Scotland’s Union with England can’t be compared with Brussels’ government of Britain. Scotland, England and Wales belong to each other by history and necessity.
Since Nicola Sturgeon announced her desire to hold a second Scottish independence referendum following last year’s vote for British independence from the EU, a number of commentators have accused pro-Brexit unionists of hypocrisy. They argue that it is hypocritical to support taking the UK out of the EU while being opposed to taking Scotland out of the UK. According to these commentators, the arguments that have been made against Scottish independence undermine the case for Brexit, while the arguments that have been made in favour of Brexit bolster the case for Scottish independence.
Here are the ways the cases differ. Here’s why there’s no hypocrisy in believing in a united Britain that governs itself.
The first and most trivial way in which Brexit and Scottish independence are not comparable concerns geography. Scotland, England and Wales are all situated on a single island, Britain.
As Dan Hannan notes, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he asked in his inaugural address: “Hath not God first united these kingdoms, both in language and religion and similitude of manners? Hath He not made us all in one island, compassed by one sea?” The UK is not a project – it’s a political recognition of what’s already there. Of course, the UK already has one land border: that separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. It’s a bad business, and it would be disadvantageous to create another. Except where they coincide with natural obstacles such as deserts, land borders are harder to control than coastlines. Britain’s natural borders have long afforded it protection against overseas threats.
The second way in which Brexit and Scottish independence are not comparable concerns economics.
While most economic forecasts predicted that Brexit would cut GDP per capita by 3–5% in the medium term, Britain’s economic situation with respect to the EU is much more favourable than Scotland’s with respect to the UK.
- First, the UK already uses a different currency from most of the EU, whereas Scotland does not have its own currency. Under current EU rules, if Scotland left the UK and applied to join the EU, it would have to commit to joining the Euro as well.
- Second, the UK’s net fiscal deficit is currently about 4% of GDP, whereas Scotland’s is currently about 10% of GDP – the largest of any EU country. As Tim Worstall notes, Scotland’s deficit is so large that it wouldn’t actually meet the EU’s accession criteria if it did apply to join.
- Third, EU exports represent only about 13% of the UK’s GDP, whereas Scottish exports to the rest of the UK represent about 39% of Scotland’s GDP. A substantial number of Scottish jobs would be at risk if Scotland left the UK.
- Fourth, the UK pays far more into the EU than it gets back. It has made a positive contribution in every year of its membership except 1975. In 2015, its net contribution was £10.7 billion or 0.5% of GDP – the fourth largest after the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. By contrast, Scotland is currently a large net recipient of UK government spending. Public expenditure per head is about £1,400 higher in Scotland than in the UK as a whole.
The third and most important way in which Brexit and Scottish independence are not comparable concerns identity. While very few people in the UK identify as European, a great many continue to identify as British. According to data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey, 58% of Scots and 68% of all UK citizens see themselves as British. By contrast, only 22% of Scots and less than 16% of all UK citizens see themselves as European.
The Scots and their fellow Britons not only speak the same language, shop at the same stores, follow the same sports, watch the same TV shows, and honour the same monarch. They also share a 300-year history, during which they sparked the industrial revolution, built a global empire, and liberated Europe from Napoleon and Hitler. Despite great mutual accord, no such historical affinity exists between Britons and their compatriots on the continent. Indeed, the continued existence of a British nation arguably constitutes the strongest argument against Scottish independence, whereas the clear absence of a Pan-European nation could be the strongest argument in favour of the UK governing itself.
There are significant differences between British independence from the EU, and Scottish secession from the UK. UK independence creates no new, troublesome land borders. Scotland’s economic situation with respect to the UK is much less favourable than Britain’s with respect to the EU. Finally – after centuries of living together – many people across both Scotland and the rest of the UK still see themselves as British, yet very few see themselves as European.
Noah Carl is a postdoctoral researcher of sociology at the University of Oxford.
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