In fact, no British Prime Minister would want to be associated with the independence of Scotland. Faced with the growing calls for separation, Tony Blair had tried to contain the political forces, developing the policy of the “devolution of power”, which gives each entity in the United Kingdom a certain degree of political autonomy.
Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland formed their own parliaments which were entrusted with the responsibility of a number of policy areas in which they can develop their own agenda and their own proposals, independently from London. The most crucial areas, such as finance, foreign policy and defense, however, remained to the government in London. If the government of Northern Ireland has experienced some turmoil, because of interruptions and short-term political decisions, the governments of Wales and Scotland were more stable and active. Scottish politicians have taken a liking to a particular policy without interference from London. For some time, the process of devolution had helped ease separatist tensions. However, since 2007, the SNP is experiencing a resurgence of popularity by regularly putting the vote on independence on its agenda and forcing 10 Downing Street to consider this scenario.
Although opposed to the idea of a separation between England and its northern neighbor, Prime Minister David Cameron has sealed an agreement with Alex Salmond on holding a referendum in 2014. The goal is simple: to finally solve the problem, and silence the voices in favor of an independent Scotland. To determine the future of their country, the Scots will have to answer a simple question (although that simplicity is relative): yes or no to Scottish independence?
This question leads us to ask what are the reasons that led David Cameron to accept the referendum and what benefits would Scotland receive by leaving the UK. Political considerations
Cameron claims not to be able to ignore the results of recent elections in Scotland, which have restored a separatist party in government, even if the interpretation of results still arouses debate: have the voters chosen SNP for its promise of a referendum or because they have been disappointed by other parties (Labour, Conservative and LibDem)? After the SNP secured 69 of the 129 seats in Holyrood, the British government felt that the tensions around the UK would increase, and especially after the municipal elections in May 2012 confirmed the broad support for the SNP - it won nearly 60 additional seats, or 424 out of 1200 elected.
For the SNP, it was essential to reach an agreement on a referendum on independence in order to keep one of its flagship promises. A failure in this area would probably have disenchanted Alex Salmond’s voters (something that would not have bothered David Cameron), a bit like what happened to the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, who has been marginalized by David Cameron in the current coalition government.
The two leaders have hinted at the possibility of negotiations on an extension of the devolution of power if there was no clear majority in favor of an independent Scotland. This does not mean of course full sovereignty for Scotland, but would nevertheless greatly increase the range of areas in which future governments would be able to legislate.
Scottish economic considerations
Scotland’s wealth, including its vast reserves of oil and gas in the North Sea, certainly plays an important role in the current debate on independence. Indeed, the Scottish Government intends to ensure that the majority of revenues generated by oil and gas returns to the government in Edinburgh and not in London. In addition, Edinburgh is one of the main European financial centers. In recent years, Scotland has become a major supporter of renewable energy sources in Europe.
Scotland is already a net exporter of electricity, and given its ambitious targets to produce 80% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 100% by 2025 (afterwards this target was set for 2020!), the electricity export surplus should contribute to the country’s budget. The government is very optimistic in this regard and developments are indeed extremely promising: in 2011, renewable energy covered 35% of the energy needs and several reports showed continued progress. However, it’s the subject of another discussion, whether the targets set for 2020 are entirely realistic. The support of Parliament and the Scottish Government strongly encourage investors to believe in the Green Scotland of Alex Salmond.
Oil and gas revenues are highly volatile, their rise and fall is linked to the demand of global markets. Therefore, such an income cannot be a reliable one. Cash flow from the sale of oil and gas is a valuable source of additional income, but should not be the main pillar of the government budget - as is the case in Russia and Venezuela, where the price of oil often falls, leading to government measures, such as cuts in social services or military spending. Additional pressures would come from the management of pensions and other social costs that can easily exceed revenues from the exploitation of oil and gas.
However, many sectors could provide the government with a more regular income: the services sector, the export of technology solutions to exploit the potential of renewable energy, manufacturing and tourism.
The status of an EU Member State
What happens if Scotland gets independence? Would it benefit automatically from a status of an EU Member State or should it accede to the EU again? In the latter case, could the process be accelerated in view of its previous membership in the EU as part of the UK? It seems that at present, there is no clear answer to these questions. Although the Scottish Government is confident that Scotland would automatically benefit of the Member State status, statements from Brussels seem more cautious and even mention the possibility, at a first stage, of Scotland leaving the EU. The President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, seems to favor the latter option, indicating that new countries wishing to join the EU must (re) apply for membership: “If the new government wants to join the European Union, it must apply as any other state. In fact, I see no country which wants to leave the EU and many which wish to join.”
It remains to be seen if the referendum is approved; if David Cameron will turn out smarter than Alex Salmond and if this desire for independence will increase (currently a third of the population is in favor of Scottish independence). For the moment, many questions remain unanswered.