Scottish Independence at a Tipping Point?

Whether Scotland should break away from England and become an independent nation is one of the longest-running political debates in the history of the United Kingdom. It’s also one of the most fascinating, because it often pits people’s cultural values and emotions against their own political and economic interests.

If making the case for a tipping point on Scottish independence were your starter for ten, you could reasonably point to two critical developments:

(1) This May, the Scottish National Party romped to the most impressive election performance of any party since devolution. With all due love and respect to my mother’s family, I feel safe in saying that allowing one clan to get a clear majority of power is not something that comes naturally to Scots. But the nationalists persuaded the people to entrust them with a majority, and to sack MSPs from all three other major parties in the process. SNP leader Alex Salmond has promised a national referendum on independence.

(2) Meanwhile south of the border, the Treasury has just announced that England is subsidizing Scotland to the merry Highlands tune of £1,600 per Scot (That’s about USD 2,600). Some political junkies once thought that resentment of the undue influence over English affairs theoretically exercised by Scottish MPs in Westminister would lead many English citizens to want to hive off Scotland as an independent nation. But the truth is that if you ask the average Englander what they think of the West Lothian question, you are likely to hear “Look mate, if they aren’t in the premiership, I don’t follow ’em”. In contrast, everyone understands money, especially people who are paying for services that Scots receive for free due to English subsidy.

Politically, Scottish independence is viscerally a non-starter for PM Cameron and his fellow Tories. But is that an end of it? In public, Tory politicians and activists are often passionate about maintaining the union. But in private, some of them, particularly if they are on the youngish side, cast a gelid eye upon regional politics and perceive that Scottish independence would be a political boon to the party. The Tory Party in Scotland is dead on its feet. If Scotland were left to its own devices, the Tories might rule the rest of the U.K. for a generation. The prior government struggled with the parallel contradiction: Tony Blair supported devolution to a degree but knew at the same time that Labour power relied upon the presence of Scottish MPs in Westminster (not incidentally, he and Gordon Brown were Scottish).

I’ll wager my two pence that within the next decade, a national referendum will show that a majority of the English support Scottish independence. I say that not only in light of the aforementioned political developments, but also because of my completely unscientific sense of popular opinion as gathered from a completely non-random series of conversations with English people over the past quarter century. The emotional attachments to union remain strong within the blessed plot, but in the long run will lose out to the pain of paying the substantial tab thereof. In Scotland, the reverse seems more likely. To be free of English control at last, a fully independent nation on the world stage, would bring joy into even the flintiest Scottish hearts. But I doubt even those powerful emotions will add up for most Scots to more than 1,600 quid per annum.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Scottish Independence at a Tipping Point?”

  1. Then there are the two other questions: Obviously, the first question is always: What about the North Sea oil? Does it get shared with the rest of the UK on a per capita basis or does a newly independent Scotland keep it all? And there’s the money that the UK invested in developing the North Sea fields.

    But the second question is going to be contentious as well: Over a period of many generations, the UK has spent a lot of money on Scottish infrastructure. Do the Scots pay it back and, if so, how many pennies on the pound should they pay and on what terms? And there is the related question of the Scottish share of the national debt, quite a bit of which was taken on quite recently to save certain Scottish banks.

    And a new, but intriguing question about money. Specifically, whether an independent Scotland should have its own currency, stay with the Pound or join the Euro.

    With all of that to consider, plus the £1,600 from England every year needing to be made up in Scottish taxes or foregone, I agree with you that the Scots won’t pay the economic price for their “freedom”. What I can’t understand is why there isn’t more of an uproar in England—especially since, as you say, within a few years there likely won’t be even a single Tory MP sitting in Westminster from Scotland (And good riddance to the bastards, too!).

  2. What’s the state of North Sea oil? Assuming the fields are still producing, which government gets/would get revenue from them? Or are they played out and no longer relevant? And Blair Scottish? That was certainly news to me (but I suspect not to anyone in the British Isles).

  3. The fields are still producing lots of oil and the UK government claims they will be able to continue at roughly the same level of production for the next several decades (but this is disputed). It’s still a lot of money and looks to be a good source of government revenue for a good while even under the worst case analysis.

    Naturally, the bulk of the money goes to private oil companies because the government has never really driven particularly hard bargains with the oil companies but the UK government does get a significant amount of license fees and royalties. This is a good summary analysis of the economic issues related to Scottish independence from the Guardian:

  4. Worth noting that this is a rather more complicated issue than the London-based media would have you believe. The latest set of government figures show that Scotland received 9.3% of all public spending – but generated 9.4% of government revenues. So arguably an independent Scotland could afford to maintain its higher level of spending per capita without any extra revenue. It’s also the case, though, that there are some major difficulties in determining the actual levels of revenue and spending within different areas of the UK – one example is the fact that a London-based firm that operates throughout the UK will pay all its tax in London, despite its profits being attributable to all the different regions. Can’t find it just now, but I think there was a Strathclyde University study a few years back that attempted to take account of this sort of factor and estimated that Scotland runs at a small surplus within the UK.

