So, Salmond’s “brung it on“, to coin a phrase: the independence referendum for Scotland will take place in “autumn 2014”. Whether or not PM David Cameron’s interference has played a role in chivvying the First Minister along, it’s good that we now know when it will take place.
Debate will now ensue about the perceived benefits or otherwise for Scotland. I daresay I will say more than a little on the topic in this blog in the two and a half years between now and autumn 2014. And what a long referendum campaign it’s going to be!
However, less focus will be put on the implications beyond Scotland of it becoming indepdendent. Of course, it’s nobody else’s decision to take but Scotland (that’s self-determination for you), but apropos of nothing, I was thinking the other day about this dimension.
For starters, and bear in mind I am no more than an amateur commentator, I can think of five things that will happen outside Scotland if it’s a “yes” vote in 2014.
1. Constitutional reform in the remnant United Kingdom
If Scotland becomes independent, there will need to be some changes in the United Kingdom. At the very least, it would call for a tidying up exercise, because the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will, now minus part of Great Britain, need to think about changing its name. How should that name reflect the country, and what will be the relationship between England, Wales and Northern Ireland? The changes may or may not be radical, but even if there is little substantial change, there will have to be some tinkering around the edges to ensure that the name, governance and legal foundation of the UK reflects its new purpose.
2. Worldwide debate about reforming the United Nations Security Council
One major outcome of World War 2 was that the United Nations was founded according to the views of the five major victors, the USA, UK, France, Soviet Union and China. One feature was that those five have permanent, veto-wielding seats on the Security Council, with the rest of the world left to pin their hopes on one day taking the other rotating, temporary places. Just as Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s permanent seat and veto, so it is likely that the remnant United Kingdom will keep its place.
But even without Scottish independence, there have long been grumbles from new political and economic giants who are excluded unfairly – they include Brazil, Japan, Germany, India, and suggested reforms to the Security Council usually name these countries as possible additions to the permanent membership. More radical ideas – which of course will be vetoed by the self-interested five – suggest major overhaul. With the UK reducing in size and population, questions will be asked even more vigorously as to how an already anachronistic privilege can be maintained.
3. Debate within the remnant United Kingdom about nuclear weapons
To an extent, the nuclear debate might intensify as an adjunct to the UN Security Council issue: both nuclear weapons and the permanent seat at the UN are self-appointed prizes for the 1945 victors. Some might argue that if one status symbol is lost then doubt is cast over the other. There’s a more practical issue, though: the submarine-based nuclear deterrent is based in Scottish waters, and an independent Scottish government is almost certainly going to ask for its removal. The remnant UK will then need to make provisions for it to be hosted somewhere on its reduced coastline.
But where? It’s a brave local MP or council leader who’d gladly step forward in the bidding process, because any likely destination will be the centre of intense discontent and protest. It’s hard to imagine public petitions being formed by enthusiastic populations keen to win for their port town the prize of being first in line for annihilation at the hands of the enemy if nuclear war ever broke out. Whether you like nuclear weapons or not, it’s hard to disagree that the debate over where they move to will be a big one.
4. The retreat then resurgence of the English radical tradition
One often-made observation about Scottish independence is that it would give the Conservatives in the remnant UK a stronger hand. Minus its thirty or so Scottish MPs, including some of its leading lights, Labour will be instantly weakened in parliament. This is an argument against independence that you often hear from England. And yes, there will be dispair in the English left about an in-built, perhaps long-term majority for the centre-right. But realising that it has to stand on its own two feet, rather than relying on the Scottish Labour contingent, could be a great liberation for the English left. It will come back stronger, for sure.
And if you think about it, there is a great English radical tradition, possibly one of the deepest, longest and most effective in the world: from the Suffragettes and Chartists to the Manchester Patriotic Union and Greenham Common women, via the Cromwellians, the early trade unionists and the liberals and later Labour politicians who created the welfare state. England’s left will certainly take a hit in the early years of the newly-reformed United Kingdom, but a period of reflection about its beliefs, purpose and methods will see it become more confident, self-reliant and focussed on English priorities. Whether as part of a more left-leaning Labour Party or a new wave of activism, England’s left will become all the more noticeable in future.
5. Increased UK influence in the European Union
Yes, you read that right. The image of a dynamic, cooperative and engaging Scotland as a member of the EU alongside a curmudgeonly, insular and reactionary remnant UK is only half-right. Sure, Scotland will be welcomed as a constructive EU member in its own right, but the UK too will have to reassess its engagement in the light of this popular new kid on the block. Showing how a small British nation can be a positive team player in the EU will show its southern neighbour how it can be done. And on the doubtless regular occasions where Scotland and the UK agree on issues, their combined weight will pack a bigger punch than the UK as it currently stands. By working together where their interests overlap, Scotland and the UK both stand to gain much.
Those are my five suggestions of what might happen in the rest of the world once Scotland becomes independent. Do you have any other ideas – either positive or negative implications – to add? I am sure I could think of more, but five is a good round number for starters.
And as I said at the beginning of the post, it’s the implications for Scotland that will be the big determinant on how we vote in 2014.