David Cameron’s government will give the Scottish Parliament eighteen months to hold a referendum on independence. A spokesman for the prime minister said on Monday that uncertainty about the future of the union between England and Scotland “can have a detrimental impact on the economy.”
The possibility of Scotland seceding from England, Northern Ireland and Wales has loomed since Britain’s chief civil servant warned of a breakup of the union in December.
Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Labour opposition have both been critical of him “seeking to interfere” in Scotland’s independence struggle by imposing conditions on a referendum. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has insisted that there will be no fixed, eighteen month deadline while Labour expressed dismay that the government had failed to brief its leader Ed Miliband whose party is the largest in favor of union in Scotland. The Conservatives are the third party in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Party commands an absolute majority in the regional parliament.
Under the 1998 Scotland Act, the parliament in Westminster “reserved” the power to decide over the constitutional future of Scotland. The government plans to temporarily delegate that authority to Edinburgh. Even if it doesn’t set an eighteen month deadline, ministers will make clear that they would like the poll to happen by 2013 and expect a “yes” or “no” answer, not allow a third option which would enable increased Scottish autonomy short of full independence.
A referendum will not be legally binding but is supported by more than 70 percent of the Scottish people, including voters who oppose independence. According to a number of recent opinion polls, roughly 40 percent of Scots favor secession.
Opponents of independence, who probably represent the majority of Scots, argue that the region is economically stronger as part of the United Kingdom and exerts more influence internationally now than it could separately.
After the Greater London area and Southeast England, Scotland enjoys the highest gross domestic product per capita rate in the United Kingdom. Its relatively high levels of public spending may be difficult to sustain without subsidies from London in the long term. Scottish nationalists argue that North Sea oil revenue would make up for the shortfall — and it could — but eventually, once oil incomes decline, spending must be restrained or tax rates increased to finance Scotland’s welfare state which is more generous than the rest of Britain’s.