Scottish independence: what’s the question?

It seems simple enough. Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No? Except that is not simple at all.

With less than a month to go until the referendum, the debate seems to be hung up on issues of detail that cannot possibly be settled until the negotiations that would follow a Yes vote. Ahead of the second debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling this evening, the BBC identifies five unresolved questions: the currency, oil, border controls, the EU and Trident.

For me the questions seem much more fundamental, and much more numerous, than that. This is the perspective of a non-Scot who does not have a vote or any special insight. But here’s what a recent stay in Edinburgh (with Yes-supporting friends) got me thinking:

What does Yes mean? For the SNP, it seems to mean the ability to run its own domestic and foreign policy while retaining the security of a larger entity through membership of the European Union and of the Pound through a currency union with the rest of the UK (rUK).

That’s not a lot different from the position adopted by the many European countries that are members of both the EU and the Eurozone but remain independent (though critics of German-imposed austerity might beg to differ). However, it is the polar opposite of the position on independence adopted by UKIP, whose founding principles are leaving the EU and having a national currency.

Alex Salmond argues that a post-independence currency union is in the interests of both Scotland and rUK but that he will keep the Pound come what may. Scotland is part of a Union that includes the Pound, so why should it have any less right to use it than rUK? The No campaign – when it’s not busy refusing to discuss a currency union – counters that it’s a funny sort of independence that will see decisions on interest rates taken in a foreign country. Then there’s the little matter of the national debt – and whether a Scotland denied the use of the Pound has any responsibility to pay its share.

Beyond this though, Yes supporters point to the scale of political engagement at the grassroots and to a turnout that could be as high as 85 per cent. Could a Yes vote be the start of a different way of doing politics?


What does No mean? The referendum offers a straight choice of Yes or No. A third question – something like ‘do you want to transfer more powers from Westminster to the Scottish parliament, including tax and welfare but excluding defence and foreign affairs?’ – was ruled out at the start of the campaign on the insistence of David Cameron.

Scotland already has new tax powers that it can use from 2016. However, all three main UK parties have now signed a joint declaration promising ‘to strengthen further the powers of the Scottish Parliament, in particular in the areas of fiscal responsibility and social security. In other words, Unionists who want as much as possible decided in Westminster have nowhere to go and a No vote would mean exactly the sort of DevoPlusQuiteaLot that Cameron once ruled out.

Or would it? Without going into huge detail, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all seem to have different ideas about what should be transferred and the detail makes a huge difference. Take, for example, the fiscal issues associated with differences in the demographic profile of the UK and Scotland. These were summed up by one Scottish comedian I heard in Edinburgh this month as: ‘If we all start eating our fruit, you’re fucked.’

The Yes campaign argues that the UK parties cannot be trusted to deliver. Given that at least one would-be Tory leader has said outright that is against handing any new tax raising powers to Holyrood, it may have a point. If there is a No vote, especially if it is by a healthy majority, will UK politicians really follow through on this rather than take a fresh look at the Barnett formula?


What is the real question? The rival campaigns have attempted to create their own subtext to the official one.

For Yes, it’s something like ‘Do you agree with the way Scotland is being governed?’ How can you when it’s run from Westminster by a government dominated by a party that has only one Scottish MP? Under devolution, Scotland has developed distinctive policies such as free tuition fees and it has protected the NHS from the privatisation that is taking hold in England. All of that could be thrown into doubt if the Tories win the 2015 election and even if they don’t the record of New Labour after 1997 suggests that not much will change. Put simply: do you want more Thatcher, more privatisation, more bedroom tax? Even if you think DevoMore has something to be said for it, do you want no say over more Iraqs and more nukes? Yes becomes No.

For No, the implicit question is something like ‘do you want to take a gamble on the future of Scotland?’ That certainly seemed to be the negative subtext behind the effective points about the currency made by Alistair Darling in the first debate and it is the one I found pushed relentlessly in the Scottish media (with the exception of the Herald). However, No can also become Yes when (as above) the implicit question is more like ‘do you want to have the best of both worlds?’

What about Ireland? If the referendum had happened before 2007, this would have been a key question. Celtic Tiger Ireland might have been held up alongside Norway as an example of a small country that is both independent and successful.

As it is, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the references to Ireland tend to come from No campaigners asking what would have happened to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland (and Scotland itself) without the financial strength of the UK. Salmond responds to this by arguing that RBS’s problems were caused by the capital markets division based in London – and that Darling was chancellor at the time.

