The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Will Brexit lead to Scotxit?


Flag of Scotland.
Flag of Scotland.

In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) famously said that the Scots should have "just one chance… to tell our enemies that they might take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!"

Today's Scottish nationalists believe that one chance is not enough. They want at least two. Even though Scotland held an independence referendum in 2014 in which the anti-secession side prevailed, the Scottish National Party now seeks another one.

I. Why Scotland Might Hold a New Independence Referendum—and When.

On a more serious note, it is entirely understandable that many Scots believe that Brexit—Britain's impending departure from the European Union—is a gamechanger that could justify a second vote. Though I have little else in common with the SNP, I am no fan of Brexit myself.

Brexit is extremely unpopular in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly against it last year. Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament voted to hold a secession referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, in response to Brexit. After the 2014 referendum, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that the issue of Scottish independence was now "settled for a generation." That claim now seems premature, at the very least.

Like many secessionist nationalists in Europe, Scottish independence advocates want to remain part of the European Union even as they seek to separate from the nation-states that currently rule them. That may seem like a contradiction, but there is actually good reason for it. Secessionists tend to see their local nation-state as a far more serious threat to their autonomy than the EU, which taxes, regulates, and controls them far less. Moreover, small states like Scotland benefit greatly from the EU's system of open markets and free migration, and cannot afford to be left out of it.

Controversy has arisen over the timing of a potential new independence referendum. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants it to be held before the Brexit process is complete (probably in 2019). But British Prime Minister Theresa May refuses to allow that, claiming that an independence referendum would be a dangerous distraction from the Brexit process. Legally, a new Scottish independence referendum requires approval by the UK government, as was done for the 2014 vote. But it may be politically dangerous for the UK to deny Scotland permission to hold a referendum at a time of the latter's choosing.

At the very least, such rejection might increase the chance that the Scots will vote for secession when and if a new independence referendum does finally happen. Then again, it might not. Polls indicate that a majority of Scots either don't want a second independence referendum at all, or are willing to wait until after the Brexit process is complete. They also indicate that Scots are very closely divided over both the question of whether there should be a second referendum, and which way they would vote if there was one.

II. What Independence Might Mean for Scotland's Relations with the UK and the European Union.

If a referendum does happen, and does result in a pro-independence vote, the newly independent nation would likely seek to rejoin the European Union. The EU hasn't exactly had a good run these last few years, and it would behoove them to welcome with open arms a nation that wants to stay with them so badly they are willing to break up a 300 year old union with England to do so. But matters may not be so simple. All of the EU member states would have to consent to Scotland's membership, and some may refuse in order to discourage secession movements within their own territory. For example, Spain may make things difficult for Scotland in order to send a message to Catalonian secessionists.

The EU could potentially refuse to let Scotland join outright. More likely, they might impose tough conditions, such as forcing it to accept the Euro rather than continue to use the British pound (which most Scottish nationalists preferred to do at the time of the 2014 referendum). More recently, Nicola Sturgeon indicated she might be open to joining the Eurozone. That might not go over well with many of her people, however. The Euro is increasingly unpopular even with many current EU members, and many of the latter might be willing to let Scotland avoid joining it.

If the Scottish referendum happens before the Brexit process is complete, the EU could potentially circumvent rules requiring new members to join the Eurozone by ruling that Scotland never left the EU in the first place. That appears to be Nicola Sturgeon's strategy. It might well, however, be opposed by Spain and other EU members who fear emboldening their own secessionists.

If Scotland does rejoin the EU while the rest of Britain stays out, that might mean the creation of a border between England and Scotland that does not have free trade or full freedom of movement. The EU is a unified trading bloc and does not allow individual nations to have independent policies on trade and migration. If negotiations between the EU and UK result in a "hard Brexit" with little in the way of provisions for free trade and movement (as seems very possible), that could inflict considerable hardship on both sides of the new international boundary between England and Scotland. The two polities have extensive economic and social ties that would be threatened. Similar problems could arise with the border between Ireland (which is an EU member) and Northern Ireland, despite claims that the EU might treat it as a "special case."

III. Would an Independent Scotland Build a Bigger Welfare State or Become Another Slovakia?

In addition to these problems with the EU and UK, an independent Scotland would face significant internal challenges. One of the principal goals of most Scottish secessionists is to establish a government with more regulation and a larger welfare state than the current Conservative-controlled UK government allows. They hope to use North Sea oil revenue to finance that spending.

But even assuming that the rump UK would allow Scotland to inherit all the oil, the decline in oil prices over the last few years is likely to undermine such plans. In addition, Scotland is a major net recipient of UK government transfers under the so-called "Barnett formula." Those funds will be lost to the Scots if they become independent.

Far from building a more interventionist state, an independent Scotland might well end up following the example of Slovakia. That nation separated from the Czech Republic in large part because Slovaks wanted more interventionism; but they found that fiscal constraints forced them adopt more free market policies. That experiment ultimately worked out well for the Slovaks and Czechs alike, as it led to impressive growth. In the best-case scenario, the same thing might happen with Scotland.

Economic policy, trade, and borders, are by no means the only issues at stake in a potential second Scottish independence referendum. If it happens, we might well see a renewal of the debate over whether independence would lead to a new flourishing of Scottish culture, or instead undermine it. During the 2014 vote, that issue was contested by such cultural luminaries as Sean Connery (a prominent supporter of independence) and J.K. Rowling (a staunch opponent). The author of the Harry Potter novels may be more open to the idea of independence in the aftermath of Brexit.

The United States, too, is likely to be affected by a new Scottish referendum. Britain is America's closest ally on the world stage. If the UK is caught up in the simultaneous crises of Brexit and a renewed drive for Scottish independence, it may not be able to assist the US on security and other issues as much as is usually the case.

The one certainty is that the combination of Brexit and a potential new Scottish independence referendum will raise a whole host of difficult issues for Scotland, the rest of Britain, and the EU. It will be an interesting time for experts on federalism, nationalism and secession—but a potentially difficult one for many ordinary citizens in all three polities.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor additions to this post.