Scottish independence: what would it mean for the rest of the UK?

“A country that had turned its back on its near abroad and then fallen apart would not walk tall in international counsels”

August 18, 2020
Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Towards the end of May, YouGov asked over 1,500 adults in England and Wales whether they supported or opposed Scotland becoming an independent country. Only 44 per cent of them were opposed; 30 per cent said they would support Scottish independence and fully 26 per cent said they did not know.

Hardly a full-throated endorsement of the union from south of the Scottish border. Set alongside the sustained uptick in support for independence within Scotland to over the 50 per cent mark, this does not make comfortable reading for those who believe in the future of the union.

Should people in England and Wales be more concerned about the potential dissolution of the country of which they are part?

It’s a question that has to be largely answered in the abstract because there has been little analysis, and less public discussion, about what Scotland leaving the union might mean for the rest of the UK, or remainder-UK (r-UK) in the ugly parlance of a post-independence reality. Back in 2014, prime minister Cameron notoriously refused to allow any contingency planning for the eventuality of a “Yes” vote. With the late tightening of the polls as the vote loomed, there was some last minute behind-the-scenes scrambling in Whitehall to contemplate the unthinkable, but only sufficient to get the UK government through the first traumatic few days, had the result gone the other way.

So while the UK government had poured out endless tracts about the advantages of the union for Scotland, and by extension the risks of independence, no one thought to do the same from the perspective of the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The problems for an independent Scotland of an unsustainable fiscal deficit, of hard choices on currency, of the costs of building a new state, of confusion on pensions, of economic risk to Scottish businesses, of uncertainty on the claim to rejoin the EU were, and continue to be, well advertised, but not so much has been said about what it all might mean for what remains of the UK.

Perhaps that explains the relative indifference revealed by the YouGov poll. Yet the practical problems for r-UK would be legion, complicated and expensive. Not insurmountable, for sure, but a drain on political attention, the economy and national confidence.

Much would depend on the nature of the future relationship negotiated between an independent Scotland and r-UK. Under any scenario, security arrangements for r-UK would have to be re-conceived. Scotland would be a foreign country; even as a friendly one, its cooperation would have to be sought to maintain the integrity of the defence of the British Isles. With its current base in Faslane and no immediately available alternative, the nuclear deterrent would be an instant and difficult bone of contention. The government of r-UK would doubtless seek to cajole Scotland to allow some leeway before eviction, perhaps backed up with a bit of brow-beating from other members of the NATO alliance, but in the medium term it is highly unlikely that an independent Scotland would allow the nuclear arsenal of a foreign power to be based on its territory.

Some sort of trade border would have to be negotiated, made more fraught by the possibility of an independent Scotland re-joining the EU. A trade border equals friction equals cost to business; although Scottish GDP is under 10 per cent of the UK total, separation would be a drag on r-UK growth as thousands of businesses, south and north, currently operating in a highly integrated market, disaggregated their affairs to meet the demands of two separate jurisdictions.

The fact of division would permeate many dimensions of public life. Systems of governance and cultural interdependency would have to be teased apart, on everything from the national debt and HMRC databases to the BBC and artefacts held in national museums. This would be the work of years, not months. It would be a persistent political preoccupation, particularly if the stresses of separation sent the Scottish economy into a tailspin.

Doubtless in the inevitable bitterness of separation, some south of the border who are not fond of political unions might be tempted to paint on the side of a bus the not inconsiderable saving to the r-UK exchequer of higher-than-average levels of public expenditure in Scotland (about £190m a week, net). But in the aftermath of a potentially difficult divorce, that might come to look like a bargain as the costs of separation mounted and as the deeper, less tangible, impacts became evident.

There is no doubt that the UK’s international reputation would take a hit. Would other powers, friendly as well as hostile, ask how a diminished UK could keep its permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once a beacon of stability, a country that had turned its back on its near abroad and then fallen apart would not walk tall in international counsels.

Emotionally, the shock would be profound. The integration of 300 years could not be sawn through without huge pain, on both sides. If leaving the EU was like a parting from an extended family of second cousins, this would feel like the disintegration of the ancestral home. Over 800,000 people who were born in Scotland live in England and close to 500,000 people born in England live in Scotland. For many of them, separation would force a potentially deeply painful reassessment of national belonging.

Those without personal connections to Scotland might shrug this off as the unfortunate consequence of a decision taken by the people of Scotland; that’s where the blame would lie. But surely over that would be a shroud of failure, that something that had endured so long through so much adversity had come apart, that even those so close to England had chosen to walk a different path.

Nor would it necessarily stop there. For Northern Ireland, a UK shorn of Scotland would hardly make continued adherence to the union more attractive. The secession of Scotland would likely accelerate the already evident trend of increasing support for reunification.

That would leave England, with a truculent Wales in tow, reduced to its 17th-century borders, a rump state off the north-west European continent, surrounded by the EU. What sort of country would that be? That is perhaps the biggest question of them all and one worth asking before indifference south of the border becomes the handmaiden to nationalist seduction to its north.

Philip Rycroft was the senior official in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for devolution and constitutional issues between 2012 and 2019