Webinar

Virtual Roundtable: The Post-Election Future of Scotland

Wednesday, June 2, 2021
Marko Djurica/Reuters
Speaker
Nicola McEwen

Professor of Territorial Politics, University of Edinburgh

Presider

Visiting Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Roundtable Series on Human Rights Issues

David Scheffer:

Well, thank you and welcome to everyone. I see some familiar names on the participant list, and I'm heartened that there is such interest in the future of Scotland among all of you. It is a subject that has seized me ever since my college days, and so I remain a very keen observer and occasionally engaged in the maelstrom of it all. Politics in Scotland is quite dynamic and became even more so on May 6, 2021, during the regional elections in the United Kingdom, which included elections for the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Scotland's future is now set on a possible collision course with the conservative-led government in Westminster, and the outcome may well be independence and a breakup of the United Kingdom. But that is a very loaded statement that I just made, and I'm going to warmly welcome our guest today to explain it all, because she is the expert.

Nicola McEwen is a professor of territorial politics, which is a very cool title for a professorship, at the University of Edinburgh and co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. She is also a Senior Research Fellow with the UK in a Changing Europe, a cross-university think tank set up to examine the impact of Brexit. Nicola has been researching devolution, multi-level government, and the politics of independence for over two decades. Her most recent work published in journals including Regional Studies, Regional and Federal Studies, and the International Political Science Review explores intergovernmental relations and the effects of Brexit on devolution and the UK union. She regularly writes blogs on key political developments as they happen, which is what we do in think tank world, and is a seasoned commentator in UK and international media. Most recently, she worked with the BBC providing expert analysis on the Scottish election results as they were declared.

So I'm going to ask Nicola a few opening questions bundled together so that she can set the stage. Nicola, for the benefit of our roundtable participants, some of whom may be a bit rusty on the history and politics of Scotland, what is the short history of the Scottish National Party and its political mandate? What happened in the May 6 elections in terms of the balance of political power within Scotland and between Scotland and Westminster? What do the results mean for the prospects of Scottish independence? Is that just a pipe dream? Or is there some degree of reality to it now? So I turn the stage over to you, Nicola.

Nicola McEwen:

Okay, so lots of big questions there. And let me start by saying the SNP, the Scottish National Party, has been around for a very long time. It was formed way back in 1934, but for most of its history, it was barely making any impact at all. It didn't achieve what we would think of as an electoral breakthrough until the late 1960s, early 1970s. And even then, within the context of British politics, or Westminster politics, it was always a fringe player. But how the SNP fared in Scotland, even in those contests, mattered a lot to the debates on Scottish self-government. So, for most of its history, its key role was to push the other parties onto a self-government, or we might call it a home-rule, agenda. The key thing that made the difference for the SNP’s fortunes was the establishment of the Scottish Parliament itself, because it moved everybody onto its platform of self-government. And because the Scottish Parliament has a proportional representation electoral system, even when it was the opposition party, it was a considerable force within the Scottish Parliament. And for the first two sessions, it was the obvious alternative party of government.

Now, the SNP has been in power since 2007, just entering its fourth consecutive term. It has become the dominant force in Scottish politics at every electoral level and in every electoral arena, and that has been reinforced in the most recent election. It became particularly successful electorally after losing the 2014 independence referendum. So, in a sense, although independence, which was the subject of the 2014 referendum, was lost, it gave the SNP and independence as a political project a platform the likes of which it had never had. And in the immediate aftermath of that, the SNP rose phenomenally in terms of its membership, but also in all of the elections that we've seen since then. And in the elections that we've just had, the party won more than twice as many seats as its nearest rival. It secured just under half of the votes in the constituency contests.

The overwhelming number of constituency Members of Parliament are from the SNP, but because it's a proportional representation system, it has one seat short of a parliamentary majority overall. So the election tells us a number of different things. It tells us that the constitutional issue, the issue of Scotland's future within the United Kingdom, the issue of independence, is the dominant issue that characterizes Scottish politics. It tells us that the public is split down the middle on the issue. And it tells us that in Parliament, there is now a comfortable pro-independence majority, because it's not just the Scottish National Party that favors independence, but also the Scottish Green Party that favors independence. But broadly, politics and the public are polarized around this issue of whether or not Scotland should be independent.

