September 10, 2014

The Trouble With Scotland

The people of Scotland will soon vote on a referendum for independence from the United Kingdom.

On Sept. 18, the people of Scotland will vote on a referendum for independence from the United Kingdom. Support among Scots has been growing, with some new polling indicating a victory for the referendum. With the rise of ISIL, economic malaise and the latest news on Kim Kardashian, American voters are understandably generally ignorant of what’s happening in the UK. So what happens if Scotland breaks free?

Scotland voluntarily joined England and Wales to form the United Kingdom in 1707, but in recent years has gained some autonomy, including its own parliament. A more complete split would have major political, economic and security ramifications.

Of the UK’s 63.2 million subjects, Scotland’s population of 5.3 million is but a small part. Yet its citizens tend to be further left on the political spectrum than their English cousins, and Scotland has significant political weight. Out of its 41 members of the British Parliament, 40 are of the Labour Party. Without those Scottish representatives, the Conservatives would immediately gain a big advantage in Parliament, which might help England.

Yet British Prime Minister David Cameron, allegedly a Conservative, doesn’t want Scotland to leave. He’s in Scotland today to appeal directly to voters, which signals the prospect of secession is a real possibility. Cameron pushed for a single “yes” or “no” ballot question (as opposed to other graduated options) to force a clear choice, betting that Scottish voters wouldn’t go quite that far. But support for independence has continued to grow. If Scotland does leave, it’s possible Cameron would lose his job, which wouldn’t be the worst thing we can think of.

Should they vote “no,” British treasury secretary George Osborne offered Scottish voters “more tax powers, more spending powers [and] more power over the welfare state,” and further promised that “Scotland will have the best of both worlds” by avoiding “the risks of separation” while gaining “more control over [its] own destiny.”

Economically, Scotland may be holding England back, despite its 9.2% contribution to UK GDP. National Review’s John Fund writes, “[T]he ruling Scottish National party has often pursued foolish economic policies.” Furthermore, “Scottish voters are currently much more hostile than the U.K. electorate overall to free markets.” By separating, the Scots would be confronted with a healthy dose of reality. In fact, Fund adds, “A recent white paper produced by the Scottish government proposes cuts in corporate tax rates to attract business as well as a more skill-based immigration system as new policies to set in place after independence.”

According to Craig Smith, a political philosophy professor at the University of Glasgow, many Scots blame Margaret Thatcher for their troubles. “Thatcher removed subsidies from some industries and closed down unproductive parts of other industries and privatized other major parts,” says Smith. “They think Thatcher destroyed Scottish heavy industry, when the truth is that Scottish heavy industry destroyed itself with restrictive working practices and the trade unions. Other people could make these things cheaper and better than they could.” Indeed, cronyism is hard to shake, and socialism in Scotland, fueled by this bitterness, may prove intractable.

Surprising though it may seem, international security may take the biggest hit with Scottish independence. Author James Bennett writes, “[Independence] takes 5 million plus taxpayers, and most of the North Sea oil base, out of the funding available to keep the U.K. within the minimum 2 percent GDP contribution to its defense capabilities that NATO calls for, and converts Scotland into yet another free-rider on U.S. defense. It is highly unlikely that Scotland under the Scottish Nationalists will ever honor the NATO spending targets; in fact, their leader Alec Salmond has said it won’t explicitly.”

Furthermore, the UK would need to relocate its Trident nuclear-deterrent base from Faslane, Scotland, adding expense to an already shrinking military budget. The UK has leased 58 Trident II D5 missiles from the U.S. since 1990, and they serve as its primary nuclear deterrent. Some fear Scottish independence would lead the UK to abandon its nuclear program entirely, leaving the U.S. as the only contributing nuclear power in NATO (France is nuclear armed, but doesn’t furnish those arms to the alliance).

On this side of The Pond, the Obama administration has no plans to address the issue. The Department of Defense refers queries to the State Department, which says, “We don’t have anything on this at this point.” This disinterest is somewhat surprising given that St. Andrews in Scotland is considered the “home of golf.”

Clearly, the question facing Scottish voters on Sept. 18 is whether independence serves their interests. Nationalist leader Alec Salmond certainly says it’s best. Is it?

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