Politics & Policy

Britain on the Brink of a Breakup

(Getty Images)
Polls suggest Scottish independence is a possibility, which could be a boon for British Tories.

The new YouGov poll on Scotland’s September 18 vote on independence shows “yes” in the lead for the first time, by a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent. The reason British politicians are now scrambling to offer Scotland more powers is that until now YouGov had been the poll showing the least support for separation.

British treasury secretary George Osborne has quickly promised that within days Scottish voters will be offered “more tax powers, more spending powers, more power over the welfare state.” He pledged that “Scotland will have the best of both worlds” by avoiding “the risks of separation” while acquiring “more control over their own destiny.” For many Scots, the last-minute offer lacks credibility for its lateness. Moreover, the offer comes after several hundred thousand votes have already been cast by mail.

Supporters of independence say that if Scotland goes it alone, British prime minister David Cameron will bear most of the blame. Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s wealthiest businessmen and a backer of independence, criticized Cameron in this vein when he spoke recently to the Independent. If Cameron had accepted Scotland’s offer to have a third question on the ballot that offered Osborne’s latest proposals, McColl said, “then that is what we would have got — everyone would have voted for more powers, but remaining part of the U.K.”

But Cameron insisted on a single “yes” or “no” ballot question that would force Scottish voters to make a clear choice, reflecting his belief that most Scots would flinch from a complete break. Indeed, at the time when the referendum was negotiated in 2012, a full 63 percent of Scots opposed outright independence.

Alex Salmond, the pro-independence leader of Scotland’s government, abandoned having a third choice on the ballot in 2012 in exchange for giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote on independence. Even though 16- and 17-year-olds account for only 2.5 percent of eligible voters, they could make the difference in a close vote. Polls show that they are the most eager for independence. For them and many older voters as well, the new British offer on devolution of powers looks panicked, poll-driven, and insincere.

Most conservatives in Britain and the U.S. oppose Scottish independence as dangerously disruptive. But I don’t share some of those fears. I was in the Slovak capital of Bratislava in early 1993 when Czechoslovakia peacefully broke up. The two halves of the country had struggled for three years after the fall of Communism to stay together, but the Slovaks thought the state was too centered on the Czech capital of Prague, and the Czechs resented subsidies and over-representation of Slovaks in key bodies. The same complaints are echoed in Britain, where members of Scotland’s parliament may vote in the Westminster parliament on matters involving all of the U.K., but non-Scottish members of the U.K. parliament are unable to vote on the domestic legislation of the Scottish parliament. In addition, Scotland has more seats in the U.K. parliament than its population would normally be allocated.

There were strains and disputes in the Czech-Slovak divorce, especially over jointly owned gold reserves, but after a few years all was sorted out. Back then, Czechs viewed the Slovaks as more statist and slower to seize economic opportunities than they were. But today, both countries have shown remarkable improvement in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom; and last year, Slovakia’s economy grew by 2.1 percent — three and a half times faster than it’s grown in the Czech Republic.

“We are doing very well,” Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia’s deputy prime minister, told the BBC last year. “The Czech republic is doing well, and our friendship is better than ever,” he said.

Slovakia’s population of 5.4 million is almost precisely that of Scotland, and its success shows how small countries can do well on their own.

There was also one other tangible benefit of separation to Slovakia, though it’s one many don’t want to discuss. “After we became independent, people couldn’t blame every problem on Prague anymore or look to it for subsidies,” a former top minister in Slovakia’s government told me. “We had to drop some outmoded socialist thinking and scapegoating and stand on our own two feet.”

Even with its oil revenue, the same phenomenon could occur in Scotland, where the ruling Scottish National party has often pursued foolish economic policies. With independence, a new government might be more realistic. A recent white paper produced by the Scottish government proposes cuts in corporate tax rates to attract business as well as a more skill-based immigration system as new policies to set in place after independence.

Scotland’s separation from Britain could also have other, mostly positive, political effects. Scotland would probably keep using the pound as its currency, which it could do with or without Britain’s permission, much as Panama and Ecuador use the U.S. dollar today. The stringent policies of the Bank of England and the loss of subsidies could push Scotland to become more fiscally responsible. “Scotland would eventually be forced into a more severe form of fiscal austerity than currently applied, giving the lie to Alex Salmond’s promise of a sort of welfare nirvana for all Scots once free of the Westminster yoke,” wrote Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “For the rest of the U.K., losing relatively pro-EU Scotland would further raise the chances of eventually leaving the EU from odds on to that of a virtual certainty,” he added. The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union would be hailed by pro-freedom conservatives and would lead to a government friendlier to U.S. markets and interests.

Scottish independence would also transform the electorate in U.K. elections, with only the remaining 59 million Britons eligible to vote. Scottish voters are currently much more hostile than the U.K. electorate overall to free markets — Scots view capitalism as the basis for the Thatcher government’s decision to close unprofitable Scottish industries in the 1980s. Currently, Scotland sends only one Conservative member of parliament to Westminister. The departure of Scottish MPs from Westminster would be dramatic: If 59 Labour-party and Scottish National MPs from Scotland leave Westminster, Tories in the current House of Commons would go from being 21 seats short of a majority to having an outright 20-seat majority. “It is unlikely that without Scotland the rest of the United Kingdom would elect a majority Labour government anytime soon,” says Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute.

Prime Minister Cameron insists he would not resign from office should Scotland vote itself out of its 300-year-old union with Britain, but there would be enormous public pressure for the “man who lost Scotland” to leave.

That would be an added bonus to Scotland’s independence, since increasingly Cameron — with his milquetoast views on the EU and his enthusiasm for climate-change regulation — has less and less of a claim to being a true ally of liberty. His departure would give British conservatives a chance to elect a new leader who might have a chance of limiting the number of votes lost to the thriving United Kingdom Independence Party and keeping Labour out of office. That could be a so-far-unexplored silver lining of Scotland’s “yes” vote for independence.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

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