If Scotland chooses independence this Thursday, the outcome will affect us all
I have been (for me) relatively quiet on the issue of Scottish independence. This is because I believe fundamentally that the decision rests with the people of Scotland itself, and that the interjections of non-Scots – particularly residents of southern England, like myself – are hardly helpful to the debate.
The fact is, though, that in two days a very large decision is about to be taken by a comparatively small number of people – just under 4.3 million people, or just 6.7% of the UK’s population. The result of that decision could well be the splitting of a 307-year-old union between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland (sorry, Wales, Principality and all that); indeed, such a result is looking increasingly likely, with the average No lead over the most recent 10 polls at just 1.9% – well within the three-point margin of error for a standard 1,000-person poll – and the momentum of the debate having been clearly on the side of the Yes campaign for a good month now.
If Scotland does vote Yes, things will change for everyone in the UK, not just those living in Scotland. Here is a quick, and by no means exhaustive, rundown of some of the biggest issues that will affect us all:
It may have been done to death over the course of this long, long campaign, but this is still one of the biggest unresolved issues of the whole independence question. Alex Salmond, Blair Jenkins and the Yes campaign maintain that the Pound belongs to Scotland too, and they will keep it come what may, but that’s not quite true. The Pound Sterling as a currency is the responsibility of the Treasury and the Bank of England, and if the new Scottish government want a currency union, they would have to negotiate one with the UK.
Of course, they could just use Sterling on an unofficial basis – Zimbabwe already does, along with numerous other currencies – but they would then have no say over its value and would have to match rUK interest rates or risk economic collapse. It is likely, then, that Scotland will push for a Sterling Zone – but this would mean maintaining Scotland’s economic ties to the UK central government. It would also mean allowing Scottish input into decisions over rUK monetary policy, which could alter the value of the currency in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well.
The National Debt
As of the end of June, the UK national debt stands at £1,304.6 bn (not including the cost of the 2008 financial sector bailouts). The total population of Scotland is 5.3 million as of the 2011 census, compared to the UK population of 64.1 million. This means that Scotland’s ‘share’ of the debt comes out at 8.27%, or £107.9 bn. Trouble is, much like the pound, responsibility for the UK debt also rests with the Treasury – meaning Scotland doesn’t legally have to take any of it.
Alex Salmond will use this as a powerful bargaining chip in the post-referendum negotiations – most likely he will offer taking a share of the debt in return for his Sterling Zone. If those negotiations fall through, however, the rest of the UK will be left with a considerably greater per capita debt than before. This, under the current neoliberal consensus, means only one thing: more cuts.
At the moment, of course, the border between England and Scotland is merely ceremonial – there’s a sign, a bit of crumbling Roman masonry and not much else. Post-independence however, that could change. In order to meet projected levels of spending, particularly with regard to pensions, Scotland would need to attract an estimated 20,000 additional immigrants a year over the next 20 or so years. Contrast this with Westminster’s increasingly anti-immigration rhetoric, and you can see the problems an open border would cause.
Ed Miliband has already floated the idea of border guards along Hadrian’s Wall, but this would have far-reaching consequences for people on both sides of the border. Travel would be inhibited, slowing down the process of moving goods and services across the newly concrete divide. Coupled with possible currency issues, and an almost inevitable discrepancy in taxation policy, this could make conducting business across the border – a simple fact of life for centuries for those living in the border regions of both Scotland and England – more and more difficult. A closed border will also affect the Scottish tourism industry – rUK tourism is worth £3.7 bn to Scotland every year, 2.8% of GDP. The economic damage to both countries could be significant, particularly for those close to the border.
Many of the UK’s most prominent institutions are run on an all-UK basis. These include things like the NHS, the BBC, the armed forces etc., and of course the British Civil Service itself. The breakup of the UK would lead also to the breakup of these institutions – Scotland would need its own army, health service and civil servants, whilst the future of the Scottish BBC might well be in jeopardy altogether. Though many institutions, particularly the NHS, are already decentralised to some degree, there is still a colossal amount of interconnection, and a wholesale restructuring of these organisations and many others would have to take place. The cost of this will be huge – estimates for setting up a new Scottish civil service alone range from £200 million to £2.7 billion – and it will be felt by both new states.
Whatever decision the Scottish people take this Thursday, nothing in the UK will ever be the same again, but the effects of independence – should it be chosen – will be perhaps the most dramatic in living memory. This week may seem ordinary now, but in twenty, fifty, or two hundred years time it could well be one of the most studied in British history.