Will the U.K. become the Disunited Kingdom?

May 17, 2021 09:53
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Reuters

Just as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was celebrating Europe’s most successful Covid vaccination programme, local elections on May 6 handed him the nightmare every national leader wants to avoid – the independence of Scotland and the end of the United Kingdom.

If there were to happen during his term, he would go down in history as the man who oversaw the end of a union that has lasted 314 years.

Around the world, Britain would be mocked as the world’s largest empire having shrunk to half of an island offshore Europe. “United Kingdom falling apart at the seams,” mocked the China Daily last Wednesday.

In the election, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 64 of the 129 seats in the national parliament, with the Scottish Greens, who also favour independence, winning eight. That gives the two 72 an overall majority.

In a BBC interview after her victory, SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that, if Covid-19 had been brought under control, she aimed to hold a second public referendum by spring 2022.

In the first one in 2014, the population voted 45-55 per cent against -- in a country that was part of the European Union. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Scottish people voted 62-38 per cent to remain in the EU, while the country as a whole voted 52-48 per cent to leave. Support for the EU was especially strong among Scots below the age of 40.

Sturgeon has promised that, as an independent state, Scotland would apply to rejoin the EU.

Johnson’s approval is needed for such a referendum. In January, he said the British Parliament would not approve such a vote until the 2050s at the earliest. But the election result has put him between a rock and hard place. If the U.K. is a voluntary union, how can he ignore the freely expressed views of the Scottish electorate?

In his first comments after the vote, Johnson said that a referendum now would be “irresponsible and reckless” while the country was still fighting the pandemic. In a letter of congratulations to Sturgeon, he did not mention her demand; instead, he invited her to a UK-wide summit to discuss “our shared challenges.”

His short-term strategy is to stall for time. Lockdowns and travel restrictions mean that conditions do not exist for a proper national debate on such an important issue; a majority of people agree with this.
But, over the long term, he must find arguments to persuade Scots to vote No. His strongest case is economic.

According to an analysis by the Financial Times, an independent Scotland would lose subsidies from the UK Treasury of more than 1,630 pounds a year per person. It would need to raise taxes or cut spending equivalent to 1,765 pounds per person to reduce its budget deficit, now at nearly 10 per cent of annual economic output, to the three per cent ceiling demanded by the European Union.

It could not switch to the euro immediately but would need to use sterling as its currency for several, up to 10, years. So it would have a currency over which it would have no control.

Of its exports, around 60 per cent go to the rest of the U.K, making a divorce expensive and time-consuming. A hard border would lead to higher costs and great inconvenience, like those which British companies now face selling into the EU. The first decade of independence would be stormy.

In 2020, the country had a nominal GDP of US$205 billion. Its economy is diverse, with manufacturing, finance, electronics, education, whiskey, tourism and oil and gas. The northeast city of Aberdeen is the centre of Britain’s oil industry; production began in 1976, but is now in decline.

The second largest party in the national parliament is the Scottish Conservatives, which won 31 seats, the same as in the last election in 2016. It supports keeping Scotland within the U.K. It, and Johnson, must present a strong economic case -- living standards will fall after independence and years will be needed to enter the EU and adopt the euro.

The SNP, on the other hand, prefers to talk about nationalism, sense of history and identity and how the British government has “ignored” the wishes of Scottish people. It will call on the 70 million of Scottish origin around the world to support the new country. One of them, James Bond actor Sean Connery, said: “there is no act more creative than founding a new nation.”

Last Thursday 200 people in Glasgow gathered on the street to prevent immigration officers removing two Indian residents they wished to deport. After a seven-hour standoff, police released the two on bail. This display of popular anger played to the SNP’s strength – they want to take control of immigration.

It hopes that the heart, and not the pocket book, will decide the referendum.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.