Monday, 8 September 2014

Scotland and Independence: What Is At Stake?

On Thursday, 18th September, Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent nation or to remain part of the United Kingdom. Zoe Rundle explains what is at stake in this historic referendum (this article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine in July 2014). 



(source: Daily Telegraph)

Some may remember 2014 as the 100-year anniversary of World War One, or the year that a plane mysteriously vanished off the coast of Australia, or even because of the Brazilian World Cup in the summer; however, for many in Britain (who almost certainly won’t remember it as the year England won the World Cup), 2014 will mark the date of an incredibly significant decision, not just in Scotland’s history, but in Great Britain’s as a whole. The much anticipated national referendum regarding Scottish independence will ultimately determine whether or not the country will once again become its own sovereign state. While it has been an aim of some political parties (such as the Scottish National Party), advocacy groups and individuals in Scotland for quite some time, there are several other parties who resent it greatly. It is an issue that has divided opinion for years, but an outcome will eventually be decided by the end of the year, the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill having been put forward on 21st March, 2013. 

The debate regarding Scottish Independence can be traced back centuries and has become ever more prominent since the end of World War Two, when the Scottish National Party (founded in 1934) won its first seat in parliament at Westminster in 1945. A significant discovery later took place in 1970 - oil from the North Sea, off the east coast of Scotland; Scots believed this oil could benefit the then-struggling economy in the country and the issue of independence intensified. After the Kilbrandon Commission recommended devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales in 1973, following a four-year inquiry, a referendum on Scottish devolution was held in 1979. However, this failed as it did not achieve the necessary 40% of votes from the electorate and, as a result, the SNP experienced an electoral decline during the 1980s.

Despite this, ten years later, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced the Poll Tax which helped to revive the independence movement; its growth was demonstrated in 1997 when a referendum showed overwhelming support (73.8%) for a separate Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers. In 1998, devolved powers were assigned to a new Scottish Parliament.

One year later, the SNP won 35 of the 129 seats available in the Scottish Parliament, as Labour topped the chart with 56. However, this soon changed as support for Scottish independence grew. In 2007, the SNP overturned the Labour majority, forming a minority government with 47 seats to Labour's 46 and support from parties such as the Greens was evident on certain issues. This margin was soon increased as Alex Salmond won the SNP their first majority government, taking 69 seats compared to Labour’s 37. A vote for independence looked increasingly likely as more power was vested to the SNP, who had always been in favour of the matter. In October 2012, the Edinburgh Agreement was signed by both Salmond and Prime Minister Cameron, paving the way for a referendum to take place. “Scotland’s Future” was published eleven months later making the case for independence – the next step now is the vote itself.

This demonstrates the sheer willingness of the movement since the SNP have persisted for decades; however, those against the issue may question its legitimacy. There is some debate as to who represents the people of Scotland in the British constitution, especially in light of the Scottish Government's insistence that the SNP's majority in the Scottish Parliament provides a mandate for an independence referendum – something which has never formally been stated. Furthermore, while the vote is open to those born in other parts of the UK who are now living in Scotland, those who are from the country (and perhaps consider themselves Scottish) yet reside in elsewhere in Britain are not eligible to vote. As well as this, the vote is also open to 16 and 17-year olds who will never have voted before and therefore lack political experience. This may lead to a number of wasted votes as well as an element of pressure from the parents, in that the child votes not for what they want but for what their parents want instead. It doesn’t seem a good idea to be giving the vote, on such a big issue that has been around for years, to those who may well be extremely uneducated in the matter.

The signing of the Edinburgh Agreement resulted in the British Parliament undertaking to pass a ‘Section 30’ order to temporarily grant the Scottish parliament legal power to hold the referendum, giving it a sense of legitimacy.  Additionally, the United Nations charter, which the UK is signatory to, allows the right of peoples to self-determination, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Britain also abides by, guarantees peoples’ rights to change nationality. Therefore, though arguments for the legitimacy of Scottish Independence can be questioned, there is certainly enough in order to justify the decision for a referendum.

The fact there is a certain degree of legitimacy is a massive advantage for those who favor independence. On top of this, there are several other arguments to suggest that the issue is worthwhile and would benefit the country. For example, if independence was to take place then decisions about Scotland would be made by those who care most about the country and who it would directly affect – those who both live and work there. To further this point, an independent parliament appointed by a Scottish electorate would replace the current Westminster system where only 9% of the 650-member House of Commons are elected representatives from Scotland. It would make it a lot easier for a citizen to connect with a government official and those in question would therefore be more accountable to the people. Accountability will also come from the fact that governments will always be formed by parties that win elections in Scotland, meaning no key decisions will be made by those who don’t have the country’s support behind them.

