What Would an Independent Scotland Look Like?

By Liam Hoare

It's a real possibility now, after all.

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In June 2014, the Scottish government will mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a decisive and significant victory for Robert the Bruce and the forces of independence over King Edward II of England. July and August will see Glasgow host the Commonwealth Games, and in September Gleneagles in Perthshire will stage the Ryder Cup. And, at the conclusion of this festival of history and sport, Scotland will go to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), currently in the majority in the Scottish Parliament, has been campaigning for independence and social democracy since its inception in 1934. Nevertheless, and even given the patriotic fervor bound to envelope Scotland in 2014, its leader and First Minister Alex Salmond faces an uphill battle to persuade a majority of Scots that severing its ties to London will be good for them. Polling data on a straight yes-or-no question indicates that support for independence fluctuates between 25 and 40 percent.

Can Scotland become a viable nation-state? To answer that question, we need to establish what an independent Scotland might look like. In many areas, including health care, education, and the law, Scotland has had control over its own affairs since devolution in 1998. Scotland maintains its own universal health-care system, NHS Scotland, which is more generous in some ways than its counterpart in England and Wales. There are no charges for prescription drugs in Scotland, for example. Care for the elderly is free. And the SNP continues to oppose any role for the private sector in the NHS.

When it comes to college education, Scottish universities do not charge Scottish or E.U. students tuition fees, although undergraduates from the rest of the U.K. are charged up to £9,000 ($14,500) a year. In other words, provided they can afford it, the SNP would seek to model themselves on Scandinavian democracies like Norway and Denmark, emphasizing the role and responsibility of the state to provide universal benefits, and the need to support the economy through expenditures on jobs and infrastructure.

However, when it comes to matters under London's purview -- defense, foreign policy, and the currency -- the picture is altogether less clear. On national security, for instance, Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) is not currently planning for Scottish independence, and an MoD spokesperson told me the Scottish government hasn't spoken with London about forming a separate armed service for itself. The Scottish Government had no comment -- nor would it remark on numbers floated by The Independent that suggested it would seek to maintain a defense force of 12,500 armed servicemen with 20 to 25 naval vessels.

A principal point of contention is the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, the submarine-launched Trident missile system based at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde in western Scotland. The MoD is not contemplating any policy that would move the missiles from their present location, yet a spokesperson for the Scottish Government was clear any scenario that would keep nuclear materials in Scotland would be unacceptable. It is the current position of the Scottish Government to "ensure an appropriate transition and relocation" of Trident out of Scottish territorial waters. The SNP is, however, in the process of debating its historic opposition to NATO membership, long rejected as an alliance with a nuclear capability.

Scotland would, upon independence, also seek to stay in the European Union. The Scottish Government believes that its membership can continue unbroken, yet both Professor Alexander Türk of King's College London and Professor Martin Trybus of the University of Birmingham indicated to me that as a new state, Scotland would have to leave the E.U. and reapply through the usual channels (via Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, to be precise), a process designed to institute compliance with European laws and standards.

Linked to this is the issue of currency. The Scottish Government wishes to "continue to operate within the sterling system," in other words, to use the British pound and have interest rates set by the Bank of England -- a monetary union without fiscal union. Scotland's problem is that if it joins the E.U. as a separate state, it would be expected to adopt the Euro, a change favored by only 5 percent of the country.

During the accession process, Scotland would become a party to European monetary agreements designed to stabilize national currencies and streamline admission into the Eurozone. Unless they can somehow opt out, staying on the pound under such circumstances would be "difficult," Türk said, since the U.K. has gained permission to stay out of the Euro and has no intention of backtracking on that any time soon.

Then there's the small matter of how the Scots might fund their new nation. At present, Scottish taxpayers give their monies to Westminster, which then apportions a block grant back to the Scotland to spend on devolved areas like health and education. As an independent nation, tax revenues on individuals and businesses will go solely and directly to Edinburgh, yet it will be required to set its own rates and subsidize new projects such as the standing army and navy, energy production, the civil service, public broadcasting, and the security services. It will also need to pay its own dues to the European Union.

In the short term, Scotland is fortunate that, according to a study by the University of Aberdeen, 90 percent of the oil and gas fields in the North Sea are within Scottish territorial waters, with a wholesale value totalling £1 trillion ($1.6 trillion) over the next 40 years. Yet Hamish McRae, writing in The Independent, argues that the wealth generated by digging minerals out of the seabed would be canceled out by the end of subsidies from Westminster. Moreover, when the oil runs dry, Scotland will still be faced with severe socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for decades: deindustrialization and the decline of manufacturing; a large public sector; and chronic levels of unemployment, obesity, and drug abuse in deprived urban areas.

The SNP evidently believes that these obstacles on the road to independence can be resolved. "The Scottish Government has an ambitious vision for Scotland," Salmond proclaimed after the agreement on a referendum was signed, "a prosperous and successful European country, reflecting Scottish values of fairness and opportunity, promoting equality and social cohesion." Salmond's task, during Scotland's year of celebration and festival, will be to convince the skeptical and the undecided that his vision is realistic.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/what-would-an-independent-scotland-look-like/263892/