Even for people who’ve lived their whole lives in the UK, the Scottish independence debate is a bit confusing and perplexing. For those from abroad I know it’s quite bizarre. Here’s some background to a period which might lead to the break up of the United Kingdom.
First some nomenclature. The United Kingdom consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain refers only to England, Scotland and Wales and is nothing to do with greatness in the sense of superiority, just to the larger of the two islands that were originally known as Pretannia then Britannia from before the Roman period. The history of Northern Ireland is so complex and controversial that I’ll say no more about it here. Wikipedia has a great diagram, which serves to emphasise the difficulty of just getting the names right.
Scotland was an independent sovereign nation state, quite separate from England (which conquered Wales in 1282). It was joined to England in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became king of England too, owing to the dead Queen Elizabeth having no children. He became King James I of England but the two nations, as opposed to the monarchies, remained separate. Only in 1707 did they become a single country, the Kingdom of Great Britain, when a more or less bankrupt Scotland merged with England and scrapped its parliament in Edinburgh. Many Scots were unhappy with this arrangement, on which they were not consulted (nor were the English masses for that matter, in that pre-democratic age).
The Scottish parliament was revived in 1998 together with a degree of self-government for Scotland. A minority of Scots have, for many years, wanted full independence and the goal of partial devolution was to head off any secessionist pressure by appealing to the majority who just wanted not to be governed from London. But the electoral success over the last ten years of the Scottish National Party, culminating in its winning of a majority of seats in the election of 2010, means the SNP’s long standing policy of a referendum on full independence is now going to happen, probably in 2014.
Support for full independence is, according to opinion polls, in the range of 30-40%. But a much larger proportion of Scots might vote for devolution just short of independence. And the SNP may use the threat of secession from the UK to extract concessions from the Westminster parliament, in the way that Quebec has done in federal Canada and various regions of Spain have done.
But there are differences from the Canadian situation. In particular, a lot of English might be quite pleased if the Scots left, so long as the national debt is fairly divided and other financial matters are resolved. Scotland, being a poorer and markedly more unhealthy part of the UK, takes up a disproportionate share of public spending and generates a less than proportionate GDP. So Scotland leaving could be an investment banker’s dream, a spin off that enhances the value of the remaining core. But it depends how much of the North Sea Oil tax goes with Scotland, something that depends a lot on how you draw the Scottish/English coastal water boundary.
Now I’m not sure what the situation is in Canada, other than to say that quite a few Canadians, especially those in the western provinces, would be equally happy to see the back of the troublesome French-speakers in the East. But Canada is a federal country; the UK is not. The four constituent parts (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) all elect members of the Westminster (London) parliament. But England, unlike the other three parts, has no separate assembly of its own. So Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs get to vote on laws that affect only the English but English MPs are excluded from voting on matters that affect only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
So far this hasn’t caused any practical concerns, though it was irksome to some English people that there were so many Scots in the last British (Labour) government. Any further devolution for Scotland would inevitably raise the question, why should Scotland still elect full MPs to the Westminster parliament? But trying to find an intermediate solution (eg they don’t vote on matters that concern only England) would be very difficult and likely to inflame further the separatist instincts of Scots and English.
I don’t think Scottish independence is high up most English people’s list of concerns or interests. It’s most unlikely that it would change much practically, since Scotland would remain economically very much tied to the rest of the UK for the foreseeable future. Ireland, independent since 1922, still does the bulk of its trade with the UK (which helps explain why the UK helped in the Irish debt bail out, despite not being a member of the Euro).
But it’s not at all out of the question that the UK in its current form, has only a few years left. And if Scotland leaves, will the Welsh want to go too? Or will England itself demand independence?