However, Ireland offers a precedent for what can happen when one part of the UK leaves the Union (albeit after a war not a peaceful referendum). And Ireland is also highly relevant to some of the unanswered questions identified by the BBC:

  • On the currency, Ireland continued to use the Pound for five years after independence before introducing what became the Punt in 1927. However, a sterling link was seen as key to maintaining a stable environment for trade and the Punt was worth exactly the same as the Pound for another 50 years. Things only changed in 1978, when Ireland joined the ERM as a precursor to joining the Euro. (See here for more detail).
  • On border controls, Ireland and the UK have a common travel area. This means that citizens do not need a passport to travel between them, although there can be selective checks.
  • On defence, the UK retained treaty ports in Ireland for 16 years after independence. They were only handed back in 1938, after the Irish Free State had become the Republic.

If Ireland illustrates some of the risks of independence, it also shows that independence is a process of negotiation and it can evolve over time.

Where do I stand? I’ve carefully sat on the fence throughout this blog and the fact that I don’t live in Scotland allows me to stay there. If I did have a vote, I’m pretty sure I would vote Yes because that seems to me to be the best way for Scotland to determine its own political future free from control by governments it has not voted for. As I don’t, I hope Scotland votes No – as the best way of saving the rest of the UK from the consequences of the governments that the South East of England does vote for and because i feel British. But then I find myself wondering whether either scenario is quite that simple. It seems fitting that this blog should end up with two different answers (for the same reason) plus yet another question.


9 Comments on “Scottish independence: what’s the question?”

  1. Scotland’s independence would forever free the Scottish from Tory rule, that they never vote into Scottish parliament to rule Scotland. Public owned NHS is safer in a Free Scotland.
    The poorest and most vulnerable will escape Tory rule in a Free Scotland and might just save their life.

    England has a 90 per cent national debt and a growing army of starving, that has risen 70 per cent since 2010, with extra hospital admissions for malnutrition that can kill by hunger in a month or so.

    In England and Wales, the newest pensoners –
    women born from 1953 and men born from 1951) –
    will be the poorest since the state pension began, and
    many will end up with
    No state pension for
    housewives, divorcees, widows
    and for men and women poorest workers.

    As half of over 50s are within the working poor, and 50 per cent unemployment rate for over 50s outside of London, then a Free Scotland offers far more than austerity obsessed Tories to Scots of all ages.

    Because it is the poor and pensioners who shop in town centres, and state pension payout at 60 would bring jobs onto the high street.

    Small nations exist quite well within Europe, and outside of Europe like Norway and Switzerland and even with their own currency. And still have a welfare state, instead of the 70 per cent rise in starvation needing hospital admission since 2010 as England and Wales.

  2. That is one of the fairest assessments of the complexities I have seen. Respect.

    Two additions: Money (very broad brush), and Democracy.

    Tax revenues from Scotland = £57bn a year
    Returned via the Block Grant = £30bn
    Returned via pensions and benefits = £17bn
    Spent in the rest of the UK ‘on Scotand’s behalf’ = £10bn a year.
    Independence repatriates that sum to be spent in Scotland
    It is a small sum in relation to the budget of the rest of the UK, but a large sum in relation to the budget of Scotland

    And Democracy.
    If you see Scotland as a region of the UK then it’s OK that we get Tory Governments half the time despite having not voted Conservative for 50 years.
    If you, as I do, see Scotland and England (incorporating Wales) as nations temporarily joined by an international treaty – it’s not OK

    I have long been interested in how the dissolution of the Union would affect our large southern neighbour. And very much hope that if it’s a Yes this will lead to positive change in England. With all my heart I wish that.

    3 weeks to go!

  3. In relation to your point regarding a No vote to save “the rest of the UK from the consequences of the governments that the South East of England does vote for.”

    Scottish votes basically never make a difference to UK election results.

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks for the comments Derick. Agree with your point about democracy and think that’s the strongest argument in favour (could add distinctiveness of culture, history etc but that works both ways e.g. Scottish role in British Empire). I know the argument that Scottish votes would only have made a difference in 1964, 1974 and 2010 but I’m not sure that takes account of how much things have shifted since 1979. In 1950s more than half of Scots voted Tory and voting pattern much the same as in Britain as a whole. Obviously since Thatcher that has all changed (as it has in Wales and North of England and the other way round in the South East). That makes potential loss of Scottish seats much more important.

      For English and Welsh people fearful of Tory domination it’s enough to know that without Scottish votes we would have had a Tory overall majority in 2010 and would probably get one in 2015 too. I don’t think that would mean permanent one-party rule – there would be a reaction against it and maybe Yes might inspire changes – but it could mean it for long enough to change things in England and Wales profoundly. And what might the impact on an independent Scotland be of a bigger neighbour with minimal welfare state, lower taxes etc etc?