Scheffer:

I have a few questions about the Green Party. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is the leader of the Scottish National Party, and of course, is in the Scottish Parliament, delivered her major policy speech before the Scottish Parliament on May 26. I actually found it rather interesting how frank she was about the emerging relationship that she stated publicly during that speech between the Scottish National Party and the Green Party. She is negotiating, at this time, what I understand to be a cooperation agreement with the Green Party, not a coalition. Although she hinted strongly that it could evolve that way, or at least you have to have a coalition in order to put any Green Party members on the cabinet is what I would assume. So it's a step short of a coalition, because the Green Party has its own agenda as well.

Can you just explain to us the significance of all this and whether it just comes down to terminology in the end? Because both parties seek independence, and therefore, one would assume they're unified in any initiative for an independence referendum in the future. But I leave the details and the wisdom to you on this.

McEwen:

Yeah, well, there aren't too many details to share with you. We're not too sure yet what this means, and you're right that in her speech to the Scottish Parliament, just last week, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, did talk quite openly about talks about having some sort of formal cooperation agreement. And it isn't very clear what that entails. I mean there has long been cooperation in Parliament between the SNP as a minority administration and the Greens. Earlier on, there was a kind of confidence and supply type arrangement, and the Greens could usually be relied upon to ensure that the SNP minority administration could get key votes through Parliament on its budgets, for example.

There's no reason to think that kind of informal arrangement wouldn't work again in the future, because they do share many similar policy commitments. The Greens tend to be a bit more radical on ideological grounds than the SNP. The SNP is probably center, slightly center left, whereas the Greens are more radical and ambitious in terms of their environmental politics, but also situate themselves now very firmly on the left on other ideological issues. The motivations for the SNP in doing this are not immediately clear. They don't need the Greens in any formal sense, because the informal has been working well and because they know that the Greens will support them on an independence referendum. My hunch is that it's partly about refresh. This is a fourth term now, and they will be trying to move away from any ideas that this is more of the same.

And I think it will be linked to COVID-19 recovery and ensuring that COVID-19 recovery is very much on the Green political space, as well as sort of climate change at the heart of COVID-19 recovery ambitions. And it may well be linked to COP26, because, of course, that's due to be held in Glasgow at the end of the year. But the interesting thing about COP26 is that it's the UK government that is the host. It's in the city of Glasgow. The Scottish Government has no formal role in that process, but it will want to have one. It won’t have a seat at the table, because it's not a nation state in that sense, but it will want to have a role. I suspect it might be something in the area of environmental issues and climate change more broadly that we might see more formal cooperation. But I'm guessing, because there's no detail on that yet, the detail, if anything, will come after the summer recess.

Scheffer:

And can I just stay on the Green Party for a moment? How does the Green Party navigate with the SNP the whole issue of North Sea oil, which one would assume the Green Party just wants to go clean energy, which Scotland has such potential for and is already developing, while the SNP back in the 1970s actually got a shot in the arm with North Sea oil and its economic potential if Scotland were independent rather than sending the revenue to London. Where are we with the Green Party on North Sea oil?

McEwen:

Well, I mean the Green Party are very firm in their commitment to leave it there and the SNP less so for obvious reasons. But the First Minister in her speech talked about challenging each other on difficult issues, and I think that was code for North Sea oil. Historically, if we look at the SNP and the way it approached elections and the issue of independence, North Sea oil was very central to that. It was very central to the economic case it for independence, but that isn't the case any longer. Not least because it doesn't generate the revenues that it once did, and the most recent analysis and positions that the SNP has taken on this would be that they would use the resource that was there, transition away from it, but not rely on North Sea oil revenues for current spending. And that's quite a significant change. It does raise difficult issues for the economics of independence because there is quite a significant fiscal gap.

But that's perhaps the biggest shift from the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP led by Alex Salmond, her predecessor, in that there is more of an openness about the economic difficulties. Alex Salmond also was very much favoring a green energy push as well, but more from an economic advantage than necessarily a climate change advantage whereas this administration seems to want to embrace climate change ambition as well and put that at the heart of what it does. And I think that's where you're seeing the space for cooperation with the Scottish Greens.

Scheffer:

Very interesting. I just want to alert our participants that at the 30-minute mark, I'll stop asking questions, and we'll open it up to everyone else. I've got a few more questions to pose to Nicola.

