Explainer

The Arguments For and Against Scottish Independence

Scotland has a strong economy, but it relies on England for its defense and trade.

Eilean Donan Castle Scotland
Eilean Donan Castle in the western Highlands of Scotland (Unsplash/Manu Bravo)

Scotland’s ruling National Party (SNP) has staked a second independence referendum on the outcome of Thursday’s election. If separatists defend their majority in the Scottish Parliament — in addition to the SNP, the Greens favor independence — they propose to hold another vote even over the objections of London.

Scots voted 55 to 45 percent against dissolving the United Kingdom in 2014. Nationalists argue Brexit has changed the calculation. 62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the EU in 2016. They were overruled by majorities in England and Wales. Polls found majorities in Scotland for leaving the UK and rejoining the EU through 2020 and early 2021. Unionists have recently closed the gap. But the SNP is still faraway in first place in election polls with up to 50 percent support.

There are many arguments for and against independence, and each one could be debated at length. I’ll summarize what I find to be the most persuasive ones.

Arguments for

  • Center-left Scotland has been ruled by Conservative British governments for 29 of the last 42 years, including the last eleven years.
  • Outside the UK, Scotland could write its own laws and regulations and become the Scandinavian-style welfare state many of its inhabitants want it to be.
  • Scotland has a diversified economy with strong fishing, life sciences, shipbuilding, software and whisky industries.
  • Independence would give Scotland full control over its oil and gas revenues, which are now shared with London. Scotland is responsible for 96 percent of the UK’s oil and 63 percent of its natural gas production.
  • Scotland is a leader in offshore wind and tidal energy. Investments in green energy and sustainability have been hurt by haphazard policymaking in Westminster.
  • Scotland has a sophisticated workforce. 55 percent of Scots in their thirties have a tertiary degree compared to 50 percent of all Britons and 41 percent of all Europeans.
  • Edinburgh, already a mid-sized financial center, could attract banks, insurance and investment companies leaving London due to Brexit.
  • Independence would allow Scotland to remove Britain’s nuclear submarines from Faslane, whose presence has long been a sore in Scottish eyes.

Arguments against

  • Scotland’s fiscal dependence on the UK is hotly debated. What is not in dispute is that the country pays less into the union coffers than it takes out. Outside the UK, Scotland would have to either cut public spending or raise taxes.
  • Two-thirds of Scottish non-oil exports go to the rest of the UK, which bring in 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Just 16 percent of Scottish exports go to the EU.
  • The EU can allow a semi-open border between Northern Ireland (population: 1.9 million) and Ireland (6.5 million), but one between England (56 million) and Scotland (5.5 million) is out of the question. Scotland can be in the European or the UK market, not both.
  • EU membership would take time to negotiate and — despite what nationalists claim — imply adopting the euro. This is a requirement for all new member states. Many Scots would prefer to keep the pound.
  • An independent Scottish defense would amount to little. A vengeful rump UK could block its accession to NATO.

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