The World is Watching the Scottish Independence Debate

Published: 17 December 2013
Author: Paul Cairney

The Scottish independence debate may, at times, seem parochial, but its reach is global. We often seem to focus on narrow Scottish issues but the big questions travel well: what should be the size of a nation state? Should large countries have central, regional and local governments? If so, how should we share those responsibilities and coordinate policymaking between levels of government? Which policy areas should be centralized and which devolved? Should regions have taxation and spending powers?

I was struck by this global interest when invited to speak about regionalism in the UK, and Scottish devolution in particular, to a Japanese audience (in meetings with policymakers, parliamentary researchers and the general public) at the National Diet Library last month. This type of exchange shows you how the big questions matter, because a large part of the Scottish experience does not apply to Japan at all: proponents of ‘doshu-sei’ want to use it to foster economic policymaking powers in regions and to help reduce the national debt by slimming down central government. There is almost no equivalent in Japan to something that we generally take for granted in the UK - the groundswell of popular support for a degree of Scottish self-government. Instead, the lessons are about regional policymaking:

  • Scotland has shown that regional governments can make policy differently and introduce different policies. They can foster meaningful networks between governments, business, professional and voluntary groups, and they can use those networks to gather knowledge to inform the production of policies more suited to a specific region.
  • The Scottish experience shows that central and regional governments can work well together. Although the UK and Scottish governments do not learn from each other very much, they have a remarkably smooth relationship. Adding a new layer of government does not cause a confusing or crowded policymaking environment.

The UK is also a potential source for broad inspiration. In Japan, the devolution of powers from central government has been piecemeal and difficult for the public to see. Some observers from Japan saw UK devolution as a major high profile event (even though we often call it a ‘process’) and see Scotland in particular as a hub for regional policy and economic innovation. This experience may be used to sell regionalism in Japan as a necessarily ‘bold’ step, to engage the public imagination and address political crisis.

So, the next time you see what looks to be a parochial and inward looking argument in Scotland, remember that the world is watching too. What we often take for granted and treat as humdrum may be viewed very differently elsewhere.

This is where the role of the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme is crucial. External observers need a way to condense a huge amount of information and experience into a set of ‘take-home’ messages. We have shown that research is as much about external engagement as knowledge gathering - and that, even at this early stage, we are well placed to provide it.

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