A Less than Perfect Union

Alex Fine, JHU:

The United Kingdom is well on its way toward implosion.

Last September, Scottish voters took to the polls to decide in a national referendum if Scotland should break off and declare independence from the UK. This vote was inspired by a number of contentious issues between Scotland and the larger United Kingdom, including the ownership of oil and natural gas reserves in the North Sea, nuclear weapons stationed at British naval bases in Scottish ports and an increasingly conservative government in Westminster that ran contrary to the wishes of relatively left-leaning Scotland. Although the referendum was narrowly defeated, the vote spurred Scotland into a heightened sense of political awareness and national pride, notions which clearly persist 14 months later.

In May, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) trounced its opponents in the General Elections, winning the clear majority of seats in Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and, more shockingly, claiming 56 of 59 of Scottish seats in Westminster. Despite the majority of Scots voting “No” in 2014, since winning the election so decisively, several members of the SNP have vowed to hold a second independence referendum within the next five years.

Until the 1707 Acts of Union, Scotland and England were two nations with separate parliaments, an ever shifting border, and a long history of bitterness and bloodshed. Despite sharing a monarch since 1603, the two countries were distinct entities whose average citizens wanted nothing to do with one another. The Union intended to reconcile these differences by dissolving the Scottish legislature and forming a single parliament located in Westminster for the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

For the next three centuries, the individual constituents of the United Kingdom were represented in Westminster, but had little to no autonomy in their own countries. It was not until 1998 that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were granted the rights to create their own respective parliaments and manage domestic issues including taxation, education, and healthcare. These processes are collectively known as Devolution. Reserved matters, including international relations, trade, and defense spending, are still Westminster’s responsibility.

In a discussion last week, Scottish Parliamentarian and SNP party member Colin Beattie said there is reason to believe that there will be another referendum by 2017. The English government, he argued, has not made good on its promises to grant further devolutionary powers to Scotland, and polls suggest that more Scots want independence now than did in Fall 2014.

The topic that Beattie takes the most issue with, however, is a proposed referendum on the status of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. The referendum, scheduled to take place before the end of 2017, will determine whether or not the United Kingdom will remain a part of or leave the EU. As Scotland is overwhelmingly pro-EU, Beattie believes that such a referendum is grounds for yet another vote to decide if Scotland should declare independence.

Not all Scottish politicians are pro-independence. Scottish Parliamentarian and Labour party member Jayne Baxter is deeply disillusioned with the SNP and the talks of independence. A life- long socialist, Baxter advocates for a stronger welfare state in the UK. She believes that talks of independence only distract from, in her eyes, the more pressing matters of workers’ rights and the rise of the Conservative government in London. Unfortunately for her, Scotland voted Labour out of power in 2015. The party lost a net 24 seats in Westminster this past May, in addition to being a clear minority in Edinburgh since 2011. While Scottish voters remain divided on whether or not to declare Independence from England and the UK, it is clear that they believe the SNP is a more effective representation than Labour was.

Part of the problem lies in the make-up of the United Kingdom. England overwhelmingly dominates the Union, and as such, the country’s issues are consistently overrepresented in Parliament. An article in The Economist sums up the dilemma well:

“[The United Kingdom] is the only stable, rich country of its kind: one in which the population of one constituent part is much greater than all the others put together. California is 12% of the United States, Bavaria is 16% of Germany, Ontario is 38% of Canada, but England is 84% of the United Kingdom. The graveyard of nation states–the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia–point to the perils of being a country dominated by one part.”

Because of their relative under-representation, citizens of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland feel slighted by their lack of power in Parliament and consequently have demanded legislatures of their own. Currently, the United Kingdom’s policy of Devolution is seen as a form of Federalization. Each of the four members states of the UK have their own assemblies to discuss domestic issues, while the Westminster Parliament passes legislation on issues concerning the Union as a whole. It remains to be seen, however, if this strategy will prove effective as independence movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are growing.

The 2017 United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum will prove a trying moment in the history of the UK. If the conservative-leaning English voters choose en-masse to leave the EU, liberal voters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland may finally be tipped over the edge and choose to vote for independence, dismantling the United Kingdom in the process.


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