Where do things stand now between the SNP and the European Union and the Brussels bureaucracy? Would there be any resistance within the EU to Scotland gaining independence constitutionally and applying for EU membership? I mean, might Spain still object just because of Catalonia concerns even if Scotland stays on the constitutional path? And finally, what is the most contentious issue in that application process to the EU if Scotland were to gain independence? Would fishing rights be the big issue between an emerging Scotland and the EU for its membership? Or would it be something else?

McEwen:

Okay, so perhaps before I answer that directly, it's worth thinking back to the 2014 independence referendum, and the EU didn't have a formal position but did make interventions that suggested that it was not overly favorable towards the prospect of Scottish independence. And it seemed quite clear to us as observers that they just didn't get it. They didn't get this idea of secession or separation, and it seemed anathema to the project of integration. Why would you pull apart when the European Union is trying to move closer together? Brexit has changed that.

The Brexit process and the positions taken by the Scottish Government, the clear majority of people within Scotland, 62% within Scotland voted for the UK to remain within the European Union, has changed mindsets in Brussels, certainly, about the prospect of independence. So there is quite a bit more sympathy towards the independence project in Brussels than was the case in 2014. That said, I wouldn't expect the EU to intervene in what it would consider to be a domestic process taking place within the United Kingdom. And I definitely wouldn't expect them to entertain Scottish accession to the European Union unless independence came about as a result of a lawful and consensual constitutional process.

But let's assume we overcome all of those hurdles and that people actually vote for that outcome. I suppose another key difference with 2014 is that we know now what the process would be. It would be an accession process, and that is detailed within the treaties. My expectation is that Scotland's application would be welcomed. The key issues that you asked about, I don't think fishing rights would be it, because I think there is an acceptance on the part of certainly the SNP government, that EU membership implies the CFP. They may not like it. It may be a difficult sell to the fishing communities. They may try to get some derogation from that, but it's very unlikely. And I think, perhaps the most difficult issue would be the border between Scotland and England becoming a border between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

And we've seen the implications of border issues on the Northern Ireland-UK, Northern Ireland-GB border, and how important it is for the European Union to protect the integrity of the EU internal market. So that I think would be one of the biggest issues. It’s a real challenge, I think, for pro-independence campaigners within Scotland: how can you not have significant additional barriers between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, or Scotland and what would be the UK post-independence, that would make it much more difficult for businesses within Scotland to trade, but have access to the European Union and to be within the EU internal market? And so I think that would be perhaps the most difficult issue to navigate.

Scheffer:

On just that issue, is there any negotiated solution with the EU that could provide an exceptional kind of relationship between Scotland and England in terms of trade, if Scotland were to join the EU as an independent nation? Or is it just a black and white situation on the issue of trade over borders?

McEwen:

I don't think it's black and white. The European Union has shown itself to be flexible in other contexts. But I don't think we would expect Scotland to be treated in the same way as Ireland was because we don't have the history of the troubles to think about. In the case of Ireland and the status of the Irish border with the UK, there was lots of interest in maintaining peace in the peace process, and I think that motivated a lot of the key players to try to find a solution for Northern Ireland, although it has created other difficulties and is still ongoing as well. I think Scotland doesn't have that history, and so, therefore, it wouldn't necessarily invoke the same sympathies and the same efforts in that respect. Also, it is a land border with the United Kingdom. And that in itself would potentially create a different set of challenges. So I don't think it's black and white. I think there may be some flexibilities, but it's very difficult to see how you manage that in ways other than having to manage that border and having some sort of arrangements in place that would enable both sides or certainly the side that was within the EU to know what was crossing the border and to know that it satisfied EU regulations.

Scheffer:

I'm going to ask a couple more questions then we'll open it up to the participants. So I do encourage the participants to compose their questions and raise their hands, and I'll work through the list as we go through the second 30 minutes. So, personalities Nicola, how popular is Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Scotland and will his unpopularity weaken his leverage, particularly in denying what we call a section 30 referendum on independence, which Westminster has to approve as being possible to be held if you want a constitutional process? How do you assess a belligerent resistance to the referendum in terms of Johnson's so-called leadership, and Sturgeon’s maneuverability on the issue? What might be her options?

