What does Scottish independence mean?

The meaning of ‘independence’ in Scotland has changed markedly. The main change relates to the way that we understand the independence or autonomy of any country in a globalized world and, in the case of Scotland, an increasingly Europeanized political system. Historically, or understood in a ‘Westphalian’ sense, independence referred to the autonomy to direct all domestic affairs within a well-defined territory (‘Westphalian’ is now a shorthand term to describe the historic idea of sovereign states not subject to influence from external bodies such as international organizations). Now, this idea of an autonomous nation state is questioned because countries are interdependent and no country can make decisions on the most significant issues (such as economic policy) due to agreements that they share with others and their membership of a wide range of international organizations. In particular, countries within the European Union have made legal commitments to accept a wide range of EU laws, regulations and financial commitments.

The SNP famously recognized this limitation when it introduced its ‘Independence in Europe’ slogan in the late 1980s. The modern SNP’s idea of independence has also changed somewhat to reflect changing circumstances and a rather pragmatic view on what it will accept to secure its constitutional aims. Most notably, the SNP has stated that Scotland will keep the pound in the short term until its voters decide whether or not to adopt the euro (a position rejected by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer). Consequently, monetary policy (and interest rates in particular) would be determined largely by a UK central bank. Scotland is also likely to accept that the UK monarch will remain as the Scottish Head of State and UK-wide membership of bodies such as the BBC may be maintained.

Overall, these developments provide us with a relatively messy picture of modern Scottish independence: as a small country part of a globalized world, subject to EU commitments, accepting a key UK role in some key policy areas and perhaps even accepting some legal commitments to shared decision making with the UK as part of a long-term orderly transition to independence. An independent Scottish Government is likely to agree to inherit most, if not all, existing agreements and membership of international bodies before it considers its future actions.

The other side of this coin is that independence no longer seems such a ‘scary’ prospect to referendum voters because it is not a million miles away from the idea of extended devolution or ‘devo max’, which might refer to the proposal to devolve all policy responsibilities with the exception of defence and foreign affairs (but see this qualification). Table 12.1  outlines their main differences, bearing in mind that some of these differences may be unclear or disputed. The ‘devo max’ column draws heavily on the Steel Commission report, which also complicates matters by calling for a series of policy areas to be partly devolved (through a legal requirement to consult with the Scottish Government before legislating). The overall picture is one of constrained autonomy when we consider the extent to which any independent country can act unilaterally to determine domestic policy.

Clearly, there are some very important differences, particularly in the areas of fiscal autonomy (versus further fiscal devolution), international affairs and defence. Other areas, such as immigration, social security and energy are less clear. Much will come down to the implementation of Scottish-UK agreements – a process that tends to unfold over a very long period. In that vein, we should also consider the practical effect that independence might have on already-devolved areas such as health, justice and education policies. For example, an independent Scotland in the EU would no longer be able to charge students from the rest of the UK for university tuition fees. It would also seek to maintain agreements with the rest of the UK on criminal justice issues, such as prisoner transfer agreements and, like any country in a wider global system, might still face pressures to maintain rules on criminal punishment that are broadly consistent with neighbouring countries. Health care policy may be more difficult to predict – while Scotland has a less punitive target-based regime to measure things like waiting lists and times, the comparisons with England will still be made and popular pressure may still encourage governments to maintain and enforce some targets.

table 12.1atable 12.1bSource: excerpt from Cairney, P. and McGarvey (2013) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave)


Filed under Scottish politics

2 responses to “What does Scottish independence mean?

  1. Pingback: Perspectives on the Scottish independence referendum | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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