The Debate Rumbles On

So let's take another look at the arguments in favour of a United Kingdom.

by Peter Russell

It was, of course, too much to hope that the SNP and its supporters would accept the outcome of the independence referendum as having settled the issue for ‘a generation’ or ‘a lifetime’ (although that is what they said at the time). However, the extended nature of the debate does allow for examination of some of its component ideas. One such idea is that it is ‘the natural condition of a nation to be self-governing’. To the Nationalist, this is of course an article of faith, as is its immediate application, i.e., that Scotland is a nation, and ipso facto, Scotland should govern itself.

However, there are two huge failings in this argument. The first is that a nation does not become one simply by wishing it or defining it as such in one’s own terms. Having a flag is not enough: each US state has its own flag (and anthem and Great Seal, and even its own state bird) without being a nation state. Likewise in other devolved and federal states: even when its components are vested with considerable powers, they are subsumed within a greater whole: in provincial Canada, in cantonal Switzerland and in federal Germany.

The other argument is functional. The question is: how does a territory operate as an independent actor, in its economy, and in its consequential politics? Again, the analogy of the USA or those other devolved and federal states is useful: in each of them, there is a common currency, a common workforce, a common market and common access to resources. These are the four Ms, or classic components, of a unitary economy: Money, Manpower, Markets and Materials.

It is does not follow from this, of course, that Scotland could not function independently from the rest of the UK: just that it in doing so it would lose automatic access to wider and greater sources of each: capital for investment, a workforce without visa, passport and qualification equivalence requirements, larger numbers of potential customers and their wholesale networks, and — now increasingly — the knowledge economy which represents modern resources. 

Here the watchword is not only ‘access’ but also ‘automatic’.

Within the single nation state UK economy, Scotland has access to the pound sterling, no if or buts; but, as was made clear in the independence debate, the remainder UK would take a lot of convincing to include a separate Scotland with different economic policies in a putative future sterling area. It is more likely that they would choose a short term quantifiable hit through losing Scotland to an indefinite and unquantifiable risk of keeping it within an asymmetrical currency union.

Investors would then make their decisions accordingly. Likewise, the workforce policy of the independence White Paper was for greater immigration than to the remainder UK. Again, such a process would be difficult, especially in the light of the desperation of many to reach England, specifically. In such circumstances a more liberal Scottish policy could easily lead to the need for a formal and perhaps closed border. 

In these examples, which could be expanded to include markets and materials, the automatic access enjoyed in the UK would become conditional and transactional for an independent Scotland. In some cases, this might be covered by EU membership (if Scotland were allowed membership and if the UK votes to remain in membership), and indeed none is insurmountable. The point is that automatic access would have been lost, and with it extra transactional procedures incurred, with lesser and greater degrees of frictional inconvenience and costs.

This exposes possibly one of the greatest of values of the UK, and one of the greatest threats of independence: the value of co-operation and collaboration. This is as true in many other fields as it is in the economy, and stems from a fact so simple that it can be overlooked and taken for granted: throughout its development to a modern society, Scotland has been part of the UK.

This process started with the Glorious Revolution, which cemented the idea of a state founded on common sovereignty rather than on absolutism – which was imported from the Netherlands by William of Orange and Mary Stuart (of that Scottish dynasty). Shortly after, this same principle was accepted by the Scots under Treaty of Union, and, since 1707, the entire parliamentary system has evolved and adapted itself as a means of governance of all parts of the UK: the Reform Acts, Lords reform, universal suffrage, votes at 18, devolution have all contributed to this organically (if sometimes, as in the latter case, unevenly) across all parts of the UK.

It follows that, despite the continuation of a separate legal system and religious settlement, Scotland has shared in the development of the widest possible range of governmental and non-governmental institutions.

In economic development, for example, Cluster Theory, as described by Michael Porter, it is the combination of the various elements that matters as much as do the elements themselves, as value is added all along the production chain. The same principle can be seen to apply through a wider range of activities. The same applies in various fractal degrees in the armed forces, in large and medium-sized companies, supply chains within industries and so on. 

A further great example is the scientific research community, as was shown brilliantly in the referendum campaign by Professor Hugh Pennington and his Better Together colleagues: a research community which has developed over decades and centuries together will have a structure which suits its size perfectly, and within which Scotland’s institutions have prospered disproportionately. These scientists are direct descendants of Adam Smith, who in 1759 was one of the first to visit the newly opened British Museum, because he had free access to the finest collection in Europe; or of Sir Alexander Fleming, who took his Scottish genius to London, where he discovered penicillin, which  was developed and refined at St Mary’s, Paddington. 

Likewise, the voluntary sector includes many organisations which are ‘UK’ designated or ‘Royal National’ which have grown up as UK-wide and therefore this is their best fit. Finally, another great example is sport. If Scottish athletes – from Kenny Dalglish to Sir Chris Hoy – reach world class in the modern world, it is through their status in the UK rather than in Scotland. 

There is no doubt that in all of these fields, Scots could succeed: to deny that would be to accept the assertion of John Swinney of the SNP that we are too ‘too wee, too  poor, too stupid’. However, to set ourselves aside from the UK would be the height of folly. Not only would there be substantial set up and other frictional costs, but the scale and the connectedness of the UK as it stands, with automatic access to shared resources, is a significant competitive advantage. It is the difference between getting by separately and thriving as part of the union. 

For most functional purposes, Scotland ceased to be nation in 1707, when it became part of the UK, and from which process it has gained and prospered. Therefore Scotland’s natural state of self-government is that exercised through Westminster. We are and will remain Better Together.

The author’s blog is Planet Pedro! at

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