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Between Brexit and ‘Scotexit’

  • Published at 12:05 am December 14th, 2019
Brexit-Scotland
Photo: strong>AFP

Will the embers of the Scottish separatism be stoked or calmed in the months to come?

With the general elections in the UK fast approaching, all the polling data suggests that the only unanswered question is whether Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives will get a majority or a mere plurality.

The Conservatives have pretty much coalesced around the proposition of a quick, immediate Brexit, come hell or high water.  

The result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 was close, with less than 52 % supporting a divorce from the European Union.  Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and since then, the regional government of Scotland has made no bones about being opposed to the Conservative plan for Brexit.

If Boris Johnson -- who has explicitly sought a mandate to execute UK’s exit from the EU -- wins, Scotland’s First Minister (premier) Nicola Sturgeon has now raised the possibility of a “Scotexit” from the UK so that the Scots can remain in the EU. 

It is not a far-fetched possibility. As late as 2014, 44 % of Scots had voted to form their own sovereign country, and occasional polls today show that number inching close to (or even surpassing) the majority mark. 

Johnson’s crusade against the EU is only going to accelerate that independence sentiment in a land where many insist on calling the region a “country” rather than a mere provincial unit of the UK. 

Historically, an independent Scotland may not be that much of an anomaly or cause of upheaval, as many may fear. 

Those living today have never experienced it but Scotland was an independent kingdom until 1603, and then shared a king with England until 1707, when the two countries were brought together in a “United” Kingdom. 

Even as the two countries had the same monarch and, later, the same central government and military, many Scottish institutions have jealously guarded their national identity over those centuries to this day where the law and justice system, the football and rugby teams, policing and public education are all distinct from that of England and Wales. 

A grudging respect for such distinctive features was reflected in the establishment of a Scottish regional government in 1999 with its own parliament and cabinet with responsibilities for many government functions that were “devolved” from London. 

Given the geographical proximity to Scandinavia, many Scots feel a closeness to their Nordic neighbours that fuels the desire to remain in the EU, an aspect of the debate not understood south of the “border.”

Plus, as a Scottish retiree told National Public Radio during the Brexit documentary: “We are a small country and need younger immigrants to sustain our social welfare system and can’t afford the xenophobia you see in some parts of England now.”

Small it is for sure. Less than one out of ten people in the UK call Scotland home and Scottish representation in the parliament in London reflects that, as does its share of the overall British economy.

At the same time, however, much of the North Sea fossil fuel reserves would be in Scotland’s area of reach -- were it an independent country -- a fact that underestimates Scotland’s economic contribution to the UK economy.  

Three other facts have similar implications: One, Scotland’s net average welfare recipient payments are not much different than the UK as a whole; two, Scotland’s geographic area is about a third of the UK’s, making the potential for natural resources vis-a-vis the population quite impressive; and three, Scotland has about half of the UK’s coastline, much of it rugged with high winds and foaming tides like Scandinavia, suggesting a tremendous possibility of next generation clean energy production.

What it comes down to is that unlike many other separatist movements, the one in Scotland is quite latent, quite deliberative, and quite civilized.

At the same time, by reasons of history and culture, the Scots have a very sophisticated institutional framework with a functioning free legislature, independent police, vibrant political parties and civic organizations, a rudimentary economic backbone, and a robust law and justice system with strong due process safeguards that make a future desire of sovereignty worthy of attention. 

Sure, a possible independent Scotland will need some form of a defense mechanism. 

Again, all evidence suggests that the Scots are overrepresented in the UK armed forces compared to their proportion of the population, not to mention the historically well-known role played by Highland regiments in the British Empire. So, something could be worked out. 

Whether the embers of Scottish separatism are stoked or calmed in the months to come depend on the attitude of the largely England-centric Conservative Party and its likely plurality or majority in Parliament next week. But if push comes to shove and Scotland is forced to choose between a hard crash out of the EU and a soft landing out of the UK while staying in the UK, the future is anyone’s bet.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]