In little over a year from now, the Scottish electorate will be asked to determine whether Scotland should be an independent country. But what does it mean to be an independent country in an interdependent world?
To paraphrase John Donne’s famous poem, no country is an island, entire of itself; every country a piece of the continent, a part of the main. This is especially so in today’s world. Finance is increasingly global, challenging the economic sovereignty of nations. International and supranational bodies can issue policy directives or set norms that steer national decision-making. Policy challenges like climate change, trafficking, food security, or pandemics, have little respect for national borders, forcing governments to work together.
The Scottish Government’s independence platform recognises these interdependencies. An independent Scotland would negotiate and pool its sovereignty within broader political, social and economic structures, including the European Union, NATO, and other international forums.
But one of the striking features of the campaign so far is the extent to which Scottish independence is seen as embedded within the British Isles. Leading figures in government talk of a new partnership with the rest of the UK – one which would be ‘a partnership of equals’. A partnership of this kind would entail significant cross-border co-operation, shared institutions and shared arrangements for the delivery of some public services.
From the DVLA to pensions and benefits, a formal currency union to an integrated energy market, a common travel area and shared security arrangements, the signals point toward a significant degree of co-operation in bureaucracy and service delivery.
In social security, for example, the Scottish Government accepted the recommendations of its expert working group on welfare for an integrated social security bureaucracy for an undefined transitional period after independence. In energy, the recent leaked report confirmed that the Scottish Government wants to maintain a single energy market, including a shared system for subsiding renewables which would continue to see the investment burden socialised across the UK.
The UK Government has cast doubt on the feasibility of such arrangements, but there are many examples of other neighbouring countries working together on matters of mutual interest. The Nordic countries share an electricity market, a common labour market and work together on a broad range of policy fields within the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – have long co-operated in an economic union, and in 2012 put into effect a new treaty to co-operate more widely on trans-border policy challenges, including energy and security.
Most telling of all is the co-operation in recent years between the UK and Irish Governments. This has gone beyond the peace process to include setting up a single electricity market across the island of Ireland, a visa waiver scheme for visitors to both countries, and extensive bilateral co-operation across a range of sectors. In 2012, the two governments, building on the evident personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, signed a Joint Statement underlining their countries’ close historic and cultural relationship, their shared interest and co-operation in trade and EU relations, and their commitment to ‘a decade of renewed and strengthened co-operation between our two countries’. Last month, both governments were quick to embrace the recommendations of a jointly commissioned report for greater collaboration in energy, agri-food, construction, financial services, research, transport and tourism.
There is no reason, then, to think that an independent Scotland could not develop a new partnership of some kind with the rest of the UK after independence. It would not be a partnership of equals. In spite of their formal equality as independent nation-states, the differences in resources – of economic strength, population, policy capacity, political experience, influence and standing in the world – would bring inequalities back into the intergovernmental relationship. But the two countries would clearly continue to share historic, cultural and trade links, and would face many similar problems, simply by virtue of sharing an island. The legacy of intergovernmental co-operation within the Union should also have instilled the trust and interpersonal links upon which continued co-operation would depend.
Of course, there are no certainties in this debate; everything would be subject to negotiation after a vote. North-south co-operation of the kind envisaged would require sufficient goodwill, shared commitment and a rational calculation that co-operating and co-ordinating policy or service delivery would be in the interests of both nations. So long as there’s a political will on both sides of the border, there’s a way.
But it seems a very dependent form of independence, and it is not without downsides.
Pre-referendum, it helps the UK government, in particular, to nurture uncertainty about the implications of an independence vote. A new partnership needs a willing partner, and the UK government has – quite deliberately – cast some doubt about the prospects for intergovernmental collaboration of the kind and degree envisaged.
Post-referendum, post-independence, it would clearly be sensible to have good co-operative relationships with the rest of the UK and other neighbouring countries. But the greater the interdependence, the less scope there would be to do things differently – to act independently.
In addition, it can’t be assumed that the two countries would continue to share the common interests and mutual trust necessary to maintain extensive co-operation. Already since devolution, there has been significant divergence in the policy paths of Scottish and UK governments. And even if interests are shared today, they may be quickly rethought in the face of domestic political or public pressure.
Perhaps the biggest downside is the extent to which the emphasis on interdependence in the debate so far has masked the purpose of independence. There are many who are committed to independence, come what may, convinced that Scotland should be self-governing, but they are insufficient in number to secure a Yes vote. Others are open to persuasion, waiting to be convinced that an independent Scotland would be a better place to live. Yet, amid all the talk of continuity and administrative co-operation after independence, it is difficult to see what would change.
The Scottish Government’s forthcoming White Paper promises to be a prospectus for an independent Scotland. If it continues to treat independence as if it were a challenge of administration, it may fail to convince those looking to be inspired by a manifesto for a new Scotland.