Questions of independence

18th September 2013

Today we're one year away from the referendum on Scottish independence, and the 'yes' and 'no' camps are drawing up the battle lines. But in the great debate some issues are less discussed than others. See what our Future of the UK and Scotland Fellows highlight as important but little-known issues in the independence debate.

This article originally appeared on the ESRC website Features section.

Ensuring a fair referendum

Professor Stephen Tierney, University of Edinburgh

Inevitably people are focusing on the issue of independence, but just as important is the legitimacy of the referendum process. Behind the scenes the Scottish Parliament has been making significant progress in setting the rules for the vote on 18 September next year. The Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act has now been passed, setting the rules for who can vote - and notably giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote. It is clearly vital that younger voters are registered in time.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill should be passed by November. This contains important provisions for the role of the Electoral Commission and sets out the funding and spending rules which will regulate how the campaign organisations operate during the crucial 16 week period before the vote. These rules have not attracted a great deal of attention, but they are central to ensure an open and fair process which is not dominated by either side.

Sharing services across the border

Dr Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

A striking feature of the referendum campaign is the extent to which Scottish independence is presented by its supporters as embedded within the British Isles. Whether it's pensions and benefits, a formal currency union, the DVLA, an integrated energy market, a common travel area or shared security arrangements, the independence platform assumes extensive co-operation in bureaucracy and service delivery. However, the UK Government has cast doubt on whether such arrangements are feasible, suggesting they may not be in the interests of the rest of the UK.

Yet, neighbouring countries frequently work together. The emerging programme of collaboration between the UK and Ireland is an obvious parallel. North-south co-operation would of course require sufficient goodwill, shared commitment and a rational calculation that continued collaboration after independence would be in the interests of both nations.

The deficit of university pensions

Professor David Bell, University of Stirling

EU pension regulations insist that cross-border pension schemes are solvent – a rule that could have significant consequences for the higher education sector if Scotland became independent. The UK-wide Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which has members on both sides of the border, was estimated to be £9.8bn in deficit as of March 2012.

If Scotland became independent and joined the EU, the USS scheme would have to find a way either immediately to eliminate the large deficit or to split itself up into two separate funds; one for Scotland and one for the rest of the UK. While the first alternative would load additional costs onto universities and staff, the second would incur extra costs and reduce the risk-spreading capability of a larger, single UK-wide fund.

Would the EU insist on implementing this rule immediately after Scottish independence? Past history suggest they would not - but the rule will surely weaken the bargaining position of both Scotland and the rest of the UK in any other negotiation with the EU.

Higher education and fair access

Professor Sheila Riddell, University of Edinburgh

Free higher education in Scotland tends to be justified on the grounds of social justice - but does it actually lead to wider participation, particularly from poorer backgrounds?

The evidence is mixed. More 16-30 year olds enter higher education in Scotland compared with England, while it’s similar for those aged 21 and under (24 per cent in Scotland, 25 per cent in England). The social profile of students in pre-1992 universities is also very similar north and south of the border and has changed little over the past decade.

Evidence suggests that the abolition of the graduate endowment in Scotland in 2008 has not increased university student numbers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. At the same time, the introduction of much higher deferred fees in England has not reduced student numbers. The social profile of university students has also proved resistant to change.

Whilst free higher education may be deemed to be a social good, it is still of greatest benefit to those who are already socially advantaged.

Dealing with the public sector debt

Dr Angus Armstrong, National Institute of Economic and Social Research

If Scotland becomes an independent nation it will no longer have responsibility for UK public sector debt. Some form of compensation will be required from Scotland to the rest of the UK. This is a critical issue which raises at least three important questions which substantially influence the viability of Scotland's currency options, its borrowing costs and future path of the economy.

The first question is: what is the relevant measure of public sector debt to divide - and should contingent liabilities be included? The second question is: on what basis should the debt be divided? Recent precedents suggest a per capita, but affordability or historical contribution are also plausible. The third question is: how, in practice, is the compensation to be made? If the UK accepted an IOU, this would surely damage its credit rating. Westminster and Holyrood have avoided these questions - but answers are necessary for an informed referendum.

Leaving old independence allies

Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

Scotland is one of a number of stateless nations where movements for independence have emerged in strength. Nationalist movements in Catalonia, Quebec, the Basque Country and Flanders have learned from each other and are pursuing similar aims; rebuilding the nation and self-government in the context of free trade and continental integration. The European Free Alliance in the European Parliament brought some of them together with a new concept – 'internal enlargement', for seceding nations to remain within the EU.

Yet Scottish nationalism makes scarce reference these days to its old allies. Constitutionally it is ahead of the others, having gained a referendum, and does not want to ally itself with the laggards. It needs the support of Spain (in the EU) and of Canada (in the Commonwealth) more than Catalonia or Quebec, and does not want to interfere in other people’s arguments. So while they look to Scotland, Scotland looks to itself.

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Clare de Mowbray's picture
University of Edinburgh
18th September 2013
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