      • Is there any real difference between the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition that resulted from having Scottish votes included in 2010, from the outright Tory majority that England & Wales would have elected without us? I can’t see it.

        If it’s a No (still the most likely outcome, alas) then Cameron will be The Man Who Saved the Union, and the Tories to romp 2015. Almost the only thing that MIGHT hurt the Conservatives’ prospects is a Yes vote.

        if it’s a Yes then the Great Power delusion becomes that bit harder for the elite to maintain. Trident will have to be relocated or scrapped. The Security Council seat will be harder to justify. The problem of regional disparity within England will be much more visible. Those things are all opportunities for decent non-Tory people to seize the agenda.

        If it’s a Yes and some of the ideas of the Common Weal get, however imperfectly, into policy and statute that progressive people in England will be able in future to look north and use us as an example. The way we do with Scandinavia at present.

        We just completed the 4,000th new council house since the Scottish Government restarted the programme. The Housing Scotland Act 2014 has just ended the ‘Right’ To Buy albeit the implementation is delayed (bah!). Homelessness is falling. If we can do it on a pocket money budget, and it works, why can’t Westminster work for the people of England with all the huge resources at their disposal?

        If it’s a Yes then a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people using little more than social media, mutual support and determination, would have beaten the totality of the press (Sunday Herald excepted) and the State Broadcaster in a propaganda campaign unparalleled in peacetime. If so the Tory press can be beaten. Even if we lose, we won’t lose by much an not enough to finish the issue. Therein lies hope.

        The radical history of England is there waiting to be told, and used as a force for good. If only there was a party or movement that would tell it. The Greens do, but it’s really Labour, or their successors are who need to step up. Hope the shock wakes them up!

  4. joehalewood says:

    Jules, I was going to write a piece about this too and as an Englishman who lived in Scotland for 5 years and my eldest son was born there.

    For me the issues is simple. It is NOT a question of what currency, what happens with Trident or any of the other ‘debates’ occurring on this as (a) you rightly say these are post vote decisions and for me (b) these are UK establishment framed debates – when the one and ONLY question to ask is do the Scots want to govern?

    Every country has for me an absolute right to self-determination as does every identity too so a Cornish right within England is the same. Cornish has own language, culture and history which makes up a ‘people’ or identity.

    Scots have to forget all the currency and Trident deflections and ask can we make a better fist of running Scotland than Westminster? Do we want to grab this once in a lifetime opportunity? If Slovakia and Slovenia an Montenegro and FYROM can do this successfully from the former Yugoslavia and former Czechoslovakia then why the hell should the Scots have any problems?

    Oh timourous beastie when will you see the likes again…of an independence vote…of running YOUR country which you owe to your children and grandchildren and fathers and forefathers.!

    That is the only question, do the Scots want to govern Scotland. They would be bloody stupid to vote No and they would never forgive themselves if they did.

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. Agree that the getting the government you vote for point is the most powerful one though not sure other parts of UK have the self-confidence to go it alone. Also the democratic deficit point could apply equally well to the North West or the North West as British politics has become so polarised regionally since 1979. Maybe it’s the South East of England that has declared independence and the rest of us haven’t noticed?

      • joehalewood says:

        I thought of the NW when I raised the Cornish issue yet being a very proud Scouser does not mean that Liverpool or Liverpudlian is a separate identity despite us being a ‘breed apart!” Cornwall does have a separate identity with the language history and culture unlike Liverpool or NW or any other region.

        In terms of democratic deficits no post war government has had 50%+ of the vote and so that issue is not relevant for me in the Scots vote.

        And on that subject how many Tory MPs have there been in Scotland in the last 30 years? The Scots have more to bemoan a democratic deficit than others.

        Even given the Scots voting YES will likely never see a majority Labour government again nad the reason why Labour are so pro a NO vote, doesnt detract from that.

        This is an issue of Scots wanting to govern themselves unencumbered by what Westminster does to England or Wales or NI and whether they want to take that leap.

        As I said if other countries can do that there is no reason why Scotland cannot. If they vote NO to independence they are throwing away that chance for a generation. Its a no brainer of a YES vote for me

  5. 45% Yes, 55% No last Thursday.

    As of 9am this morning the SNP had 65,047 members of whom 39,405 had joined since last Friday. Membership has been rising by around 5,000 a day for the past week but seems to be slowing a little now..

    The Scottish Green Party has seen membership rise from 1,600 to 6000 (Wednesday 24th). The Scottish branch of the Labour Party doesn’t publish membership figures but it is probable that the Scottish Green Party is now bigger than the Labour Party in Scotland

    Interesting times. Can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to May.

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