McEwen:

First of all, Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular in Scotland, and in every opinion poll, he has very profound negative ratings among the people of Scotland. But that doesn't necessarily link to the constitutional issue. Douglas Ross, who is the leader of the Scottish conservatives, he's also quite unpopular, not as unpopular as Boris Johnson, but he's still quite unpopular, and yet, his party managed to secure the same level of support in the election as it did when it had a popular leader four years previously. So the two issues aren't necessarily closely linked.

But it is clearly the case that Nicola Sturgeon will try to link them, particularly if, when the time comes that she formally introduces referendum legislation again and seeks a section 30 order, which is the device that was used to transfer the power from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, to put the issue of the legal authority for a referendum beyond legal doubt. If he refuses, and then it will certainly be the case that she will try to and indeed has done so far, try to make it a debate about who has the right to decide. Does Boris Johnson have the right to decide Scotland's future? Or is that a matter for the people of Scotland?

So, at the moment, we are stuck in these process issues, because the process is unclear. If he continues to say no to that process, to allowing and facilitating a referendum, as he seems intent to do, my hunch is that the Scottish Government will introduce referendum legislation anyway, which it may try to frame in such a way as that it would be within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. Because of the Green support, it will pass. And then the UK government, the UK law officers will have thirty days to decide whether they want to refer the act to the Supreme Court. And I would expect them to do that. At that point, the Supreme Court's role will be to determine whether or not this is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Now, I am not a constitutional lawyer, and we would have to wait and see the wording of the legislation, but it's not a cut and dried case that it would be beyond the competence of the Parliament because the law, the Constitution, is somewhat ambiguous on where authority for a referendum lies and all referendums in the United Kingdom are consultative and advisory anyway, because only the UK Parliament is sovereign. That's not what she wants to do. She wants to have a process that is seen to be legitimate by all sides. But it's not immediately clear how you get there within the current political environment, because it's clearly a benefit to the conservatives in Scotland to be opposed to this process. They have benefited electorally from being the strong anti-independence voice in Scotland.

Scheffer:

That is very interesting. And of course, from a comparative perspective, that really does distinguish the Scotland situation from the Catalonia situation in Spain, because of the legal characteristics. And I think that is encouraging for the EU in terms of Scotland and is worth keeping an eye on. I have one more question, and then we're going to open it up.

What is the talk within the SNP now about an independent Scotland's relationship with NATO, including nuclear submarine access and possible NATO membership? Is this issue a key one for Washington, in your view? Or would Washington prefer to keep a totally unified UK together in part because of the UK as a permanent member of the Security Council? I mean, what's the view from Edinburgh about those U.S. and NATO issues?

McEwen:

We don't have firm details yet on the position now. All I can tell you is what the position has been. All of this will be subject to review before you get to any independence referendum, so we're quite a long way from having the substance of what independence would mean, and what it would mean in all of these policy areas. Certainly, at the leadership level, the SNP remains committed to joining NATO as an independent state. That was not a position that was overwhelmingly endorsed by the broader independence movement. Indeed, it was a contentious issue within the SNP as a political party. But at the leadership level, and within the Scottish Government, I would expect that still to be the case. However, they remain committed to removing Trident from Scotland. The UK’s nuclear base, its only nuclear base, is in Scotland very close to the city of Glasgow, the biggest city within Scotland by some distance. And I cannot envisage a scenario where the SNP changes from an anti-nuclear position.

What I would expect is that they would be open to this being a gradual process. If you think about it, the SNP, the Scottish Government, whoever was in a Scottish team negotiating independence with the UK government, would be the inferior partner, just as the UK was the inferior partner in its negotiations with the European Union. But the one issue it has is Trident and how you, with consent and with a safe and gradual process, how you facilitate a change in moving Trident from Scotland to somewhere over the border. And when this was reviewed last time there wasn't an obvious alternative base within England or Wales where it could be located. So the UK government would definitely need time there.

In terms of the view from Washington, you probably have more insight into that than I do. And certainly the last time President Obama had made an intervention in the independence referendum to say he favored, I forget the exact words, but it was something like favoring a strong United Kingdom within a strong European Union. So, in other words, don't break up anything. Now, obviously, we’re in a post-Brexit world, so it's very different. My hunch is that that the US would continue to favor the UK remaining united, and as strong as it can be. Its status has somewhat diminished since Brexit, and anything that would further erode its status would probably be unwelcome to the US. Whether the current administration would intervene in that sense, I don't know. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on that.

