international analysis and commentary

The issue of Scotland’s independence: two years before the referendum

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More than two years remain before we will know the outcome of the referendum that could result in Scottish independence. After centuries of being a part of the United Kingdom, and despite the long wait ahead, the issue has already started to acquire relevance on the national political agenda.

The campaign has officially begun with the presentation of the “YES” and “NO” political committees.  Meanwhile, the euro crisis is playing a major role in shaping the opinion of voters. The “YES” campaign is promoted by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its leader is Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. The “NO” committee is promoted by several parties and is led by Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2007 to 2010 and a central figure in the Labour Party. The cross-party group leading the “NO” campaign is called “Better together” and it is composed of the three Unionist parties (Labour, Lib-Dem and Tories), united under one coalition as they have never been before.

Labour and the Lib-Dems are the main actors, without any major roles being played by the Tories due to their weak political presence in the Scottish political arena. However, being the main party of the British coalition government, they will in fact have a significant voice  as the campaign progresses. The referendum is historical, but its outcome could of course go either way, and is it is seen by Whitehall as a possible “end to independence” which will “knock it on the head once and for all”. The last elections held in 2011 indicated that the Unionists still theoretically had slightly more support (45% for the SNP), but the political panorama has radically changed since 2011.

The SNP made the first move and it will make the agenda for this two-year campaign even though the economic crisis changed the rules of the game and the likely outcome. Although the SNP started with fair chances of winning, at this stage of the campaign defeat seems much more likely than one year ago and the political future of the SNP is at stake. On the other hand, the Unionist campaign has had a good start thanks to the Alistair Darling’s leadership. Indeed, polls taken in the last weeks rated support for the independence at under 35% . Undoubtedly, Darling’s charisma, along with the fact that he is one of the few strong figures in Brown’s cabinet, is an important asset for the “NO” campaign.

His position is rather straightforward: the Scottish could have a better future “in a strong and secure” union than they would have alone. In particular, as underlined by many, the Scottish economy is extremely dependent on relations with the rest of the UK. The financial crisis has badly hit  the main Scottish financial institutions (banks and insurance companies), and the Royal Bank of Scotland could not have been saved without the intervention of London and its central bank. The size of the British economy – several times bigger than that of Scotland alone – represent a safeguard in these years of such strong economic instability. 

Furthermore, it is unclear what kind of relationship the SNP wants to keep with the UK in the event of independence. Additionally, the financial sector has a strong economic relevance and in the case of independence many of Scotland’s main financial institutions will move south of the border. Alex Salmond declared that if his party  wins the referendum it will continue to use the sterling as currency and thus would not opt to join the euro. This practically means that Scotland would be a state without control of its currency.

Scottish nationalists have always been strong European and euro supporters, but with the euro crisis in full swing, attitudes have changed. The perils faced by the euro show many of the weaknesses inherent in a currency union without a central fiscal policy and lender of last resort, but paradoxicallythe Scottish would face the same conditions according to the propositions of the SNP.

The  question “to leave or to stay?” will be the “leitmotiv” of the next two years and will have a crucial economic dimension. In spite of the unclear answers of the SNP regarding what will happen next after the independence, the “NO” coalition will face several challenges such as the role of the Tories and the increasing unpopularity of the governmental coalition. The escalating dissatisfaction with Cameron’s government and the long economic crisis ahead will inevitably influence the feeling of voters regarding independence.

The role of the leaders will be important to avoid a campaign characterized by doomsday language and political blackmail. The SNP wants to include a second question in the referendum calling for wider devolution. In doing so, the Scottish party hopes that, although the independence question is likely to be defeated, the referendum will not be a complete failure for them. As many commentators underlined a simple and straight-forward question will help the cause of the “NO” campaign and strengthen its secondary political aim which it is to diminish the role and the power of the SNP in Scotland. Both sides recognize the importance of the formulation of the question regarding independence and at the moment, it is the most intricate issue to sort out.Behind the scenes, the SNP is preparing its “Plan B”. Being able to capture the political mood is one of the essential instincts of any successful politician and Salmond has shown his acumen on several occasions: the time may have come to contain the damage of a likely defeat Indeed, a referendum defeat now seems  highly probable considering the polls, the negative economic prospects and subsequent  instability. Plan B could consist of a second referendum question in which voters could opt for stronger devolution from London, including new powers for the Scottish parliament and consequently a stronger role for the SNP in the years to come. The “devo-max” questionis also welcome by many in London, where a longer political campaign would consume the already weak political capital of the Cameron government.

Scotland is certainly not unique in having to rethink center-periphery relations due to the wide effects of the economic downturn: regionalist and separatist movements across Europe have hard choices to make in the context of harsh austerity measures.

Cuts in public expenditure at both national and regional levels, on which regional and separatist movements have built political capital and consensus in the last decades, can undermine their role and  political power, just as central governments try to reassert their primacyThese dynamics will certainly play out in the UK over the next two years.