The Great Unraveling: Scotland Decides Its Future … and the Future of Europe
September 18, 2014
Historians may come to see September 18th, 2014 as the accidental beginning of the long-term unwinding of the great European integration project that was birthed from the ashes of two world wars in the 20th century.
As in 1914, will Europe once again “sleepwalk” into a period of destabilization and fragmentation, as former British Prime Minister John Major presciently warned?
The sleepwalking began in 1997 with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s overwhelming victory in general elections and his promise to devolve powers back to Scotland. In 1999, the Scottish Parliament was seated for the first time since 1707, and in 2001 the Scottish Act was signed, officially devolving powers in healthcare, education, economic development, and local governance from London to Edinburgh.
As Scotland began to enjoy its first taste of greater autonomy, the unimaginable happened: the Scottish National Party (SNP) narrowly beat the Scottish Labour Party and won the 2007 Scottish elections. Traditionally, Scotland has always been a Labour Party stronghold, and Britain was stunned to see Scottish nationalism emerge as a leading political force in the region. Consequently, Westminster failed to comprehend that the outlines of the independence referendum had already been drawn. In the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, the unthinkable occurred again: SNP won a decisive victory and its charismatic pro-independence leader, Alex Salmond, received his popular mandate. The quest for Scottish independence had formally begun.
Prime Minister David Cameron slowly began to realize in early 2012 that the “Scottish question” needed to be “clarified,” and sought to end this issue once and for all by pressing Scots to make a decisive and irrevocable choice. In October 2012 Prime Minister Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement, which allowed an independence referendum to take place in the fall of 2014 with the yes-or-no question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” London was confident the answer would be a resounding “no,” and public opinion polls suggested a yawning gap between those who supported independence and those who were opposed. It was unfathomable that the referendum would gain any significant momentum.
Following the Edinburgh Agreement, the SNP released elaborate documents detailing how an independent Scotland would be a viable and self-sustaining country based on extraordinary built-in assumptions. London tapped Labour technocrat and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, to lead the “Better Together” campaign to counter the SNP’s arguments for independence. Both sides clumsily addressed critical issues; Minister Salmond provided contradictory responses on Scotland’s ability to keep the pound sterling as its currency if it were to secede, and London’s shrill and fear-filled criticism of Scotland’s economic future outside of the UK only fueled nationalistic sentiment and anti-British resentment.
The unimaginable has now happened yet again. The referendum vote is too close to call. The consensus around the most recent set of polls has the “no” vote at 51%- 52% and the “yes” vote at between 48% - 49%. On the eve of the referendum, polling suggests that the momentum is on the side of the “yes” vote. Although we must wait to see if any of these polls are accurate or predictive, it is clear that there will be a historic voter turnout, with some analysts predicting figures as high as 97% of registered voters.
When a September 6th YouGov poll showed for the first time that the “yes” vote had overtaken the “no” camp, London fully awoke from its slumber and realized it was in the throes of a political nightmare. The leaders from Britain’s three main political parties dashed to Scotland to convince the Scottish people that they should remain in the union. In a clear sign of how far the political situation had deteriorated, Labour Leader Ed Miliband was booed by “yes” vote supporters and forced to hastily depart a public venue. In full panic, London promised to award Scotland more devolved powers should it vote against independence – an offer which is now encountering political resistence from English Members of Parliament.
These last ditch efforts to dissuade Scots from seceding have been criticized as offering “too little, too late,” and may themselves have damning consequences for the United Kingdom and its future. The Scottish referendum has triggered a great awakening of nationalism—not just in Scotland but across the rest of the country—and even if the referendum fails to pass, a dangerous political process has been unleashed that cannot be reversed. Should Scotland remain in the union and receive greater autonomy over its internal affairs, Wales and Northern Ireland may follow suit and demand similar arrangements—potentially reigniting political violence in fragile Northern Ireland. Delicate constitutional questions which have been pushed to the side are now being openly debated, none of which have easy political answers and will further exacerbate intra-union tensions.
Furthermore, the SNP—emboldened by its historic political momentum—would only continue to work toward full independence regardless of whether or not it receives expanded powers, although it is highly unlikely that a British Prime Minister will readily agree to another plebiscite. Ironically, as the Scots seek to have their say, the Cameron government seeks a plebiscite of its own with a pledged a ‘yes-or-no’ referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain part of or withdraw from a reformed European Union in 2017. Growing EU-skepticism in England sharply contrasts with the Scottish preference to remain closely engaged with the EU. The differences between Scotland and Westminster will only deepen.
Internationally, the Scottish referendum is being watched closely in the Spanish province of Catalonia, where the regional government is seeking to hold a public consultation on November 9th about its future relationship within Spain. The Spanish constitution forbids holding independence referenda, however, and Madrid has vowed that it will not permit Catalonia to proceed. Other European regions, such the Northern Italian region of the Veneto, are also considering secession. In March, a Venetian nationalist organization held a private and unofficial on-line independence poll in which over two million votes were cast (equivalent to 63.23% of all eligible Venetian voters); 89.1% of those votes were in favor of independence from Rome.
Why has nationalism returned to Europe with such a vengeance? Although each country has its own unique set of historical and cultural circumstances, there appears to be a common thread: a backlash against globalization which has been exacerbated by Europe’s prolonged economic malaise. Globalization requires closer economic and political integration; its rejection employs the opposite forces of disintegration.
The large institutional structures of the 21st century which seem so distant from the day-to-day realities and challenges of the average citizen (whether it is the European Union or the United Kingdom) are being increasingly rejected for smaller, more authentic (and unfortunately ethnocentric) forms of government, with the hope that they will be more responsive to local issues. This type of nationalism is, in many ways, an expression of fear: fear of others (namely immigrants), fear of domination by another country, and fear of economic and political uncertainty. Fear drives irrationality and, watching the developments in Scotland over these past several months, both sides have appeared illogical and irrational in this debate.
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this story is that neither London nor Washington (nor other European capitals for that matter) have made any meaningful preparations should Scotland vote for independence. Both capitals simply discounted the possibility that Scotland would be so illogical as to economically harm itself in an increasingly globalized world. This same misguided transatlantic logic was applied earlier this year to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine. It was unthinkable that Putin would take such a risky move and so greatly damage the Russian economy. The illogic of nationalism and historic grievance—and in the case of Russia, the illogic of aggression—has fully returned to Europe and must be addressed.
While President Obama simultaneously juggles the threat from ISIS, the international consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the Ebola outbreak, the United States is, bit by bit, losing its most effective international partner to an all-absorbing internal issue for the foreseeable future. Lack of full British engagement internationally will impact the United States’ efforts to build a coalition to counter ISIS; NATO’s resolve; and further complicate EU-UK relations. Continued economic and political uncertainty surrounding both Scotland’s future in the UK and the UK’s future in the EU will continue unabated regardless of referendum outcome. The United States has so much to lose and yet it has not adequately prepared for this eventuality. Washington has been caught napping as well.
What The Guns of August was to the world in 1914 may be what the Scottish referendum of September could be to an increasingly fragmented Europe in 2014. Tragically, the United Kingdom sleepwalked right into it…and, as is always the case, Europe and the United States will pay a great price.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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