Scheffer:

I will hold my thoughts on that, because I want to get to our participants. And Nick and Erica, I am trying to pop up my list of participants and all I get is the list of panelists.

Erica Lew:

I can certainly assist. Just as a reminder, to ask a question please click on the “raise hand” icon on your Zoom window. When you are called on, please accept the unmute now prompt then proceed with your name and affiliation followed by your question. So we'll take our first question from Mark Blyth.

Mark Blyth:

Hello, Nicola. We know each other. Sorry, it's an inside job. Mark Blyth, professor of international economics at Brown University. So Nicola, great thanks for the presentation and the update. One of the things that struck me about this campaign was once again the lack of a coherent sort of economic plan for independence. There's lots of ferment about whether MMT is right for Scotland and the currency and that sort of stuff. But the actual business model, what Scotland would do in a post-independence world, right? There seems to be very little serious thinking on that. Do you think that's going to change? Or is that just something that everyone just waves their hands about and then sort of walks away and hopes that it works out? Are they going to get more serious about defining what the Scottish business model is, and how they're going to sell that to the Scottish people? Because you're right, I think independence is more or less baked into the cake, but you are going have to make your way in the world, and it's not clear how that's going to be done. What are your thoughts on that? Thank you.

McEwen:

So I think you're absolutely right. The case is not there yet, but I think they will get more serious, and they have to get more serious if they have any chance of winning an independence referendum. There are lots of debates around it. There's lots of noise around it, as you have alluded to. I think within government, there was a unit that was set up pre-pandemic to investigate all of these issues and independence post-Brexit in a very different world. But that was disbanded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And it was quite important, I think, to the message of the Scottish Government that it was disbanded at that time, because Nicola Sturgeon has been keen to emphasize that her sole focus is COVID-19. And that is still the case. But gradually, we will see that shift. I'm not sure if that unit has been put together again just yet. If it hasn't, I would expect it to be probably in the autumn. But around about that there's a lot of work being done. The academic community is gearing up as well to support that process. I mean, there will be academics that side with one side or another, but it's important to me that there is space for those of us who just want to inform the debate, to think about these issues and think about the options and the scenarios that would be in place there. And you'd be very welcome Mark to make some contribution to that discussion as well.

But I think you're absolutely right. The answers are not there yet. They will have to be. In a sense actually, for as long as we are stuck on process, and for as long as the Prime Minister makes it easy to be stuck on process, that buys time. It buys time to the SNP. It buys time to the Scottish government to get to grips with these really difficult issues and come up with a convincing narrative. The one thing that will be different from the last time, and she has already alluded to this, is that you will not hear Nicola Sturgeon say that this will be easy. So that has been quite a significant shift since the last time. What she will have to do is present it in such a way as whatever pain there is through a transition to independence will have benefits in the medium term. I don't think you can get away with that longer term, but in the medium term, there will be benefits that make the short-term pain worthwhile. But they don't have it yet.

Scheffer:

Erica, if you can ask for the next question.

Lew:

Sure. We'll take the next question from Cameron Findlay.

Cameron Findlay:

Thanks very much, Professor McEwen. Very interesting. And Professor Blyth stole about 80 percent of my question, because I've read that Nicola Sturgeon, when asked, has said that they don't have an updated economic analysis. So they don't really know. They can't make the case yet. But I guess the way I put the question then is, if they're not trying to sell it as being in the interests of the Scottish people from an economic standpoint, what is the claim of the SNP as to why this will benefit the Scottish people, other than satisfying their kind of psychic and emotional need not to be ordered around by the British? Do they set forward any tangible benefits that they see for the Scottish people other than independence itself?

McEwen:

So they will make an economic case. I think her line is that they don't have it yet, because COVID-19 changed everything, and it changed the economic analysis that the position was previously based upon, which had been produced a few years back by the sustainable growth commission. I think that was the body that the SNP had set up to look at the economic case. And so it's not that they won't go there, they definitely will, and they definitely will have to. But, as we saw with Brexit, the economic case isn't necessarily the central one. In a way, although the SNPs’ vision of independence is very different from the UK Conservative Party's vision of independence vis-à-vis the EU, it is the democratic case that will be at the heart of this, which was at the heart of it in 2014, but will be even more at the heart of it now.

