Why new Scottish referendum is a bad idea

Why new Scottish referendum is a bad idea

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Most administrations in Europe have full agendas at the moment, with cost-of-living crises, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine on their minds. However, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week took the gamble of her life by also pushing for a new independence referendum next year that will probably make or break her political career.
The tragedy is that, despite her understandable disappointment at the 2016 Brexit vote and the many flaws of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, she is leading Scotland, plus the wider UK, 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 UK would be damaged by this outcome, undermining its influence in multiple ways. For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee warned several years ago that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.
Moreover, the UK’s large overseas aid budget, and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions, will also be affected. Together with military cutbacks, this would 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, ranging from the UN, G7, G8 and G20 to NATO.
Perhaps, most prominently, it could, potentially, be seized on by some nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council and/or other UN members to catalyze a review of UK membership of the council. To be sure, reform of the Security Council is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided on less favorable terms for the UK than might otherwise be the case.

While fierce debate rages within Scotland on the merits of independence, what is more widely accepted is that the wider UK would be damaged by this outcome.

Andrew Hammond

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, plus May’s Stormont elections in which the nationalist Sinn Fein won the most seats for the first time.
Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has 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 the island (Republic of Ireland) within the EU and the other (Northern Ireland) outside it.
All this underscores that Scottish independence, combined with Brexit, would further undercut the domestic underpinnings of the UK’s international influence. They threaten a double whammy, undermining the sizable political, military and economic force that the UK has preserved on the world stage in the post-war period, helping bolster international security and prosperity to boot.
Moreover, Sturgeon is charting her pathway toward a new referendum, which will need to be adjudicated by the UK Supreme Court, despite uncertainties that Scotland itself would benefit significantly from independence. This is not least given the difference  between tax revenues and public spending in the country — which it can better stomach as part of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s trade within the UK’s internal market is also worth around four times that with the EU.
Moreover, the EU has confirmed that an independent Scotland would not have an automatic right to join the Brussels-based club. Such an accession may, in fact, require potentially complex, protracted negotiations, not least given that membership technically requires countries to run a deficit below 3 percent of national economic output.
Plus, the terms on which Edinburgh might accede could be significantly less favorable than those that the UK negotiated. For instance, it is unclear whether the EU would insist on Scotland joining the eurozone and adopting the euro single currency — regardless of much of the country’s attachment to the pound — as all recent accession states have been required to do.
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 Sturgeon’s understandable disappointment at the Brexit vote, and opposition to Johnson’s government, all of this underlines why Scotland and the UK are better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the UK are clearly diminished international influence, plus fraying of the remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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