Since Brexit took effect in 2020, the United Kingdom has gone through crisis after crisis. The island nation has notably gone through a recent dramatic crisis of leadership since the departure of Boris Johnson from the position of Prime Minister. A severe financial crisis is pushing many workers to take to the streets and strike against unfair wages. Another potential crisis is on the horizon. The one that might change the political landscape of the UK irrevocably: the possibility of Scottish independence.
Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom since 1707, when the Acts of Union entered into force and legally bound the country’s throne to that of England. Almost 300 years later, the Scottish people are progressively questioning the union. In 2014, the Scottish government held a referendum asking its citizens whether they wished to be independent from the United Kingdom; the results were split with 55% voting against and 44% voting in favor. Eight years later, the country is once again debating its future in the union, so what has changed?
As the discourse over Scottish independence continues, it is critical to understand the nuanced differences between Scotland and England, rooted in their distinct histories and cultural identities. From centuries of continuous clashes, including two wars of independence for the Scots from English domination in the 14th century, to a rapprochement under their shared monarch King James I in the 18th century, the relationship between these two countries has been complex. These cultural differences between the two countries have over time seeped into their contemporary politics and economics.
Scotland’s pro-European Union stance has widened the divide with England in the wake of Brexit. According to the Guardian, in the 2016 EU referendum, 62% of Scottish voters wished to remain in the European Union. The repercussions of the UK’s departure from the EU caused disruptions and ongoing troubles managing its European commerce which have been exacting a toll on the British economy. The added difficulties engaging in commerce with the United Kingdom’s largest trading partner have put even more strain on Anglo-Scottish relations and exacerbated the political differences between the two countries as well.
After Theresa May, who took office after the decision to leave had been made, resigned as Prime Minister in 2016, the United Kingdom was led by Boris Johnson, another member of the Conservatives who pushed the country through the Brexit process. However, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, public opinion turned on Johnson, pushing him to resign as well. The following power vacuum was shortly filled by Liz Truss, whose proposed policies caused a sharp decline in British stock markets and a downturn in the overall economy. After just seven weeks in office, Truss was replaced by Rishi Sunak, another Conservative, who pushes for standard liberalization efforts in the financial sphere. Throughout this time, Scotland has remained under the governance of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose policies often oppose those implemented by the Conservative-led British government.
Scotland’s government, autonomous from the government of England, maintains its own legislature and executive positions, despite being subject to the jurisdiction and control of the Prime Minister and Parliament. Since 2011, the SNP, Scotland’s largest party, has dominated Scottish politics, running on a social democratic, nationalist platform that emphasizes Scottish autonomy from England. Unlike their English counterparts, Scottish voters and government often swing left-wing. Recently, the British Parliament came into conflict with the Scottish government over legislation aimed to reduce the prerequisites that Scottish youth needed to pursue gender-affirming care. Amidst this debate, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her retirement from the position. Sturgeon, who had held the office for more than eight years, said that her resignation had nothing to do with the recent disputes. Nevertheless, she promised that the SNP would continue pursuing trans rights legislation as well as continuing inquiries into another referendum for independence.
The push for self-determination hit a roadblock when the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that another referendum on independence was illegal without the British Parliament’s consent. Despite the ruling, Sturgeon reaffirmed her commitment to Scottish independence, remarking “Scottish democracy will not be denied” and reinforcing the plans to continue down this path. Even without a referendum, the next general election could play a significant role in independence efforts for Scotland, with Sturgeon and the SNP viewing the next election cycle as a chance for de facto independence from the United Kingdom. However, there are still some Scots who do not support independence and view the union with England positively.
Despite the many differences and disputes between Scotland and England there remain some positive aspects, which for some are enough to stay in the union. Notably, the Scottish economy is dwarfed by that of England. While the Scottish oil industry once boomed and, according to the Scottish government, provided an excess of 9 billion GBP to the economy in 2012, this has since diminished to only 22.5 million in 2019, only 0.25% of what it once was. Additionally, as a part of the UK, Scotland would remain associated with the cultural and scientific achievements the United Kingdom has seen. Furthermore, and most importantly, the United Kingdom provides security to the small nation. With only five million residents, Scotland is tiny compared to the rest of the island and its defense would be difficult to maintain without the support of the broader United Kingdom. While Scotland may attempt to re-enter the European Union on its own, that would require years of waiting, which could present severe economic issues to the country. However, the benefits can be even more enticing to some.
A clear advantage of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom would be cutting off political domination by London. Despite its autonomous status, Scotland remains at the whims of Parliament in London. Which, considering the population difference between the two, is dominated by the English. Independence from the United Kingdom then would also mean increased internal decision making. Furthermore, an independent Scotland would have the potential to join the European Union on its own and reap the benefits of membership. On a broader level, the Scottish could develop their own proper relations with the rest of the world without going through London first.
As it stands, the future of Scotland remains uncertain. Many on both sides are voicing their opinions and pushing for what they believe to be the best possible path for their country. One thing is for certain though, as the United Kingdom remains embroiled in political and economic tribulations, the question of Scottish independence might get an answer sooner than expected.
Written by Reed McIntire; Edited by Maryam Sindi
Photo credit to: Lorna Campbell, Wikimedia Commons