Scottish independence vote is 'identity crisis' for the UK, Stanford faculty say


Britain's Prime Minister tours the Walcheren Barracks in Glasgow, Scotland
Britain's Prime Minister tours the Walcheren Barracks in Glasgow, Scotland May 15, 2014. Cameron urged Scots on Thursday to stay in the United Kingdom during an unusual two-day visit to Scotland to counter a rise in support for secession in opinion polls and criticism of the anti-independence campaign.
Photo credit: 
REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Appeared in Stanford Report, June 9, 2014

By Clifton B. Parker

A new chapter in the Scottish independence movement could reshape the future of that country and the rest of the United Kingdom, Stanford faculty say.

Scotland will hold an election on Sept. 18 to decide whether it should break away from the United Kingdom. With the official kickoff of the Scottish independence referendum on May 30, the 4.1 million Scots who make up the country's electorate are mulling over how independence would affect a range of issues including agriculture, education, defense, health care and more.

Now, momentum seems to be on the side of the independence vote, said Christophe Crombez, a consulting professor in Stanford's Europe Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

"If you had asked me a year ago whether Scotland would vote for independence, I would have said no. Now I am not so sure. The current UK government has not handled this issue well. Threats, such as warnings that Scotland could not keep the pound, have backfired," said Crombez.

Economics and the EU

Scotland, which has significant – though somewhat dwindling – oil operations in the North Sea, would likely remain part of the European Union if it leaves the UK, Crombez said. Scotland highly favors membership, whereas Britain's view is more mixed about the 28-member bloc.

"The economic consequences of leaving the UK will be minimal for Scotland. Scotland would remain part of the EU single market. It could possibly keep more of its oil revenues," he said.

The political ramifications for a redrawn Great Britain are significant. "Great Britain would lose more of its prominent status in world politics. England would have to deal with an identity crisis, having lost its empire after World War II and now witnessing the unraveling of the UK," he said.

Extracting Scotland from the Great Britain political equation would likely give more power to conservative British voters, as Scotland tends to vote on the left side, Crombez said.

"Also, the British government wants to put the issue behind them. So when the vote goes down, they can finally move on one way or another from the Scottish independence issue," he said.

If Scottish voters elect to remain part of the United Kingdom, the British government has said Scotland will not get another chance at independence.

Historical origins

The current move toward independence stems from the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was Britain's prime minister.

"Thatcher's policies were intensely disliked in Scotland," Crombez said. "While she kept on winning elections in England, her party's support in Scotland dwindled. Scotland felt that England was imposing policies on it that it did not want. Devolution and independence were seen as ways to get out of that situation."

As a result, since the early 1990s the conservatives have not played a significant role in Scottish politics, he said. And in 1997, voters in Scotland approved "devolution," which granted them legislative powers in the form of the Scottish Parliament.

"In my opinion, calls for independence would have been even stronger if Scotland had not been granted the autonomy it got in the 1990s," he said.

The roots of Scotland's drive for independence stretch deep into Great Britain's past, said Priya Satia, associate professor of modern British history and Europe Center faculty affiliate.

According to Satia, "Some might say as far back as the Jacobite rebellion against the union of Scotland with England and Wales in 1707. Others might point to a much later originary moment – regional nationalisms like Scotland's emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as part of the British reaction to the loss of empire."

From 1603, Scotland and England shared the same monarch when James VI of Scotland was declared King of England and Ireland as well. The two kingdoms united in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Prior to this, Scotland had been a sovereign state for more than 800 years.

Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland lost that sense of "common identity" to a shared British brotherhood once the "colonial 'other'" no longer existed in the post-WWII period, said Satia.

Historian Peter Stansky says it would not be wise for Scotland to exit the UK.

"I think it would probably be a mistake for Scotland to vote for independence. At the moment I think it has a good situation," said Stansky, the Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus.

Stansky noted, "It can act independently in some areas, participate in some British decisions and has English backup. Independence would be a nice sentimental gesture, but a bad move."