Monday, September 15, 2014

The Scottish Referendum: A Political Analysis

Any political analysis of the Scottish referendum on secession from Britain should include not only the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Westminster, but also other large E.U. states and even the E.U. powers at the federal level. Such an analysis may leave the cynic wondering whether the question could even conceivably be decided by the Scots themselves—so much being on the line for state and federal officials and their respective institutions.

In May 2011, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 69 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, with about 45 percent of the vote, up by more than 12 percentage points. Their three main rival parties — Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all lost ground.[1] John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde University, opined the SNP victory appeared to be partly because of dissatisfaction with the other political parties, particularly the Labour Party, rather than from an overwhelming desire to secede from the state. Surveys had consistently showed support for secession at between a quarter and a third of voters, he said.[2] According to a survey by the Scottish Sunday Mail newspaper published the previous month, only 33 percent of the adult residents in the region would back secession from Britain while 43 percent preferred the status quo, even though a bare majority favored a referendum on the question. Even so, one news outlet reported that “the unionist campaign is in disarray and the nationalists boast a leader who even his opponents admit is a highly skilled political operator.”[3]


How much say do the voters really have? Are they actually pawns being moved without their knowledge? Perhaps large vested interests are the real deciders. David Cheskin (AP)


In June 2011, MSNBC anticipated nonetheless that opposition from the state government in London to the northern region’s secession would be “fierce, not least because of its economic consequences.”[4] Most notably, in the three years between 2008 and 2011, the British government took in 28.74 billion pounds ($47.10 billion) in revenues from oil and gas production, the bulk of which is based in the North Sea.[5] Were the Scots to secede, they would presumably take their $38 billion oil industry, including the oil-rich off-shore areas. Additionally, Westminster would lose about 10% of its tax revenue.[6] To be sure, a cross-subsidy went in the other direction, thanks largely to London’s wealthy taxpayers. Even so, Westminster had a strong economic incentive to put money behind its efforts to skew the vote. It is no surprised, therefore, that Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, said that keeping the British pound would be incompatible with “sovereignty.”[7] I would not be surprised to learn that Westminster was behind this timely warning to the Scots.  

Politically, Britain less Scotland would have less influence in the European Council. As the most stridently Euro-Skeptic—the South Carolina as it were—state in the E.U., Westminster had a huge incentive in maintaining its influence in the European Council by retaining the Scottish population (8% of the UK’s total). To the Scots, a majority of those polled wanting to remain part of the E.U., secession from the Euro-Skeptic state could mean that Scotland would become a state even if Britain will have seceded. That the president of the E.U.’s executive branch, the European Commission, said that it would be “extremely difficult” for Scotland to gain statehood even as a former president of the European Parliament, the E.U.’s lower legislative chamber, confirmed the Scottish National Party’s claim that Scotland could indeed accede may point to Westminster’s influence over at least one very powerful federal official, José Barroso.

It is indeed strange that Barroso would seek to douse the Yes vote in the referendum. For E.U. federalists, anything that weakens a resolute anti-federalist state such as Britain should be encouraged. With a majority of Scots wanting to stay in the E.U., the E.U. itself—as well as its federalist-oriented states such as Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—had a political interest in strategically working to encourage the Yes vote in the hope that Scotland come in and the rest of the UK leave. Even apart from the federalist E.U. states, the large states would benefit should Britain move down a tier, given that the states compete for influence in the Union. Barroso’s words of discouragement may thus confirm the lengths to which the British prime minister would go and the extent of his political reach given Westminster’s stake in the game being played out in Scotland.

In America, U.S. President Obama came out against Scotland gaining independence from Britain[8]. Doubtless then he would also have opposed the eastern region of Colorado's secession and that of southern Illinois and northern California, even though those regions would doubtlessly become new states, just as Scotland would in the E.U. The oddness of Obama's position stems from American colonial history, for even though Scotland is a region of the state of Britain in the E.U. akin to northern California of the state of California in the U.S., the theme of freedom from Britain ought to resonate with Americans in a way that Europeans cannot feel. Accordingly, I suspect that Barak Obama's public position is part of a larger deal or quid pro quo with David Cameron. Obama would have gotten something important to the U.S. in exchange for doing something else on a matter bearing much less on American interests. 

Amidst all the influence of the political heavy-weights, a cynic could easily look in vain for a democratic basis for a determination on the question. It might even be said that “determination by the people” is a quaint cover for a power-struggle between major players in the E.U., with Westminster having so much on the line even bribery could not be ruled out.

Even within Scotland, the political parties had a huge stake in the game. In the 2010 regional election, Labour won 41 seats in the local assembly, while the Conservative Party won just one—the Liberal Democrats and the SNP taking the rest.[9] Because the conservatives do better at the state level, the Conservative Party in the Scottish region had a large stake in defeating the referendum, while the Labour Party had a likewise state in seeing the measure pass.

What say is left for the Scots themselves among all the political heavy-hitters? Even though it may well be idyllic to want the general will of the Scots themselves to decide the question, I cannot give up the ghost—hoping even naïvely that the outcome will be that preferred by a majority in the region clear of manipulation and outside money. While the political parties in Scotland have a legitimate stake in the game, for Westminster to agree to give the Scots a chance to decide the question only to attempt to undercut their say can only count as manipulative deceit. At the very least, the state government faced an inherently unethical institutional conflict-of-interest in using threats and other unsavory devices to manipulate the vote in the state’s own interest.




1. Ian MacKenzie, “Scottish Pro-Independence Party Wins Majority,” msnbc.com, May 6, 2011.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ian Johnston, “Scotland to Split from UK and ‘Be a Nation Again’?” msnbc.com, June 7, 2011.
5. Ibid.
6. Kim Hjelmgaard, “Scotland Vote Comes Down to the Wire,” USA Today, September 17, 2014.
7. Ibid.
8. Jill Lawless, "Scotland Independence Vote Commences," Associated Press, September 18, 2014.
9. Paul Vale, “5 Reasons Why Many Scots Will Vote For Independence,” The Huffington Post, September 16, 2014.