James E. Cronin—
Great Britain, the nation that teamed up with the United States to defeat Germany in two world wars and, after each, to do what it could to bring order into a disordered world and that did so much to shape the contours of the post-Cold War world, might soon cease to exist. The Scots vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom on Thursday, September 18th. It would be a hugely important choice for Scotland, for the rest of Britain and for the world.
The referendum campaign has been long, and mostly unexciting, and until recently the “no” camp was way ahead. The effect was complacency, with few outside Scotland giving much thought to what might happen if the “yes” vote prevailed. The polls have recently narrowed, however, and there is now a reasonable possibility that the Scots will choose independence. People are beginning to pay attention and political leaders in Britain are close to panic. What might actually happen?
Perhaps the least helpful guide to the likely consequences is the set of arguments that have been made during the campaign. This was deliberate. The pro-independence camp adopted the strategy of reassurance and claimed that a yes vote would not produce any radical change: Scotland would keep the Queen; it would continue to use the British pound as its currency; it would stay in the European Union and perhaps forge even closer ties with the continent; university students would still not pay tuition fees as they do elsewhere in Britain; benefits and social services would be maintained if not improved. An independent Scotland would not have to pay for another generation of nuclear weapons and it would stay out of foreign ventures like Iraq. In short, there would be no negative consequences and the Scots would keep what they had, and liked, and now also get control of their politics. The pro-union camp—“Better Together” they called themselves—did not confront the argument directly, for fear of appearing to bully or threaten and of provoking a backlash. The “no” camp poked at their opponents’ optimistic claims and sought to raise doubts. The Scots, they suggested, could not necessarily keep the pound; their membership in the EU and NATO would not be guaranteed or quickly settled; the nationalists’ estimates of revenue from North Sea oil—the appropriate division of which had yet to be determined—were overly optimistic; and Scotland’s finances might therefore not suffice to maintain the welfare state so prized by nationalists. But the opponents of independence refrained from an all-out attack in favor of messages about how much everyone loved Scotland and Scots and things Scottish.
Both sides chose, in effect, to downplay the likely consequences of independence. And both were wrong. It is impossible to say with precision what will happen, but certain consequences are at least likely. It is likely, for example, that the Scottish economy will suffer, for investment in a newly independent nation with an uncertain and unsecured currency involves more risk. Already, several major employers, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, have said they would move their headquarters south. Forcing Britain to removes its stock of nuclear weapons from the Clyde naval base, which the Scottish National Party (SNP) has promised, will cost many jobs and seriously weaken its defense industry.
There is also no doubt that secession, should it happen, would have a very big impact on British politics. In the short run, David Cameron will be seen as the Prime Minister who lost the union. If he managed to hang on as party leader until the general election next May, something that is not guaranteed, he would most likely lose that context. Labour would probably win, but its majority would rest on Scottish Labour MPs who would soon leave Parliament altogether, at which point Labour would find itself in a near permanent minority.
Equally, and possibly more, important effects would come in matters of foreign and defense policy. Traditionally, the SNP opposed membership in NATO, but changed its position in 2012 in anticipation of the referendum. The new commitment is unlikely to hold if the Scots insist on ridding the country of nuclear weapons, for that would not only irritate Britain and the United States, but also throw into question NATO’s broader strategic orientation. In such a situation it seems unlikely that Scotland would be allowed to sign up to the alliance once again. Whatever one thinks of specific NATO policies, it is central to the network of alliances that the US and its allies have put in place to provide global security.
The EU is another institution that, while troubled, spans most of the European continent and organizes its relationships internally and with the rest of the world. The nationalists profess their attachment to Europe, but an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership, a process that would take time and whose outcome would be uncertain. The unresolved issue of Scotland’s currency would be a particular stumbling bloc.
The biggest impact is the simplest to grasp: Britain without Scotland would instantly be transformed from a serious player in international relations into something much less. How much this would matter to the Scots is hard to say, but it would matter to the rest of Britain and it would matter to the world. Great Britain is no longer the dominant world power, as it was at the height of empire, but it retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it played a huge role in the creation and maintenance of NATO, and it is the closest and most reliable ally of the United States. It can be argued, in fact, that the present global order is fundamentally an Anglo-American product, a set of institutions and relationships that were cobbled together mainly by the United States and Great Britain. It is easy enough to locate flaws in the post-Cold War order and to query its guiding principles and it is impossible not to notice the many ways it is currently threatened. Still, the case against fails utterly for lack of anything better. An independent Scotland would not signal its imminent demise, but it has to weaken one of its strongest supports. Can that be a good thing?
None of this means that independence is not or will not someday be the right thing for Scotland. There will be consequences, however, and costs that will be borne not just by the Scots but by the rest of Britain and, indirectly, by many others. It is important that these be recognized before rather than after the vote.
James E. Cronin is professor of history at Boston College and an affiliate of the Minda De Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University. His latest book, Global Rules: America, Britain and a Disordered World, is available in October 2014.