And that's where Brexit really matters. Because Brexit was this major constitutional rupture for the United Kingdom that happened despite the fact that people in Scotland didn't want it to happen. You have a radical Conservative government that is elected with a majority, despite the fact that it has very little support within Scotland, and given the dominance of the SNP now, it is very difficult in the foreseeable future to see any UK government having strong representation or strong support within Scotland. So I think it will be about that idea of Scotland's voice. Now, of course, there are many voices within Scotland. There are many different views, but that idea of a national identity and a nation within the United Kingdom and whether or not its voice can be accommodated within the UK as it stands. There are some aspects of the domestic side of Brexit that have raised some questions about the status and authority of the Scottish Parliament, of the devolved institutions more broadly, so that too would be used to reinforce this idea of democratic self-government. And in the way the SNP presents independence, it tends to present it very much as a continuation of the devolution project rather than something radically different. It's a sort of step-by-step gradual move towards completing the powers of the Scottish Parliament to use a phrase that I'm sure Nicola Sturgeon has used and her colleagues have used. And so I think that will be at the core: getting the government that you choose and being able to make the decisions that you want to make as a nation and having all the responsibilities that go with that. I think Brexit and the relationship with the European Union is obviously core to that as well.

Scheffer:

Erica has the next question.

Lew:

Our next question comes from Frank Wisner.

Frank Wisner:

Dr. McEwen, thank you. I came in a bit late, so I hope I'm not repeating a point you've already made. I'd be curious or be interested in hearing how you believe the EU will react in the event of Scottish independence, particularly given reservations that Spain would certainly have in the face of another fractured nation.

McEwen:

So I did touch upon that earlier, and I'll just sort of recap slightly and then add something else. I think the EU, as a set of institutions, has more sympathy to independence now than it did in 2014, not least because of the positions that the Scottish government and the majority of the people in Scotland have taken in relation to the Brexit process and to the issue of EU membership. But I think the EU would want to ensure that this was a constitutional process within the United Kingdom. It would not entertain a unilateral declaration of independence in Scotland any more than it did with Catalonia. But that's not the path that the SNP and the Scottish Government wants to take anyway. But the other interesting contrast with Catalonia is that there is no constitutional barrier within the United Kingdom to Scottish independence in the way that the Spanish constitution has. It's been as something as a nation that is indivisible. There's nothing like that it within the UK, and the UK government acknowledges that.

I was in an event with the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove recently, who admitted as such. He openly said that it's possible for Scotland to secede, to become independent from the United Kingdom under the UK's constitutional arrangements, but they don't want it. And their argument is, in a sense, that you've already had that decision, and everyone should be focused on COVID-19, and now is not the time. And so I don't expect the EU to intervene in what it would still see as a domestic debate. And not least because it wouldn't want to damage its relationship with the United Kingdom any further. It's already not particularly a positive and happy relationship. That's something that the EU will have to work on with the UK and intervening in any way prior to any decision being made would be unlikely to reinforce that relationship.

Scheffer:

I see that I now have my list up, and my good friend Peter Galbraith is next up to ask you a question.

Peter Galbraith:

Thank you. First, I want to thank David for doing these series because I've shared his fascination with this since watching Margot MacDonald in 1974. I wanted to ask two things. First is how does the Irish situation play into what's going on in Scotland? And, as you know, the Irish diaspora has been very important in terms of the whole Irish question. Does the Scottish diaspora, which at least at the turn of the last century was significant, my ancestors, does it have any role at all in this?

McEwen:

That’s a really interesting question to which I don't know the answer, but my hunch is that it doesn't have a major role. The extent to which the Scottish diaspora has been the connections that the government has tried to make and cultivate with the diaspora tends to be in relation to economic opportunities and investment, tourism and trade and so on, rather than on constitutional matters. So it definitely doesn't play the same role that the Irish diaspora has had historically. But there are very strong links between Scotland and Ireland between the governments, and I think that has been strengthening post-Brexit as well. I would expect the Scottish government to look to Ireland, to the Irish government, as an ally in the independence process and, in particular, in an accession process with the European Union. The issues in Northern Ireland are very difficult for Ireland and for Scotland. The Scottish government tends to respect the political sensitivities around Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom and the difficulties around the implementation of the protocol, for example, which are causing enormous pressures on politics in Northern Ireland. So it tends to sort of separate that from Scotland's own constitutional debate. But the Irish link, the direct link with the Irish government is important.

