27 August 2014

A referendum to watch

The US is still coming to terms with the ongoing break-up of Iraq, but not many Americans realize there's an imminent risk -- albeit a slight one, and without violence in the offing -- of the break-up of another country which for most of recent history has been our most important ally.

The United Kingdom is a country consisting of four culturally-distinct territories -- England (by far the largest in population), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  In 2011 the Scottish National Party (SNP) which advocates independence of Scotland from the UK, won a majority in the Scottish Parliament and went ahead with plans for a referendum on secession.  That referendum will be held on September 18, three weeks from tomorrow.  Scotland (like Oregon) has voting by mail, and ballots are arriving at residences there today.

How serious a loss would Scotland be?  While it looks large on the map of the UK, Scotland has only 5.3 million people out of the UK's total population of 64.1 million, or 8.3%.  But this is comparable to the population size of Texas relative to the whole US, and clearly the loss of Texas would have a substantial impact on the US.  The UK would be distracted for years by internal problems such as division of North Sea oil resources, division of the national debt, what currency Scotland would have, what to do about UK military bases on Scottish territory, etc.  Also, Scotland is more leftist-voting than the UK as a whole, so the subtraction of its voters from the UK electorate would lead to more conservative UK governments which, there as elsewhere, would be generally bad for the economy.

(The current UK government is conservative and Scots are widely disgruntled at its policies, such as ongoing cuts to the National Health Service.  Cutting the NHS doesn't carry much political cost in England, because as wait times increase and services deteriorate, the public just blames immigration.)

That currency question, by the way, is a surprisingly thorny one.  The SNP had originally said that independent Scotland would adopt the euro, the common currency used by the majority of countries of the European Union (though not by the UK, which still uses the pound).  When it became clear that the euro is a fiasco which has helped ruin the economies which use it, the SNP switched to saying that Scotland would keep using the UK pound even after independence.  The UK has said that it would not allow that.  There are various options for a separate Scottish currency, but these would carry problems of their own.  A good overview is here.

A pro-independence vote would also likely encourage secessionist movements elsewhere, notably Spain, Italy, and even France, distracting and preoccupying European leaders who need to be focused on the real problems of recession, immigration, rising anti-Semitism, and the erosion of democracy and national sovereignty by the EU.

The good news is that polling shows the pro-independence side losing by margins ranging from 3% to 20%, though polls don't yet reflect the effects (if any) of a TV debate on Monday which SNP leader Alex Salmond is perceived to have won.  Scotland's business community is also urging a no vote.  The EU elections in May showed a resurgence of nationalism in the UK (as in other countries, notably France), a sentiment which will hopefully work against a national break-up.

If public opinion doesn't favor independence, why did the SNP win a majority in 2011?  At that time the UK's left-wing Labour party was badly discredited after years of the unpopular Blair and Brown government (among other things, Blair took the UK into the Iraq war), but Scotland would no more vote for the rival Conservative party than California would vote Republican, so the SNP may have won by default.  Also, voters sometimes vote to "send a message" even if they don't actually support the platform of the party they're voting for.

At any rate, thanks to mail balloting, Scots begin voting on the question today, and in a little over three weeks we'll know the answer.


Blogger Woody said...

Complete Scottish independence was a strong theme in many historical campaigns, themes which still dwell in the Scottish psychology today. It will be interesting to see how the voting goes. Do most Scots see themselves as British? Do most still yearn for the kind of independent identity that time has shown to be within their psych?
I don't know, i'm first generation Australian from a Scottish branch of an Irish name. The history has been fascinating to study (not Hollywood's history), the real one. I am glad for every ounce of self-governance taken by my parents' homeland and am thankful for the blood that courses through my veins.

All the best,

27 August, 2014 17:42  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

When I read about secessionist campaigns within a country, I think of the U.S. and wonder if it is worth all the trouble and confusion separating from a union would cause. I understand that the U.S. is really divided into regions that have little in common with each other. For example: the northeast vs. the deep south. One would never know that the people in those two regions are from the same country. Another example: My daughter is visiting Massachusetts from SoCal, and she says that part of California is extremely religious and conservative and it is a challenge for her and her family to find like-minded liberals.

I'm thinking secession would create more problems than it would solve. But we'll have to wait and see what the Scots decide.

28 August, 2014 09:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Woody: My sense is that it's a bit like the case of Texans, who feel very distinct as Texans and yet still definitely American. At any rate, we'll know is three weeks. Scotland already has much more self-governance than it did decades ago, thanks to innovations like the Scottish parliament.

Shaw: In the US, of course, secession would be both unthinkable and illegal. We settled that in 1861-1865. And of course the urban/rural divide is probably at least as important as the regional ones.

As for Scotland, of course I agree with you. But all signs are that the referendum will produce a strong endorsement of staying in the UK, and that will settle the issue for a long time.

28 August, 2014 18:10  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

One thing I wonder about re the possibility of Scotland seceding from the UK is what would happen to the Union Jack if that happened (given that I believe its design incorporates the Scottish flag). It'd be a pity to lose such a distinctive flag!

Re countries breaking up, I generally don't like to see it happen, even when I appreciate that there may be good reasons for one (or more!) part(s) of a country to break away from the rest. I was rather disappointed to see the USSR break up, for example (upon mentioning this to a brother of mine, he said, "Tell this Latvian friend of mine you feel that way!"), and as I believe I mentioned in an earlier comment, I was similarly disappointed to see Sudan break up and lose the distinction of being the largest country in Africa (particularly as the break-up of that country seemed to create just as many problems as it solved).

I don't think there's much danger of Australia breaking up, although one periodically hears rumours that the largest state here, Western Australia, has been toying with the idea of seceding (largely because it has the bulk of the country's mineral resources, and feels that it doesn't get the respect it deserves from the more populous states on the other side of the country). I also hear Quebec once considered seceding from Canada (back in the 1990s, I think), though that went nowhere.

In some ways, I think secession is a bit like moving out of home. It's all very exciting until you realize it also entails taking on a lot of responsibilities that were hitherto somebody else's problem!

31 August, 2014 05:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes, if Scotland left, the Union Jack would presumably have to be changed, the same way as the US flag added a star each time we acquired a new state. Perhaps they could replace it with something to represent Wales, which doesn't now have a symbol on the flag.

Québec secessionism is a hardy perennial, but the Québécois don't want to let the Indians in the north of the province secede and re-join Canada, which they would.

The problem with the USSR was that it was really more of an empire than a country. I don't think the Latvians or Ukrainians ever felt Russian or "Soviet" any more than the Indians or Kenyans ever felt British.

31 August, 2014 06:44  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

The problem with the USSR was that it was really more of an empire than a country.

Yes. Sort of ironic how, for all its denunciations of "imperialism", Soviet communism essentially became a continuation of Russian imperialism.

01 September, 2014 04:50  
Blogger Woody said...

I've heard those rumors myself, Zosimus, even spoken them.
We don't just support other states, we support the Commonwealth territories.
"Ridiculous", I whisper to the uncaring walls.


03 September, 2014 04:17  

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