Extending the argument for Scottish independence, there will also be a guarantee that tax and social security rates will be in line with the wishes from the Scots. Therefore, there will be an end to the imposition on Scotland of policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’. The abolition of this tax alone will save 82,500 households in Scotland – including 63,500 households with a disabled adult and 15,500 households with children – an average of £50 per month. This would make a huge difference to the lives of so many and there are also other, smaller, benefits to the Scots which would come from independence, such as a return of the Royal Mail to public ownership in Scotland, ensuring the quality of service that all parts of Britain currently enjoy.

The list of benefits goes on and on, but it would seem ridiculous to think that such a large, controversial issue comes without its problems. For a start, the fact there is currently a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom gives the country large advantages: not only is there the decision-making power in Scotland, it also plays a key role in a strong and secure UK. Now and in the future, as it would seem, Scotland is stronger as part of Britain and Britain is stronger with Scotland as a partner. In terms of businesses, those in Scotland increasingly have to win orders against smart, efficient and productive firms in foreign markets. These competitive challenges look to get tougher in the years ahead and the UK is better placed than a separate Scotland (or England) to help the businesses find and win new orders across the world.

As well as all of this, in an uncertain world where war can still be a factor, Scotland's security will only be strengthened as part of the United Kingdom. As an independent, sovereign state, its security will be less guaranteed. The British Armed Forces that protect the country are extremely skilled and experienced and, as part of the UK, Scotland has real clout in the UN Security Council, NATO and the EU. On top of this, there are also embassies around the world. These connections and power would all be significantly decreased if Scotland should become independent in the referendum of September.

Finally, it can be argued that there is no need for change as the system has worked well as it is for decades and there have been no controversies of damaging significance as a result. If Scotland was to change the make-up of the United Kingdom, not only would it be altering what is already in place (and has been for years), it may also be costly for the economy. For example, despite the fact that Alex Salmond described the pound as a ‘millstone around Scotland’s neck’ in 1999, today he is desperate to keep the currency. An independent currency would be so volatile and problematic that it would reduce trade with the rest of the world, dissuade investors and threaten to turn Scotland into an economic backwater.

Additionally, the SNP’s main economic platform is that Scotland should own the revenue from North Sea oil and gas. However, even if this is achieved, once the oil runs out, what does Scotland have that will sustain its fabulously wealthy future? The ability to attract major industries, in the likes of finance, manufacturing and IT, to the country would be diminished by independence. It is not the only aspect of life which could be diminished by independence in Scotland. ‘Standard Life’, the insurance company has already warned of the possibility of relocating its headquarters should the outcome of the referendum be ‘yes’. This would cost around 5,000 Scots their job and with more companies threatening to do the same, the tally would only increase. In a recent survey conducted by the BBC, 579 businesses were asked if they would consider moving away from Scotland should ‘yes’ be the final vote in September’s referendum – one-fifth said they would.

This certainly implies that the Scottish economy would be dented considerably should independence take place; not only would this cause problems following the decision, even if Scottish independence is rejected by the public in September, it has already impacted lives and had a significant impact in the build-up. The Guardian reported that house-buyers are being put off because of doubt regarding Scotland’s future. According to estate agents, wealthy buyers are being deterred from entering the top end of the Scottish property market due to the uncertainty over September's referendum, as there has been an obvious slowdown in transactions.

Matthew Sinclair, director of the buying agent Saint Property Search (based in Scotland), said that talk of some financial services firms relocating in the event of a ‘yes’ vote could have discouraged some buyers. This fits in with the last point, in that independence could be costly in terms of jobs and the economy. Sinclair stated: “I think there are people who are thinking it would be nice to move and mortgage finance is more available but is our job going to be here in a year's time?”

Jamie Macnab, the director of country house sales for Savills' Edinburgh office (another Estate Agent based in Scotland), said among some potential buyers of big estates "there is a nervousness as the polls seem to be tightening”. So not only will this vote impact Scots following the referendum, it is causing dilemmas beforehand, indicating how significant this issue is.

