Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Following their convincing victory in the last elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has thrust Scottish independence back on the British political landscape. Founded in 1934, following a merger of two nationalist parties, the SNP initially did not want to fully sever Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, but sought a devolved assembly. The discovery of oil in the North Sea resurged desires for independence, hailed with the slogan “It’s Scotland’s oil!” Whilst a 1979 referendum for a devolved parliament missed a voting threshold, one was eventually established in Holyrood in 1998. Instead of placating desires for independence, the new Scottish Parliament provided the perfect forum for the SNP to flourish. This culminated in the SNP being Holyrood’s first majority administration in 2011.
The independence referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014, soon after the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the decisive military triumph in the First War of Scottish Independence. The question is provisionally: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” The SNP’s urge for 16 and 17-year olds to vote and initial refusal to accept oversight by the Electoral Commission led to legal questions over the referendum. The coalition government’s attempts to clarify the vote’s legal status yielded accusations by Deputy SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon that Westminster was “trying to interfere in Scottish democracy”. There have been other attempts to foster separatist sentiment. Following the discovery of an English haggis dish that predates other known recipes, First Minister and leader of the SNP Alex Salmond said that this was “akin to a land grab” and “I don’t mind the English claiming haggis as their own, as long as they leave us our country”.
Scotland’s current settlement is too favourable, which forges resentment. The Barnett formula is a 1978 convention made by former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Joel Barnett, designed as a temporary solution to Cabinet disputes arising from planned devolution in Scotland. According to the Treasury (page 117 of this PDF), the 2010/11 projected average UK government spending per person was £10,212 in Scotland, compared to £8,588 in England and £9,829 in Wales. Spending per person was £10,706 in Northern Ireland. Despite their ostensible backing of fiscal devolution, the SNP actually endorse the Barnett formula’s perpetuation. Linda Fabiani MSP said on the BBC that the Barnett formula was fair since “there are English regions that get more than Scotland and Wales”. The Holtham Commission found that Wales is chronically underfunded compared to Scotland, by £300 million a year. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, declared support for any party in Westminster that would rectify this funding disparity.
The perceived treatment of Scotland has also stirred nationalism in England, with calls to establish an English Parliament. The English Democrat Party, which has the English Parliament as their main policy, holds the mayoralty of Doncaster, despite being a small party. Also, in most polls, Scottish separation from the union is more widely agreed with by English people than by Scottish people. Another source of vexation for England is the West Lothian question, namely that Scottish MPs influence legislation that only affects England and Wales, but are powerless over matters in their own constituencies. An example of this was the introduction of top-up fees for English universities, which passed only with the votes of Scottish Labour MPs. Rejection of regional assemblies in England by referenda in the North East in 2004 instituted this constitutional asymmetry. The coalition government has created a commission to find an answer to this pertinent problem.
The Act of Union 1707 joined the kingdoms of England and Scotland, creating Great Britain. This is one of the most successful political unions in history. Scotland has the right to political self-determination, which it will wield when the referendum is held. However, the current constitutional arrangement is leaving all members worse off. The SNP believe that the union subjugate Scotland, whereas Wales feels poorer compared to Scotland, and England feels drained to bolster the spending demands of devolved assemblies. The common issue is that political power, especially over fiscal measures, is too centralised within Westminster. Allowing Scotland, Wales and English local councils complete financial autonomy would remove the power of Westminster to distribute money over the union unfairly. Federalization of this kind is the best way to save this most successful union.