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Scotland and The EU

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Written by Philip Towle

It is often claimed that Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely. But would the Scots really wish to give up real political influence in the UK and major economic advantages to become one of many minor players in an organization dominated by Germany and France—assuming that the EU accepted them?

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If the result is close in the December 2019 election it might be decided by the Scots. The powerful Scottish National Party argues that the majority in Scotland did not vote for BREXIT, that it would damage the Scottish economy and that, if they had to choose, they would be happier in the European Union than in the United Kingdom. Even if Britain did not leave the EU, they would still like to hold a second referendum on leaving the United Kingdom because there are deeper factors involved.

There has always been a degree of competition and, upon Scotland’s part, resentment about the economic, cultural and political domination of the English and the way in which they sometimes seemed to take Scotland for granted. The most famous signal in British maritime history, Nelson’s before the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, read ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ not ‘Britain expects’.

Thus, the Scots looked for ways in which they were superior to their neighbours. In the 19th Century the Scottish geologist and folklore expert, Hugh Miller  believed that the greatest difference between the two countries was the intense Scottish interest in theology; ‘it has done for our people what all your Societies for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and all your Penny and Saturday Magazines will never do for yours; it has awakened their intellects, and taught them how to think’. A century later, Moray McLaren, the Scottish travel writer, civil servant and BBC editor, stressed history rather than religion as the focus of Scottish distinction from the English: ‘The English who, though they are our nearest neighbours, are in many respects more distant from us than those more geographically distant, are the most surprised by this [obsession with the past]…  Why dispute about the past? What is the good of it?’ An Englishman might have said it was just being used to stir up ancient enmities.

Given this history, once the Common Market was formed and gradually transformed into the European Union, it was likely that those Scots who resented the English would hope to escape London’s domination and replace it with links with Brussels. This propensity grew between 1970 and 1990. The British economy was in the doldrums, overtaken first by the Japanese and then the Germans and French. By 1974 the UK had become known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. Its GNP was estimated at some $188 billion against $270 billion for the French and $388 billion for the German. Inflation reached 25% a year, the trades unions brought down two governments, rubbish piled up in the streets of London and the country had to go to the International Monetary Fund for assistance. However, oil and gas were discovered in the North Sea and Scots often believed that they belonged to them rather than to the UK as a whole and that, monopolised by an independent Scotland, they would provide the state benefits they wanted.

In contrast, to deal with the calamitous state of the economy, Mrs Thatcher’s government in the 1980s espoused a laissez faire economic and political culture which many Scots rejected. This greatly reduced the role of the state in economic affairs, denationalised state-owned industries, reduced the power of the trades unions and continued to allow the pound to float on the international exchanges. Most of the gap between the size of the British and continental economies has now been made up. But by the 1990s the Scottish National Party was well established and the Labour government decided in 1999 that its pressure was best appeased by establishing an ‘Assembly’ or parliament in Edinburgh. The SNP became the dominant party in that Assembly in 2007 and in 2014 David Cameron’s Conservative government in Westminster agreed that the Scots could hold a referendum on national independence. Although a majority voted against leaving the UK the SNP continued to argue its case.

If Scotland became independent the EU might, or might not, admit it to membership. Spain would be very hostile because it would not want to encourage Catalan secession. If membership were eventually agreed, the SNP believes it could pursue a more interventionist policy in economic affairs than a Conservative, or a Blairite Labour government, in London. But overall European economic policy depends on the French and German governments which have not so far been responsive to the interests of small nations. Thus, they have maintained the Euro despite the resulting bankruptcy of Greece and the very high youth unemployment in the other Mediterranean members of the EU.

Moreover, the Scots clearly have much more influence in London than they ever would in Brussels. A quarter of all 20th Century British Prime Ministers–Arthur Balfour, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, Ramsay MacDonald, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown–were born in Scotland.  Others, including Bonar Law, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home were descended from Scottish parents or grandparents. This is greatly disproportionate to the Scottish population which, for example, in 2003 was just over five million against just under 50 million living in England or one tenth of the size. At that time there were about 55,000 in each Scottish Parliamentary constituency against 70,000 in England though this discrepancy has subsequently been much reduced. The largest constituency then was the Isle of Wight with 106,600 voters and the smallest Eilean Siar, Scottish islands with 21,300.

It is inconceivable that Scotland would be rewarded by Brussels with a quarter or more of its high offices. Like other small states, such as Slovakia or Ireland, it would be dominated by the European great powers, France and Germany.  The English may have taken Scotland for granted but the United Kingdom has historically given the Scots more political influence than their numbers justified. Similarly, for decades Scotland has received a disproportionate share of public funds from the Treasury in London. In 2000 this amounted to £5,558 per head in Scotland against £4,529 in England.

The question, if another independence referendum were held, would again be whether the Scots would want to sacrifice political influence and economic favours from their nearest neighbour for what some believe would give them European backing in any disagreement with England, and would allow them the freedom to pursue a more interventionist economic policy and to avenge past slights. But they might well find that they had sold their birthright for a bowl of porridge.

Dr Philip Towle is Emeritus Reader in International Relations, and former Director of the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge.

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Philip Towle