The pros and cons of Scottish independence
Impact on trade could outweigh benefits of increased power over international policy
Nicola Sturgeon has been formally sworn in as first minister of Scotland today after securing a pro-independence majority with the Scottish Green party at the Holyrood elections earlier this month.
After her formal re-election by MSPs on Tuesday, the SNP leader said there was a “clear mandate for a referendum within this term of parliament”, but added that she was “acutely aware that opinion on whether or not Scotland should be independent is evenly balanced”.
In 2014, the Scottish people voted 55% to 45% in favour of remaining in the 314-year union with England. And although it was described as a “once in a generation decision” by the SNP at the time, Scots may find themselves casting votes on the decision sooner than anticipated, should the party’s renewed plans go ahead.
From the economical implications to international alliances, here are some of the pros and cons of Scottish independence.
Rejoin the European Union
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62% of Scottish voters called for the UK to remain in the European Union, compared to England’s 46.6% of Remain voters. “On this point, at least, it’s clear what Scots want,” says Time’s foreign affairs correspondent Ian Bremmer.
As an independent country, Scotland could make a bid to rejoin the EU as a member state once a separation agreement was settled with England. The country could then begin to negotiate its access agreement, looking to benefit from access to the EU single market, as well as the free movement of labour, goods, services and capital.
“As a symbolic trophy prize of Brexit” Scotland’s value to the organisation shouldn’t be underestimated, writes The New European’s James Ball. However, Ball notes that rejoining “could be a long slog” coming “at a cost of relations and travel with the rest of the UK”.
Scotland would need the approval of all 27 member states to join the union – but doing so could stir up pre-existing tensions. Indeed, Bremmer notes that “Spain, fighting Catalan separatism, has reason to make things difficult for Scotland to avoid setting a dangerous precedent”.
‘Protect’ the NHS
Scotland has controlled the operation of its health service since the devolution settlement of 1999. However, funding and overarching policy decisions currently remain with Westminster.
Sturgeon’s Covid-19 response has erred on the side of caution at points when compared with England, providing the SNP with a “new argument” for independence. Although Scotland’s Covid death rate has previously surpassed England’s, polls indicated that the Scots had greater faith in their government’s handling of the pandemic than the rest of the UK's trust in Westminster.
Preventing NHS privatisation is high on Sturgeon’s and other pro-independence campaigners’ agenda. In February 2021, the SNP put the NHS Protection Bill to Westminster, calling for legislation to prevent the privatisation of the NHS. At the time, Scotland’s former chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns was “in no doubt that Brexit has opened the door for US private health firms”, the party said in a blog. Writing for The Scotsman, Burns said: “an independent Scotland within the EU will sound very appealing to many more voters”, should NHS services be tendered to US companies.
Power over policy
The Scottish government would have greater power over its defence, social security and foreign policies were it to become independent from the UK. It would also have increased control over constitutional matters, energy and environmental policies, and immigration.
Indeed, a critic of the Home Office’s immigration policy, Sturgeon called for the creation of a “Scottish visa” in 2020, which would “scrap the hefty application fees, salary threshold and employer sponsorship” currently required by Westminster for a British visa, The Guardian reports.
The SNP manifesto also promises to deliver the first “feminist foreign policy”, promoting gender equality around the world, while accelerating “the transition to zero carbon energy” closer to home, “supporting areas like Aberdeen and the North East to diversify its economy”.
England is Scotland’s largest trading partner, a relationship that could be put to the test if Scotland were to opt for independence. The UK accounts for 60% of Scottish exports (excluding oil and gas), compared to the EU’s 19% and global exports of 21%, according to Scottish Government statistics.
This could become more complicated still if the country were to rejoin the EU, thereby “tearing Scotland out of the customs union and single market of the United Kingdom”, says The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. The BBC says the international border between Scotland and England would be likely to increase the cost of trade, as “the checks currently delaying trucks at Calais would also be necessary at Gretna”.
A London School of Economics and Political Science report examining the financial impact of Brexit, trade and Scottish independence found that “the costs of independence to the Scottish economy are likely to be two to three times larger than the costs of Brexit”. Rejoining the EU “would do little to mitigate these costs”. The expert’s trade model finds that Scotland would be “considerably poorer” if it left the UK.
Although the SNP’s manifesto states a wish to “control our economic policy” and “create high-quality, sustainable jobs”, Sturgeon told Channel 4 News that the “economic blueprint for independence” is “completely out of date”.
According to projections by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Scotland’s public deficit is greater than that of the rest of the UK. Scotland “would not, at least in its early days, be able to run a budget deficit that large for long”, says The New European’s Ball.
Scotland has previously received a higher percentage of UK public spending per person than the rest of the UK, the Financial Times reports, and reducing the deficit could mean significant cuts to public services, and increases in annual tax rises.
And if Sturgeon were to seek credit from external sources, investment strategist David Riley warns “investors would want assurances that the government has a credible macroeconomic policy framework, including critically a plan to reduce its budget deficit”, the paper continues. The financial repercussions of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic could make independence a costly decision.
At least in the short term, Scotland would lose its access to transnational organisations including the global trade division at the UN, the G7 and Nato, which is currently granted through its union with the rest of the UK. The country would need to apply for independent membership of these organisations.
And while rejoining the EU could help Scotland to establish ties with potential trading partners and forge its own political alliances, this too could come at a cost. In 2019, the UK’s net public sector contribution to the EU was estimated at £9.4bn, according to government figures.
Without representation at these organisations, Scotland could lose its ability to have its voice heard on global issues including climate change and international peacekeeping.