The pros and cons of Scottish independence

Nicola Sturgeon has fired the starting gun on a new Scottish independence referendum, even as polling shows support for separation from the rest of the UK stalling. The first minister has unveiled the first in a series of papers setting out an updated case for Scottish independence ahead of a referendum she has promised will take place next year. However, “there are major doubts over her ability to deliver a fresh vote”, said The Telegraph, “with the UK Government opposed to any new referendum and experts believing it is not within Holyrood’s powers to organise a meaningful referendum itself”.

Sturgeon told a press conference in Edinburgh on Tuesday that she had an “indisputable mandate” for a fresh referendum, but Boris Johnson has insisted the 2014 referendum result should be respected. Opinion polls show that most Scots do not want another referendum next year while support for independence is at similar levels to 2014, when 55% voted to remain in the UK. From the economical implications to international alliances, here are the arguments for and against Scotland going forward alone.

1

Pro: 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,” said 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, wrote 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 noted that “Spain, fighting Catalan separatism, has reason to make things difficult for Scotland to avoid setting a dangerous precedent”.

2

Con: trading problems

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”, said The Spectator‘s Fraser Nelson. The BBC said 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 found that Scotland would be “considerably poorer” if it left the UK.

Although the SNP’s manifesto stated 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”.

3

Pro: ‘protecting’ 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.

4

Con: debt and deficit dilemma

Projections by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed Scotland’s public deficit is greater than that of the rest of the UK. It spent GBP36.3bn more than it raised in tax revenues in 2020-21, according to the Scottish government’s own figures reported in the Telegraph.

Scotland “would not, at least in its early days, be able to run a budget deficit that large for long”, said 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 reported, 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 continued.

The financial repercussions of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic could make independence a costly decision. On top of this, Professor John Kay, a former economic advisor to the Scottish Government, warned that an independent Scotland would start life with a GBP180bn share of UK debt, and having to borrow a further GBP20bn a year.

5

Pro: 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 reported.  The SNP manifesto also promised 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”.

6

Con: place on world stage

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 GBP9.4bn, 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.