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Brexit raises Scottish independence spectre

UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan was described as "dead" on arrival on Tuesday by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. While the nation's exit of the EU was the backdrop to the Edinburgh meeting, Ms Sturgeon's mind is at least as much focused on the political positioning that will best enable a second Scottish independence referendum in the early 2020s.

Ms Sturgeon - who urged Mrs May to develop a Brexit "plan B", and also deliver a fair agreement with Scotland over devolved powers to Edinburgh under such an agreement - is rightly very concerned about the prospect of the United Kingdom leaving the EU under a no-deal scenario.

Yet, despite her understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote, and opposition to Mrs May's exit stance, she is leading Scotland (plus the wider United Kingdom) down a potential political black hole which will probably weaken all parties given that their future is better together.

While fierce debate rages within Scotland on the merits of independence, what is more widely accepted is that the wider United Kingdom would be damaged by this outcome, undermining its influence in multiple ways. For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee warned in 2014 that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.

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Moreover, the UK's large overseas aid budget and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions will also be impacted. Together with military cutbacks, this will undermine both hard and soft power that has enabled the nation to punch above its weight for so long.


Scottish independence would also erode the UK's post-Brexit voice in international forums, from the UN, G-7, G-8, G-20 and Nato. Perhaps, most prominently, it could, potentially, be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and/or other UN members, to catalyse review of UK membership of the UNSC. To be sure, reform of UNSC is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided upon less favourable terms for the United Kingdom than may otherwise be the case.

There is also a significant prospect that Scottish independence would weaken the bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales, especially post-Brexit. It is perhaps Northern Ireland that poses the greatest challenges here given the significant opposition to Brexit with the country voting strongly to remain in the EU.

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams previously asserted that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace deal, and poses a unique opportunity to "unite the island of Ireland". His argument is that it makes no sense to have one part of island (the Republic of Ireland) within the EU and the other outside it (Northern Ireland).

All this underscores that Scottish independence, combined with Brexit, would undercut the domestic underpinnings of the UK's international influence. They threaten a double whammy undermining the sizeable political, military and economic force that the United Kingdom has preserved on the world stage in the post-war period, helping bolster international security and prosperity to boot.

Moreover, Ms Sturgeon is charting her pathway toward a second referendum despite the uncertainties that the country itself would benefit, significantly, from independence. This is not least given the difference between tax revenues and public spending in the country which rose to a deficit of around 9.5 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 - which it can better stomach as part of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As Mrs May also said on Wednesday, "from Scotland's point of view, their trade within the UK's internal market is worth four times their trade with the EU".


Moreover, the EU has confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to join the Brussels-based club. So such an accession may, in fact, require potentially complex, protracted negotiation, not least given that membership technically requires countries to run a deficit below 3 per cent of GDP.

Plus, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favourable than those that the UK negotiated. For instance, it is unclear whether the EU would insist upon Scotland joining the troubled Eurozone and adopt the Euro single currency - regardless of much of the country's attachment to the pound - as all recent accession states have been required to sign up to.

Further, there is also a significant possibility of a "harder border" between England and Scotland if the latter joined the EU post-independence. This is because the country would be required to embrace European-style freedom of movement and thus a different immigration policy to the rest of the post-Brexit UK.

Despite Ms Sturgeon's understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote, and opposition to Mrs May's exit stance, all of this underlines why the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom is better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the UK are clear of diminished international influence, plus fraying of remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics