The population of Scotland voted against independence in a historic referendum that would have ended three centuries of political union with the United Kingdom. The “no” vote got roughly 55 percent of the vote, while the “yes” received around 45 percent. This ended weeks of speculation, as the gap between the “yes” and the “no” camps became smaller in recent days. It also prevented the challenge of broad uncertainty for the government in London that would have followed support for independence. Although the U.K. and Scottish governments had agreed on the referendum, there was no precise timeline on what would have happened in the event Scotland voted to become independent. Regardless of this result, Scotland will probably see its autonomy incrementally increased over the coming months and years.
With almost half of the population of Scotland voting for independence, the long-term political issue is not going away. Moreover, statistics show that young people are particularly pro-independence, so the demography illustrates that this issue will remain a key part of Scottish politics for decades to come. During a speech after the results were announced, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to honor his promises of more devolution to Scotland on issues including tax, spending and welfare. He also said that England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be included in the process as well. Had Scotland voted for independence, it would have lead to a very complex negotiation process, to decide on key matters such as Scotland’s currency and the division of hydrocarbon fields in the North Sea.
An independent Scotland would have created a political crisis in London, as Cameron’s Conservative Party and the main opposition party, the center-left Labor Party, were against separation. While this scenario has been avoided, Scotland’s push for autonomy is far from over. During the campaign, Cameron promised more autonomy to Scotland, to devolve additional prerogatives to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. This devolution would include increasing the scope of the Scottish parliament’s authority over tax revenue and welfare. However, very sensitive issues such as foreign policy and defense, including the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal, will probably not be included in this process. London will be under great pressure to honor its promises.
Scotland has been pushing for independence, or at least greater autonomy, for a long time. The Kingdom of Scotland emerged as an independent sovereign state in the early Middle Ages and continued to exist until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Scotland entered into a political union with England in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britain. Since then, Scotland retained a large degree of autonomy, which in 1999 led to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament. In 2011, the victory of the Scottish National Party in the Scottish elections led to a formal request for an independence referendum. A year later, the Scottish government and Westminster agreed on the referendum.
Scotland’s geopolitical relevance
Scotland has a key strategic significance for the United Kingdom. The country is located on the southern part of the “GIUK gap” (an acronym for Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom), an area in the northern Atlantic that forms a naval warfare choke point. The GIUK gap has traditionally been important to the Royal Navy, because any attempt by other northern European navies to access the Atlantic Ocean would have to do so either through the heavily defended English Channel, or through the GIUK. As a result, Britain’s naval supremacy in the GIUK was as important as its control of the English Channel and the Gibraltar Strait — at the entrance to the Mediterranean — in constraining the movement of other Western European powers.
Second, unification with Scotland was essential for Britain’s rise as a major global player. Unification put an end to a centuries-old cycle of war, peace and then war again between England and Scotland. After unification, London no longer had to worry about having a potential enemy in the northern tip of the island, even if chronic revolts persisted. In the late eighteenth century, Scotland played a significant role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, with cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow becoming important industrial centers.
After the Industrial Revolution, Scotland concentrated on heavy industry, including shipbuilding, coal mining and steel. Its participation in the British Empire allowed the Scottish economy to export its output throughout the world. As with many European nations, Scotland’s industry began to decline in the final decades of the twentieth century, and the country started to focus on the technology and service sectors.
In more recent times, Scotland became geopolitically relevant because of its significant energy resources. Scottish waters have some of the largest oil reserves in Europe. Since oil was discovered in Scottish waters in the late 1960s, Aberdeen became a key oil center, and North Sea oil currently supplies over two thirds of the United Kingdom’s oil needs. The discovery of oil also reinforced Scottish nationalism in the 1970s, with the Scottish National Party using the slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil.” To this day, energy remains one of the key issues for Scottish nationalists, who argue that North Sea resources would be the backbone of an independent Scotland.
The events in Scotland are being watched closely by independence movements across Europe. In particular, the government of the Spanish region of Catalonia anticipated that a victory for the independence camp in Scotland would boost its cause for independence from Spain. The run-up to the vote has stirred sentiment in other spots of restive nationalist sentiment, including in Belgium, among Turkey’s ethnic Kurds and of course among separatists in Ukraine. Unlike the UK, the Spanish government considers Catalonia’s referendum illegal. Sept. 19 will be a key day for Catalonia, because the regional parliament is expected to vote on a referendum law that, according to the Catalans, allows them to hold the referendum. The government in Madrid has said that it would automatically take the issue to the Constitutional Court, which will block the referendum. When this happens, the Catalan government will be forced to make the difficult decision of whether or not to hold a vote that has been declared illegal.