Scheffer:

I don't see any hands raised, so I'm going to ask a couple of economic-related questions, Nicola, and expand from what you previously heard from our other colleagues here in the United States. How convincing is First Minister Sturgeon’s frequent argument that Scotland can be as credible and economically secure in the European Union as some of the smaller EU states, like Denmark, Iceland, and perhaps one would say, Finland. There is often this sort of argument that Scotland would join that club of EU nations. How would you respond to that prospect?

McEwen:

I think that probably is the club that they would aspire to join and where they might depart from the Irish in a sense in that, but it doesn't seem to be any prospect of the SNP committing to join the euro, for example, in the short term anyway. On currency issues, they have changed, and maybe in relation to some of the earlier questions, they have changed away from committing to a sterling currency union. I think this is one of the areas post-pandemic, where we will start to see a shift. It will most likely be a commitment to a separate Scottish currency supported by a separate central bank. But within the EU context, there is a calculation to be made if you don't commit to the euro in the short term. It wouldn't be eligible for a while anyway, but if they don't commit to that, then in some ways they are staying on the outside of the inner circle rather than going all in as Ireland has chosen to do. So that would be a difficult issue for them to navigate, perhaps part of the difficult issues that would be negotiated in the accession process as we discussed earlier. Definitely in the whole number of areas, on social and economic areas, on strategic defense priorities around the high north, I think that would be looking to strengthen links with the Nordic countries in particular. I think they'd have to do an awful lot of learning about the diversity within the Nordic countries. On the areas for which they are currently responsible as a devolved government, there are links there. There is policy transfer on education policy, on public health policies, for example, where they have sort of pitched themselves within that space.

In terms of the credibility of the arguments, the difficulty is that all of the analyses that I have seen from the SNP and bodies that it has set up, such as the Sustainable Growth Commission, have tended to pick winners when they talk about the success of small states. They model themselves on the winners rather than we as academics might think, okay, well, what makes some small states successful and some less successful. As a political party, they're not interested in the less successful ones, only the winners and trying to emulate those. New Zealand is another obvious example that is often looked at particularly, and just now given the popularity of it, obviously. I suppose the other thing that Scotland would be very different from all of these other cases is that it would be going through a transition to independence, which itself would be a very difficult journey to make. My hunch is that the SNP would be comfortable with that being a long process, so a long and gradual process to minimize the instability that would come with it. But that would obviously require agreement and cooperation with whoever was in charge of the UK government at that time.

Scheffer:

I think I read an article a few months ago by a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, Barry Eichengreen. It was a very interesting article about the currency dilemma for Scotland. But I think he agrees with essentially what you were saying, he concludes his article after, you know, providing the analysis by saying, “but Scotland needs a plan for a new currency, and an independent central bank, as well as a blueprint for the subsequent transition to the euro. These would go a long way toward reassuring Scots who yearn for independence, but worry about what follows sterling.” Do you think he's on mark with that statement?

McEwen:

I think he's not quite on mark with the last part of that statement, in that those who yearn for independence don't really care about the currency issues. The ones who care about the currency issues and are worried about the currency issues are probably at best soft independence supporters, but probably like the Scottish Parliament and are not hugely uncomfortable with remaining within the United Kingdom. So it's that middle group that the SNP has to reassure in the first instance, in order to get to the position of having a majority favoring independence.

And then the next set of people it would have to reassure thereafter is the international community, the investors, the businesses, because the last thing they would want would be for major investors to up sticks and move sides or to take their business elsewhere, feeding the instability that might come. So they are speaking to different audiences at the same time. And the message isn't necessarily pitched in the same way. And that's one of the challenges that the SNP will face in the coming years. That's not where they're at in policy terms right now. It might be where they get to before an independence referendum. But we will have to see. I do think COVID-19 changes things on the currency issue, and the detail isn't there yet.

Scheffer:

Right. That's very interesting. Peter Galbraith, do you have a second question? Or is your hand still up?