  5. I can’t tell you how bizarrely this reads to an American. And how already outdated even as a cultural affectation. The notion that lots of little countries would sprout and flourish in Europe was predicated on the emergence of a strong European Union that could provide the necessary scale for modern economic structures, sufficient diversity of political and economic power centers to ensure individual rights and prevent cronyism, and military defense.

    How’s that going?

  6. Shades of the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Meciar, a Slovak populist, had campaigned on a platform of anti-Czech resentment, but no real plan for independence. The Czech leader Vaclav Klaus (the two men deserved each other, even if their countries did not) allegedly responded “Slovak independence? Have it”. Take care what you ask for.
    Tribal ressentiment is a marvellous platform for opportunistic politicians in Belgium, Catalonia, Bosnia, etc etc. The playbook of myths, legends and grievances can be learnt in a few days, unlike the complexities of Marxism or liberalism. The question nobody asks is “what would an independent (Euskadi, Scotland, etc) do with independence that it can’t do now with autonomy?” Classier junkets, mostly.

  7. Mitch Guthman: You are of course right about the centrality of North Sea oil in this debate. There are two distinct issues here (1) How much oil is really left and (2) How much oil does the average voter think is left. I don’t know the answer to the first question but I am struck by the variability of beliefs among Brits about the second. You can hear in one day in England “It’s all gone anyway, we got it, let the Scots go” and “We paid to set everything up and now the bleeding Scots want to take all the profit”. And in one day in Scotland you can hear “With oil and wind we are a rich nation trained to act like a poor relation” and “The English have stolen all our oil and now that it’s gone they want to be rid of us”. I know expert engineers will present reports and learned papers on the correct answer, but that of course may not shape voting as much as we all would like.

    On “reparations” I think that almost an infinite regress. If the English said they were tallying up the bill for services rendered for the past 10, 20 or 30 years the Scots would counter with claims stemming from the Battle of Cullodon.

    Altoid: Yeah, though some Scots shunned him after he became PM, Blair was born in Edinburgh and educated at Fettes.

    James: “what would an independent (Euskadi, Scotland, etc) do with independence that it can’t do now with autonomy?”

    That is always a good question, as is “What would you have to start doing that someone else has been doing for you up until now?”

  8. James: “what would an independent (Euskadi, Scotland, etc) do with independence that it can’t do now with autonomy?”

    That is always a good question, as is “What would you have to start doing that someone else has been doing for you up until now?”

    But so is, “What might you be better off, either way, doing yourselves, instead of empowering somebody else to do for you – or not?”

    I’m English, and I suspect the estimates of Scottish benefit from the Union are as overplayed as its benefit to England is underplayed. Goodness knows I have no special desire to subsidize a Scottish government out of my scanty purse – but’s always easy for the dominant partner in a relationship to gimmick operations so that its contribution shows up in the numbers, and the subordinate’s only in the mood music. That doesn’t even have to be conscious, given enough privilege of strength or tradition.

    I want, make no mistake, the marriage to be saved. But tolerable autonomy within it was won by Scottish people’s increasing willingness to contemplate the idea of a painful divorce. There have been some dirty passages in the very recent past, and there is more cross-tribal courtship still wanting than, “So what you reckon you gonna do if you walk out on Big John Bull, then?”

    Not that I have much use for United Kingdoms. I just have even less use for needless borders and alienations. It’s not so much that I object to Scotland splitting off politically, as that I object to the unfriendly spirit in which it’s apt to seem worth the aggro.

  9. James: The question nobody asks is “what would an independent (Euskadi, Scotland, etc) do with independence that it can’t do now with autonomy?”

    I’ve been wondering the same. The vast majority of government functions that do matter have been devolved by now (unlike for Wales and Northern Ireland). There’s employment, defense, and foreign relations, of course, and I think Westminster has reserved powers over some aspects of trade and other things that matter at a national level. Obviously, there’s the always sticky issue of taxation (though Holyrood has the power to adjust tax rates). But overall, I’m not sure if an independent Scotland within the strictures of the EU would function much differently from what we have currently.

    Disclaimer: I’m an American living in Scotland (married to an Englishman, no less), so my insights into local perceptions are naturally limited, even though Scottish independence would affect me very directly.

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