Why Are England and Scotland Weighing a Breakup?

To understand the Scottish secession movement, just look at the problems in the European Union

hh jan12 p.jpg
A busker plays bagpipes for tourists near the Houses of Parliament in London / Reuters

Who knew the first secession story of 2012 was going to be Scotland, not Greece? Last year was filled with stories of the European Union on the rocks -- critics proposed everything from troubled states leaving the euro to Germany forming its own newer, better union. This year, though, has opened with split-up talk within an individual member-state: the United Kingdom.

Talk of Scottish independence has been around for centuries, but it's heated up dramatically in the past few months. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond recently declared his intention to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in the fall of 2014. British Prime Minister David Cameron says this is unlawful without UK parliament's approval, and he'd like to force a Scottish referendum to be held earlier, as he says the uncertainty over the outcome is hurting the economy. At rock bottom, however, both he and even British opposition leader Ed Miliband are opposed to Scotland leaving the UK.

At first blush this situation seems strikingly different from the current crisis of federalism in the EU. Scotland and England have been unified, if contentiously, not since the 1990s but since the 16th century, and the union didn't emerge from potential economic benefit, but rather from dynastic and religious strategizing; out of the oft-dramatised rivalry between the Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots came rule of both kingdoms by a single monarch, James VI -- Mary's son but, like Elizabeth, a Protestant. This paved the way for the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707, which formally united the kingdoms.

But the UK and EU unity crises may not actually be as different as they first appear. In fact, just as the EU federalist structure was coming together in the 1990s, the Scotland-UK relationship was trending slightly towards federalism as well. In 1997, a referendum passed that led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The devolution of power in some ways brought the UK and EU cases closer together in terms of governmental division, and the complicating nature of the new Scottish setup wasn't lost on critics, who feared this would lead Scotland irreversibly towards independence.

The question, of course, is "why now?" It's here that the movements towards disunity really start to look similar. Sure, there are plenty of arguments in favor of Scottish independence -- aside from the whole national identity thing, Scotland still produces a decent quality of coal, and there's a lot of optimism about the country's potential in green energy, particularly marine energy. Alex Salmond mentioned this in his pro-independence piece in the Economist back in November, also noting that "the UK is saddled with a large deficit, so size clearly offers no protection or immunity from the vagaries of the global economy. Instead," he wrote, "the countries which appear best equipped to deal with such conditions are those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to adapt quickly to change."

There are also plenty of arguments both on the English as well as the Scottish side for a continued association: Scotland's a mess in other ways, it would have more international clout as a member of the UK, it's not actually clear how the energy resources would be divided up or that Scotland would be all that financially successful on its own, and nothing seems to be going horribly wrong with the union, so if it ain't broke, why fix it? Below, to get a sense of what secession looks like, demographically, Scotland's piece of the UK population. As you can see, it's not much:

Scottish secession population.jpg

It's hard not to see the present thrust towards independence, though, as part of a general nationalist mood in Europe right now. Salmond's point about smaller countries being better-equipped to deal with the present economy echoes the current European Union debate. As Scottish journalist and commentator Alex Massie argued persuasively in The Telegraph, Scots don't favor independence because they "are now more different from the English than they used to be." Rather, "it is precisely because of the greater uniformity that so many Scots feel the need to assert that we are distinct and different." He, too, ties this to broader trends. "After all," Massie writes, "isn't it because national distinctions are everywhere being elided or blurred that many elsewhere too feel a similar need to assert their own individuality? Opposition to the European Union has grown in England even as English life becomes more like life as it is lived in Continental Europe."

It's more than just emotional, though: nationalism surges as economies stagnate. And this comes back to Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman's theory, which I've mentioned before in connection with EU fractures. Intra-group cooperation appears to be linked, historically, to economic expansion, and it breaks down when growth slows. This has previously resulted in anti-immigrant rhetoric and ethnic-based hate speech, but it doesn't have to appear this way. You can see the change economically in the form of trade barriers, or politically in the form of identity-based movements like the Tea Party or a resurgence in popular support for Scottish independence.

Whether on the Continent or in the United Kingdom, "smaller is better" appears to be the new slogan. It wouldn't hurt, if you're interested in either of the Scottish independence or the European unity debates, to keep an eye on the other. The background may be different in each case, but histories have a way of converging. And with the present political and cultural integration, who's to say how mood may translate across state lines.