Ties that Bind? Scottish Nationalism in a United Kingdom


By Paul Keithely, Global Paradigm Fellow in England
Februrary 21st, 2012

This January, aspirations for Scottish independence were reignited when the head of the Scottish Government and the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) announced plans for a referendum on independence. The proposed vote would challenge Scotland’s current status as a country of the United Kingdom. The latest to come from the drama of Scottish independence concerns the eligible voting population in the referendum. A constitutional committee of the House of Lords stated last Friday that voting for the “Devolution-Max” position (where Scotland would control its taxes but leave its defense and foreign affairs to the Great Britain) should be open to all British voters, not simply Scottish voters. Following case law as precedent and citing the tax consequences involved for Britain collectively if such an option passed, the committee went on to state that the wording of the ballot question should be determined not by the Scottish government, but rather by the Electoral Commission.

The constitutional committee's concern for the impact of Scottish independence on Britain as a larger whole is well founded. The financial systems of the U.K. countries are so closely linked that a change for one necessitates a change for the whole. Thus, while nationalistic aspirations may sprout from the north, we should ask if Scottish independence is a realistic goal or simply a nationalistic dream. Can the ties that bind the U.K.’s four countries be broken? At the moment, it seems the links of the welfare state make Scottish independence untenable financially unless drastic changes are made.

Responding to the question of Scottish independence, a first-year British nursing student makes the point clear; she believes independence to be impossible, based on the financial costs of the National Health Services (NHS). Though structurally independent (each country administers its own service), the U.K. health system is funded through the redistribution of collective tax money. If independence were gained, Scotland would find itself with a healthcare structure but no way to allocate funds to support its staff of over 150,000 people and provide medical treatment for its 5.2 million inhabitants.

Ironically, a Scotland that could easily meet this fiscal challenge might make independence more difficult as the influence of non-Scots could impact the vote. Under the current decision of the constitutional committee, a ‘Devolution-Max’ decision should be made available to all voters in the U.K. If the share Scotland contributes financially is great, there is less incentive for an Englishman or Welshman to vote for a more independent Scotland.

Through all of this, it seems that the ties that bind are too great to free Scotland of its greater union. In the end, if not voted down by non-Scots, Scottish independence would come down to how much the Scottish are willing to pay for independence – to fund public welfare institutions without alienating its people through high taxes.