As proven, the matter has completely split the opinions, not just of Scots but of Brits in general. It is a debate that has been ongoing for years and one which will soon come to its conclusion. With so many people feeling passionately about the vote, and the decision which will come from it, large measures have been taken in order to shift the outcome one way or another. A number of demonstrations in support of independence have been arranged since the announcement of the referendum. In September 2012, there was a march and rally for Scottish independence which drew a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000 people to Princes Street Gardens, emphasising how many are getting involved in this landmark issue. The event was repeated in September 2013 and police estimated that over 8,000 people participated. With this number of the Scottish population involving themselves in a decision which at the end of the day will be decided by a single vote, it proves that it is possible for high turnout levels in the country. The referendum says a lot for democracy as voter turnout in the 2001 UK General Election was only 59.38%, while in 2010 it was still relatively low compared to other countries with less than two-thirds of the population casting a ballot. Here, the Scottish Police Federation claimed between 20,000 and 30,000 people took part in the combined march and rally, making a claim that voter turnout can still reach high levels.

Debates have also occurred in Scotland, in order to sway voters a particular way – these have taken place on television, in communities, and within universities and societies since the announcement of the referendum. On 21 January 2014, BBC Two Scotland broadcast the first in a series of round-table debates, which was filmed in Greenock and chaired by James Cook. Since then, the Yes campaign has repeatedly called for there to be a televised debate between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond; however, the former has refused due to the fact he feels the referendum is "for Scots to decide". In April 2014, UKIP leader Nigel Farage is one who has challenged Salmond to a debate; however, a SNP spokeswomen responded by dismissing the prospect and stating that Farage was “an irrelevance in Scotland”. A survey for the Scottish Chambers of Commerce recorded that more than half of those asked (56%) stated that the level of debate so far had been either ‘poor’ or ‘dismal’. It appeared that there had been a lack of discussion on what they regarded as the key issues: currency, taxes and business rates. No respondents described the quality of debating as "excellent" and just 5% said it had been "very good". There were also a number of other key findings from the survey which took place: 53% of businesses saw potential opportunities from independence, while 77% identified potential risks, 68% of businesses would welcome more powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a ‘no’ vote, and in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, 62% would favour Scotland to retain sterling as part of a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

In terms of the several debates, discussions and persuasions, a considerable amount of money has been spent in order to sway the vote a certain way, proving how decisive this matter of Scottish independence has become. In 2013, new proposals by the Electoral Commission were accepted which saw the allowance for the two designated campaign organisations to spend up to £1.5 million each and for the parties in Scotland to spend the following amounts: £1,344,000 (SNP); £834,000 (Labour); £396,000 (Conservatives); £201,000 (Liberal Democrats); £150,000 (Greens). This is a considerable level of money to spend on a single ‘yes/no’ vote and simply shows just how much this election is valued and the impact the possible outcomes may have. The total cost of the referendum has currently reached £13.3 million and is expected to rise dramatically in the upcoming months before the vote.

So, after all of this, the arguments for, the arguments against, the legitimacy of the referendum, the impact it has on lives, plus the ongoing debates and deliberations which have become a fundamental part of the campaigns, what do the opinion polls look like? As of the 16th April 2014, 42% stated that Scotland should not become an independent country, while 39% believe the converse; this leaves 19% unsure, meaning that the campaigns could increase in significance even more as it will be these that are likely to sway the opinions of those still undecided. Looking at the opinion polls (taken from www.whatscotlandthinks.org) which date back to the 1st February 2013, the ‘no’ vote has almost always looked the likely outcome, reaching an all-time high of 65% on 9th May 2013. However, on 28th August 2013, the ‘yes’ opinion lay at 44%, leaving 43% opting for a ‘no’ to Scottish Independence. Similarly, on the 2nd April 2014, both possibilities had 41% of support from those concerned. This data goes to show how easily opinions can change, meaning nothing should be taken for granted come September. April 2014 has proven to be a month where the gap between the two views has tightened, making it possible for it to remain as tight until the Election Day. On top of this, if those in favour of Scottish Independence run a well-organised campaign, they could be rewarded since there are so many who still remain undecided – more than enough to overturn those who are against the matter.

Therefore, in conclusion, Scottish Independence is a real possibility. Whether it will benefit the country is questionable since there are so many general disadvantages, as well as those which affect the economy, but whatever happens, the vote will always be regarded as a landmark decision since it will impact lives either way. For sure, the election campaign is and has already proven to be crucial in determining the outcome of this vote in September and, as demonstrated by previous marches, it can raise awareness and draw the attention to a particular cause dramatically. The fact that there looks to be an incredibly high turnout in the election makes it all the more exciting since those that participate in the opinion polls only represent an element of the Scottish population who will turn out to vote meaning that the decision over independence is still very much in the open. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how the election unfolds and, either way both, Scotland and Britain will have been significantly impacted by the vote and the decision.

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