The (Still) United Kingdom

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NANJING, China — Last week, a political union spanning three centuries avoided termination by 10 percentage points in a referendum two years in the making. I, for one, am very glad that the No vote triumphed, not simply because I don’t want my country to split up, but because the case for independence was so weak. Frankly, it was a con built on a lie: the lie that Scotland could be independent and keep all the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom.

When the referendum was green-lighted, it was established that Scottish secession would not represent the UK splitting in two, but rather Scotland leaving the UK. The UK as an entity would therefore continue to exist (at least on paper). What this means in practice is that all of the UK’s assets and liabilities would have remained the UK’s property. Unlike a divorce, in which the two partners each take half the assets and the marriage ceases to exist, everything owned in the name of the British state, from the currency to the sovereign debt, would continue to be British. Had the vote gone the other way, post-vote negotiations would have been about the practical challenge of effecting Scottish secession, not an argument over who got what. Nowhere is this point more clear than over the issue of currency.

Rather than join the Eurozone or spend years setting up a new and unproven currency, the pro-independence camp insisted that Scotland would keep the pound. When all three major parties ruled out a currency union, the pro-independence camp claimed that if the UK government refused to agree to a currency union (like the one that already exists) an independent Scotland would walk away from its share of the UK’s national debt. Leaving aside the contradiction of an independent country having its monetary policy controlled from abroad, the pound does not actually belong to Scotland (or England) any more than the dollar belongs to Texas or California. Scotland could have unilaterally used the Pound, but if the Scottish economy got into trouble, what government would want to bail out a foreign country at its own taxpayers’ expense?

As for the debt threat, those sovereign bonds were issued in the name of the UK government; an independent Scotland might offer to take on some of this debt in exchange for concessions, but it’s not Scotland’s debt to walk away from. This fact cuts both ways.  Scotland would not start out either indebted or in default, as the No camp had argued, but would instead have a blank record and maybe a fairly good credit rating. But such was the lack of confidence in the financial situation of an independent Scotland that every major bank and insurance company (including Standard Life, based in Scotland for 200 years) had made plans to move their headquarters to London in the event of a Yes vote, taking their investment, jobs, and potential revenues with them. Many business leaders, with some exceptions, ultimately came out against independence, and this undoubtedly helped sway the vote.

But if the case for independence was so weak, why did 45% of Scots vote for it? The answer has less to do with nationalism than one might think. Scotland has been consistently more left-wing than the rest of the UK for a long time, but attitudes towards the Conservative Party really soured with the rise of Margaret Thatcher, who put an end to the massive, taxpayer-funded subsidies paid out to state-owned industries. Most of the former state firms flourished after privatization, but some sank. One of these industries was coal-mining, a major employer in Wales and parts of England, now barely scraping by. Another industry was shipbuilding, the biggest employer in Glasgow, which collapsed without government support. To this day these communities would rather vote for the plague than for the Conservative Party. Small wonder that Glasgow was one of only three districts where a majority voted Yes; small wonder, also, that a strong correlation was found between the level of poverty in a district and the amount of support for a Yes vote.

There is far too much material on this topic to squeeze into such a brief article, but I hope by now the issue is somewhat clearer. What is certainly clear is that the UK will never be the same again. The large body of support for secession has shaken Westminster out of its complacency, and it must now deliver on its pledge of greater autonomy for Scotland. Furthermore, English voters also want greater autonomy in line with the extra powers promised to Scottish voters. To stay united, the United Kingdom must change to a more federal structure, or else the issue of secession will continue to brew.

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