After the unsuccessful bid for Scottish independence, initiated by the SNP majority government led by the First Minister Alex Salmond, it seemed that the idea of an independent Scotland has been postponed for at least a decade, although the key players from both Holyrood and Westminster knew that the whole struggle was far from over. Alex Salmond resigned in the wake of the referendum loss but SNP managed to defend most of its seats in the Scottish Parliament in the 2016 election in addition to a sweeping victory in Scotland in the 2015 General election. There the SNP decimated Labour and managed to obtain all but three of the Scottish seat in Westminster.
What has changed since 2014
However, no one expected the First Minister of Scotland to strongly pursue another independence referendum as a key objective within a single term in office after the first one in 2014. Yet after the Brexit vote that is exactly how the situation enveloped. Although Britain decided to leave the European Union on the June 23rd with a narrow margin of four percentage points, pro-European Scotland voted overwhelmingly Remain with a 62% majority. What more, each electoral district voted to stay in the EU, making the Scottish choice unanimous, vocal and strong.
This was a recipe for problems from the start, yet the problem was exacerbated by the decision of the new Prime Minister to pursue the so-called “hard Brexit”, which includes leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and other European institutions.
Whether the Conservative government has a mandate for hard Brexit or not is irrelevant for the Scottish government at this point as the policy course seems to be set and with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, it is not likely to change too much. However, it does create a very peculiar situation. Scotland as a country has some devolved powers but the decision-making in many key areas still remain with the Westminster Parliament. Theresa May was very well aware that navigating the course of a hard divorce with the EU would pose a strong opposition from Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is why she decided to significantly curb their influence over determining the strategy for the negotiations and in the Brexit talks themselves.
Many critics, including the Scottish Conservatives, have repeatedly used the argument that the Scottish public has only recently had a chance to decide on their independence and they decided to remain a part of the United Kingdom. This claim, however, is bordering hypocrisy. Yes, not even three years have passed since the last independence referendum. The situation, however, has changed dramatically.
The Persistent Negatives
It is true that a plenty of arguments against the Scottish independence still stand today. Scotland would lose the Pound Sterling as a currency. Seamlessly switching to Euro would be a tricky option as Scotland would most likely not be meeting the Maastricht convergence criteria for the admission to the Eurozone. It could adopt Euro with sanctioning from the EU like San Marino or Andorra, which however does seem rather unlikely. Currently, Scotland does not have its own central bank and would likely have to set up one.
A very important yet unknown condition would the outcome of the negotiation as to what fraction of the British sovereign debt would Scotland inherit as an independent state. The ratio of the GDP to government debt and deficit are two of the criteria for the adoption of the Euro.
Furthermore, the Scottish economy would now be more vulnerable on its own than in 2014. Scotland heavily depends on the revenues from oil mined in the North Sea. Yet with crumbling and volatile oil prices as well as their eventual exhaustion, it could prove very dangerous to rely on those as a source of national income.
The Prevailing Positives and the Case For the EU Membership
However, the composition of the Scottish economy also harbours a strong argument for fighting for the membership in the EU. Scotland is a net exporter and access to the Single Market and a place in the Customs Union are vital for many of the Scottish industries.
Another point made by the Unionists in 2014 was that of a stronger security for Scotland. That is clearly a very different situation today, when Scotland would be deciding between either the United Kingdom or the EU as its main security partner. Same reasoning applies to the potential rise in general prices after the Scottish exit. Yes, that could have been the case in 2014 when the membership in the EU was guaranteed but is that still so today?
Additionally, some banks and business (for example RBS) claimed in 2014 that they would relocate their headquarters to London should Scotland gain its independence. Think of a different scenario though – what if Scotland was to remain in the EU after Brexit? Wouldn’t that provide a massive argument for the banks and business in London to move to Scotland?
Nevertheless, it is still very true that the cost of the breakup would be very high. On the formal side, splitting the armed forces with the likely relocation of the Trident nuclear submarines in Faslane would be very costly. Scottish universities receive a portion of their funding from the UK government. The pension system would have to be divided and so on.
Finally, despite some optimistic statements, there is no guarantee that Scotland would actually be admitted into the EU without any significant delays. Such a move would require unanimity of the member states and would likely meet strong opposition from Spain as it would fuel the desire for the Catalonian independence.
The Reality and Scotland’s Claim
Apart from the last one, these are the arguments that convince 55% of the voters in 2014 to vote for Scotland to remain a part of the UK. As mentioned before, they are still very accurate. However, the whole situation has changed dramatically. The membership in the EU was in no way on the ballot in 2014. Would that have changed the outcome? We cannot be sure but the 2014 result has little to no relevance only two years after the referendum. It would be fallacious to state that the record of that referendum still applies.
Perhaps even the loss of the membership in the EU would not be enough to persuade the Scottish people to become an independent country. After all, the opinion polls seem to suggest that. Perhaps the right time for the independence vote is after the negotiations are over and the United Kingdom actually leaves the EU. However, it is beyond doubt that Scotland has every right to hold another referendum on its independence. National self-determinism is a cornerstone of the European modern history and a key principle of the democratic state. The Scottish people deserve to choose their destiny, regardless of what it may be. If that future is staying a member of the European Union, then so be it.