In Depth

What currency would an independent Scotland use?

An informal adoption of sterling is likely to be Scotland’s only route to keeping the pound

As Nicola Sturgeon presses for a second Scottish independence referendum, key questions being asked include what type of currency the nation would use after quitting the union.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson wrote to the first minister to reject her request for an IndyRef2. But as Downing Street now faces chaos following the prime minister’s resignation, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is set to double down on its vote bid.

And the two governments have also clashed horns over the currency that Scotland would use if Sturgeon does succeed in her independence bid. 

Money talk

Prior to the 2014 independence vote, the UK Conservative government ruled out creating a formal currency union if Scotland opted to go it alone.

But the Scottish government argued that keeping a currency union with the UK would be favourable  for both parties. In a 2013 White Paper titled “Scotland’s Future”, leaders in Holyrood argued that “using Sterling will provide continuity and certainty for business and individuals, and an independent Scotland will make a substantial contribution to a Sterling Area”.

Assuming that after winning independence, the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) followed through on its vow to rejoin the EU, another option would be to adopt the euro. But according to a 2021 paper by the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank, “joining the eurozone would, at best, be a medium-term option for an independent Scotland”, because the “formal procedures that prospective members must go through” include “showing for two years that they can maintain the value of their currency against the euro”.

So a newly independent Scotland would have to choose between “informally adopting sterling and launching a new, free-floating currency”, the IfG concluded.

‘Makes no sense’

An informal adoption of sterling is likely to be Scotland’s only route to keeping the pound and has the short-term advantages of keeping a credible currency and sustaining investment.

“Politically though, this makes absolutely no sense,” argued Robbie Mochrie in The National. The UK government would insist that “Scotland’s central bank would have to be subject to Bank of England oversight”, effectively stripped the country of its independence, according to Mochrie.

But a free-floating currency would also pose short-term issues, with uncertainty over the direction of an independent Scotland. The IfG paper said that the “absence of a track record of prudent fiscal and monetary policy” would create uncertainty and volatility, leading to high borrowing rates for Scotland and a potential lack of investment. 

In the long-term though, a free-floating currency would give the Scottish government control over its monetary policy, and over time, the ability to “build up foreign currency reserves to manage its exchange rate” – a vital requirement to join the eurozone. Retaining low trading barriers with the UK would also be vital, the think tank said.

According to Mochrie, “it is possible to set up a central bank and a new currency in no more than five years”. And it would be “much better for Scotland to become a currency issuer, so that its government has all the tools of monetary policy available to it”.

“In a crisis, Scotland could then be like the UK after the financial crisis, and, when needed, stabilise the economy with much less unemployment,” he concluded.

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