Peter Galbraith:

No, I had a short follow up, which is whether Boris Johnson's parting gift to Scotland will be a land border with the EU, with the bridge across the Mull Of Kintyre, if I pronounced that correctly. I mean is that actually a project that's going to go ahead?

McEwen:

I don't think so. I think there's an ammunitions dump somewhere in that mix, if it was a bridge, rather than a tunnel, sometimes it's a tunnel, sometimes it's a bridge that he speaks about as an infrastructure project. I think it's one of these sort of Boris Johnson projects that is announced and never really goes very far. And not least, because unless he was going to rip up the devolution settlement, it would need the consent of both the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to get around planning, transport, all these other issues. And I think, certainly at the moment, on both sides of that particular body of water, there are other priorities that people would like to see the money being spent on.

Scheffer:

Nicola, I'm going to ask you one, and if Erica gives me enough time, another question. But Erica, please stop us at precisely the right moment. Is independence the mandate of the younger generations in Scotland, while the older and retired generations are far more reliable anti-independence voters? Did the May 6 elections reveal any shifts in this respect?

McEwen:

On the first part of your question, it's very clear from the demographic data that the most distinctive age group is the older generation, the post-65 generation, which is a sizable number of the electorate, but they are very clearly opposed to independence, disproportionately so. The young and the middle aged actually are more favorable towards independence. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that therefore it's only a matter of time, as some commentators seem to suggest. I would only refer you to north of where you are at the moment, where in Quebec, what we've seen is that, since the 1995 sovereignty referendum, that age cohort has shifted. So those who came of age in the sovereignty referendum, of 1995 still favor Quebec sovereignty, but the younger generation does not. So it doesn't necessarily mean that each successive generation will be more and more pro-independent. That can change overtime as well. But certainly the demographics, which suggests that it's the older voters who are opposed to independence, and maybe that's around the economic insecurity and fears about what might happen to pensions and so on. Maybe it's because they still tend to have gone through a socialization process in those institutions that were the British institutions during the pre-devolution era. They are the Labour Party's voters, in a sense, when the Labour Party was, in its heyday, a force of integration within the United Kingdom. It's certainly not that anymore. We don't know what will happen in the future, but that's certainly the demographics just now.

Scheffer:

Erica, do I have time for one more question?

Lew:

Sure.

Scheffer:

Okay. Nicola, is there talk of First Minister Sturgeon visiting the United States soon or any talk about her visiting Brussels and her likely message to the EU?

I just want to share with the audience that when I was in Brussels in the summer of 2019, if not the fall of 2019, she visited, and she just received a huge welcome. This was, you know, after the Brexit referendum and all the tough negotiations ongoing with the UK. There was just a warm embrace of Nicola Sturgeon in Brussels at that time. Any plans for her to do some travel in the near future that you know of?

McEwen:

Not in the near future because of COVID-19. She has a very cautious approach to easing restrictions around COVID-19, much more so than Boris Johnson. And so I cannot envisage her traveling anywhere until everything becomes a bit safer, and that she's more comfortable to ease the restrictions for everybody else. But, when it's safe to do so, I would expect her to have a visible presence on the international stage. And in the election, she was joined in government, she appointed him to cabinet, by Angus Robertson, who some of you may remember was the SNP leader in the Westminster Parliament, the leader of the parliamentary group and had quite a high profile prior to the 2017 election when he lost his seat. He has now the role of being the constitutional and external affairs cabinet secretary, so I would expect him also to be visiting the capitals and trying to put forward a positive case for the Scottish Government. But in terms of Nicola Sturgeon, it's interesting to note that she is ultimately the leader of a sub-state regional government, but she has a considerably higher profile than that. That's partly because of Scotland’s status as a nation. It's partly because of the prominence of the constitutional issue, and it's also partly because of her authority when she speaks and her ability to communicate a message very effectively. So yeah, I'm sure she'll explore those opportunities when the time is right.

Scheffer:

I certainly agree with that. When she addresses either a political audience or the Parliament, she's one of the most articulate, effective, power-punching orators that I've seen in a long time. So she's got that going for her very much. Nicola, thank you so much for totally educating us today. We deeply appreciate it, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Hope to see you back as this journey continues for the nation of Scotland.

McEwen:

I would be delighted to come back when we know a bit more about what independence would mean.

Scheffer:

Thank you very much, and thanks to the audience.

 

 

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