As a result of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom is likely to see another Scottish independence referendum in its future, says Chatham House’s Richard G. Whitman. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, is now openly considering the viability of an independent state with separate EU membership, raising questions about the future of both Scottish and English nationalism. Despite its quest for self-governance, “Scotland’s path into the future, possibility for independence, and relationship with the EU is paradoxically tied up with the rest of the United Kingdom even if it would like to pursue a separate path,” says Whitman.
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that Scottish independence "may offer the greatest stability for Scotland" post-Brexit. What do you think she means?
Nicola Sturgeon is looking for certainty as far as Scotland’s position in the European Union is concerned. She is suggesting that if the UK is exiting the European Union, then that generates a greater degree of uncertainty for Scotland, not just regarding its place in Europe but also the future of its economy.
How likely is another referendum on Scottish independence?
It is almost certain there will be another referendum on Scottish independence. The question is when. Time is really on the side of the Scottish National Party (SNP) because they know that younger voters tend to favor independence. They are banking on the idea that they will get further devolution from Westminster, which means more power for Scotland. If that doesn’t transpire, then it allows them to use that as a political strategy for arguing for independence. They can afford to wait until the economy looks more certain and oil prices are on an upswing. Then they will be in a better position not only to call for a vote but to win the vote this time around. Later is better for them, because they want an overwhelming majority, not just a marginal majority. Because, of course, a vote for independence will raise all sorts of questions about whether you can seek a permanent change in a nation’s relationship to the UK.
How economically viable would an independent Scottish state be? Is the country’s economy too reliant on a lagging global oil market?
Everything depends on what Scotland would like to spend because at the moment it is in effect subsidized by England. It receives a higher proportion of UK public expenditure than would be the case if the money were distributed equally across the constituent parts of the UK. If Scotland wanted to have public services that weren’t as good as the services it’s got now, then its economy could cope. Of course if oil prices go up and if Scotland’s economy seems to be humming along, then it changes the balance of possibilities. But where oil prices are at the moment, Scotland will be looking at having a much more rocky ride as far as its economy is concerned.
What are the implications for the UK’s only nuclear submarine base, which is off Scotland’s coast?
The SNP doesn’t want to see a nuclear weapons system in place in Scotland. [Editor’s note: Scottish MPs voted overwhelmingly against the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme this year.] So it does offer a very, very difficult situation for the continuation of a Great Britain-based nuclear deterrent, if Scotland was to get independence and pursue Scottish disarmament. If there were a process of relocating the nuclear deterrent to another British port, it could be done, but of course there would be the need to change the infrastructure and so on, and that would take a lengthy period of time. You would be talking about a process rather than an event. There would, of course, be external pressure not least from the United States and from other NATO member states. And if an independent Scotland wanted to be in NATO, then obviously that would be an influence to have to take on board.
Do you think that an independent Scotland would want to be in NATO?
What the Scottish National Party is offering is that the country remains the same, except it has more control. In other words, there isn’t a suggestion that they would upturn all of the significant existing relationships that the UK has.
Could Scotland remain in both the European Union and the United Kingdom without another referendum?
There has been a lot of discussion about alternatives for membership, the so-called reverse Greenland, all of these kind of exotic creations, which are largely confined to think tanks and academia. In reality, the processes will be detached, not least because there are some governments within the EU—Spain and Catalonia, for example—which would not like the idea of a seceding part of a country automatically joining the EU. Whatever political choreography there is, it is not going to be one which is straightforward, and it is not going to be one in which Scotland can cash in or remain a member automatically, which is why I think the negotiations that the UK is having with the EU are formidably complicated. It’s not just a negotiation with the Westminster government. Scotland’s path into the future, possibility for independence, and its relationship with the EU is paradoxically tied up with the rest of the United Kingdom even if it would like to pursue a separate path.
"Whatever political choreography there is, it is not going to be one which is straightforward, and it is not going to be one in which Scotland can cash in or remain a member automatically."
What would be the likely implications of Scottish independence for its currency?
The option of joining the eurozone was unattractive to Scottish voters in the past, but of course if the eurozone starts to outperform the poundzone, voters may start to think differently. That is not going to be something that happens in the short term, but that might be something that happens a bit further down the line. The most important thing to bear in mind is that Scotland’s most important trading partner is the rest of the United Kingdom, so it wouldn’t want to immediately set up barriers to trade, or complications in trade, by adopting a different currency. But the question is whether an independent Scotland would want to run a separate monetary policy that has the capacity to issue its own currency. Many other small countries, particularly within the European Union, have sought to be part of a larger currency union to be given the support they need to ride out the difficulties that small-country currencies can find themselves in.
If the UK retains access to the single European market and continues to allow free movement, do you think there will still be a push for Scottish independence?
If it looks like the United Kingdom could retain a close relationship to the EU but have more control over its destiny, that could be incredibly attractive to Scottish voters, particularly if it were accompanied by a project of federalizing the UK—in other words, reaching a different constitution and settlement between Westminster and the constituent nations of the UK. At the moment, certain powers are devolved and certain powers are not, and ostensibly the constituent parts of the UK aren’t equal. If you were to move down a road toward a more federal system, that might be enough to satisfy the Scottish electorate.
"Once the UK leaves the European Union, what does English nationalism stand for? Does it stand in opposition to the Scottish or other constituent nations of the UK?"
If there is a referendum and Scotland does vote to leave, do you think that Spain or other countries with separatist territories would likely veto Scotland’s application to the EU?
A Scottish independence referendum called on the basis of a vote that was agreed to by the Westminster parliament and where it was agreed in advance that if Scotland were to vote for independence, then independence would be given would be a different situation from one in which perhaps a homegrown independence referendum is called against the wishes of the central government. You can draw clear distinctions between different routes to independence, which means that the situation in which the country seeks entry into the European Union would look quite different than if it sought entry pre-breakup of that country.
Another issue is what it means for the English. We’ve got the Welsh, we’ve got the Northern Irish, even though it’s a divided community, and they seem to have a collective interest in the EU question. What does Scottish independence mean for the English? The English don’t have their own institutions or political parties, and the English sense of nationhood is nascent at best. One of the interesting things about leaving the European Union is that we’ve had a rise of English nationalism in opposition to Brussels. Once the UK leaves the European Union, what does English nationalism stand for? Does it stand in opposition to the Scottish or other constituent nations of the UK? Is it to get a better deal for the English against the Scots if they were to seek independence? That is one of the great unknowns: What kind of reaction would it trigger on the part of what I call the slumbering nation part of the UK?
This interview has been edited and condensed.