction that all sovereignty still rests with the monarchy. But even if that fiction was convenient for a time, it no longer works. A modern United Kingdom in a modern European Union needs to consider a new narrative.

This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.