Politics

Scottish independence: the pros and cons

The Scottish National Party has been criticised for using public money to fund a report on Scottish independence that is expected to set out citizenship and passport proposals if Scotland were to leave the UK. 

First Minister Humza Yousaf and Jamie Hepburn, the minister for independence, will publish the fifth in a series of independence prospectus documents on Thursday. It’s thought the report will “define who will be a Scottish citizen after independence”, as well as the party’s proposals for “migrant rights, freedom of movement, and fairer fees to apply for citizenship”, The Times reported.

A question mark was cast over the party’s independence campaign following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as SNP leader and first minister in February. But Yousaf, her successor, quickly took up the mantle, appointing the SNP’s first independence minister within his first month as the country’s leader.  

The UK Supreme Court has blocked Scotland from holding a second independence referendum without permission from Westminster, and Yousaf said last month that Scottish voters should treat the next general election as a “de facto referendum”, said the i news site.

Here are the arguments for and against Scotland going forward alone.

1

Pro: rejoin the European Union

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 62% of Scottish voters called for the UK to remain in the European Union, compared to England’s 46.6% of Remain voters. “On this point, at least, it’s clear what Scots want,” said Time’s foreign affairs correspondent Ian Bremmer.

As an independent country, Scotland could make a bid to rejoin the EU as a member state once a separation agreement was settled with England. The country could then begin to negotiate its access agreement, looking to benefit from access to the EU single market, as well as the free movement of labour, goods, services and capital. 

Yousaf believes that the campaign for independence has become “all the more relevant since Brexit”, said Politico, and that Scotland is “ready and waiting to join the EU” if it were to separate from the UK. 

But “political support around the EU table” could pose a further challenge; Spain “has professed opposition to Scottish membership due to its possible implications for Catalonia”, a region with “a strong independence movement” that could look to follow suit. 

2

Con: trading problems

“The rest of the UK is by far Scotland’s biggest trading partner,” said Economics Observatory, a relationship that could be put to the test if Scotland were to opt for independence. The UK accounted for 60% of Scottish exports (excluding oil and gas), compared to the EU’s 19% and global exports of 21% in 2019, according to Scottish government statistics.

This could become more complicated still if the country were to rejoin the EU, thereby “tearing Scotland out of the customs union and single market of the United Kingdom”, said The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. Analysis indicates that EU membership “would not offset Scotland’s economic losses from increased border costs with the rest of the UK” should a hard trade border be imposed, said Economics Observatory. 

A London School of Economics and Political Science report published in 2021 examining the financial impact of Brexit, trade and Scottish independence found that “the costs of independence to the Scottish economy are likely to be two to three times larger than the costs of Brexit”.

3

Pro: ‘protecting’ the NHS

Scotland has controlled the operation of its health service since the devolution settlement of 1999. However, funding and overarching policy decisions currently remain with Westminster. 

Preventing NHS privatisation has been high on pro-independence campaigners’ agendas. SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford “insisted” earlier this month that independence was “key to protecting” the health service in Scotland, said The National.

But the SNP’s track record on managing its health service might not convince voters. The British Medical Association warned in June that the party’s “mismanagement of Scotland’s NHS has left the country in dire need of thousands of GPs”, and criticised its “failure in NHS workforce planning”, said the Scottish Daily Express. The service has struggled to tackle record waiting lists and cancer care targets in recent years.

4

Con: debt and deficit dilemma

Economic policy and growth are “at the heart of debates about the effects of independence on Scotland’s public finances”, said the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). While it remains in the union, Scotland’s budget deficit “is subsumed within the wider UK budget deficit”. But “under independence, that would change”. 

Scotland’s underlying fiscal position bounced back better in 2021-22 than that of the UK as a whole, according to official statistics published in August and referenced by the IFS. Its estimated budget deficit fell by more than 10 percentage points to 12.3% of GDP, compared to the UK’s reduction of 8.4 percentage points.

The “two main reasons” behind “Scotland’s national deficit” year-on-year reduction were that extra public spending during the pandemic reduced, and oil and gas revenues increased, said the BBC’s Scotland political editor Glenn Campbell. But “the gap between what’s raised in Scotland and what’s spent in and on behalf of Scotland is still very high”. 

The IFS’s latest projections suggest that without economic growth, “tax rises or spending cuts would likely need to be even larger” to manage the deficit in an independent Scotland.

5

Pro: power over policy

The Scottish government would have greater power over its defence, social security and foreign policies were it to become independent from the UK. It would also have increased control over constitutional matters, energy and environmental policies, and immigration.

In its “Building a New Scotland” reports, the SNP has laid out its vision for an independent Scotland. It includes creating its own constitution, introducing the Scottish pound, setting up an independent Scottish central bank and reform of employment law.

6

Con: position on world stage

At least in the short term, Scotland would lose its access to transnational organisations including the global trade division at the UN, the G7 and Nato, which is currently granted through its union with the rest of the UK. The country would need to apply for independent membership of these organisations.

And while rejoining the EU could help Scotland to establish ties with potential trading partners and forge its own political alliances, this too could come at a cost. In 2019, the UK’s net public sector contribution to the EU was estimated at £9.4 billion, according to government figures.

Without representation at these organisations, Scotland could lose its ability to have its voice heard on global issues including climate change and international peacekeeping.

Recommended

Politics

How the world reacted to Boris Johnson’s resignation

Politics

Cabinet reshuffle: how do the Tory and Labour frontbenches match up?

Politics

Where does UK foreign aid go?

Politics

What is David Cameron doing now?