Scotland: a never-ending in-dependence, between democracy and self-determination
DI GIORGIA DEGLI ESPOSTI VENTURI
Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Scotland National Party (SNP) has been pushing for independence and a willingness to return to the European Union, with waves of consent often hard to ignore. Today, this feeling seems not yet to be dormant: is a new wave of independentism taking place in the region?
The history of the United Kingdom does not go unnoticed in terms of conflicts of independence and internal struggles. Ireland is probably the clearest and most painful example of how the British area has suffered and still suffers because of a political and administrative concentration of powers that has not always been well see and accepted by local population. The feeling seems to be ancestral and shared by many, including Scotland.
An historical link
The historical lines of Scotland and England have always been linked not only by geographical proximity, but enhanced by a succession of marriages and unions between the ruling houses of the two countries. For over 700 years, history saw the creation of bonds, the escalation of conflicts, invasions and reconciliations, with waves of alternating confidence and hostility towards the British neighbor.
The fundamental turning point arrived in 1707: on the 1st of May, both English and Scottish Parliaments signed the Act of Union, by which Scotland officially became part of a united kingdom, the Great Britain. The political consequences of the treaty were immediate, as Scotland lost its independence and the Scottish parliament ceased to exist. Legislative control moved into the hands of the English Parliament (now the Parliament of Great Britain), in which Scottish representatives were introduced. It was an absorption that did not meet the support of the Scottish population, with anti-unionist riots taking place especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Later, in 1800 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was founded. A strong discontent of a consistent part of the Scottish population, however, emerged with great force after the First World War, in the wake of what was happening in neighboring Ireland: a new wave of emancipation, driven by the economic crisis that was crossing Scotland, shook the country, but still it was not powerful enough to call for real change. The first time the citizens of Scotland showed a concrete will to take back more space from the British crown was in 1978, when the Labour Government called a first referendum aiming at greater autonomy. Resulting in a failure, over time the consensus still increased.
The devolution process
11 September 1997 came, with a referendum which led to the re-institution of a Scottish Parliament, with 74% of voters in favor, deciding for the Parliament having also power over determining income taxes. This was realized in the Scotland Act of 1998, that also created the Scottish Parliament and established a national government, giving political power to Scottish ministers, with the establishment of the matters over which the legislative power had to remain in the UK domain (reserved matters: constitution, defense, foreign affairs, economics and finance, energy regulation, immigration, social security…). Another Scotland Act followed in 2012, with modifications to the previous one and more devolutions recognized to the country. We can contextualize this changes as part of the so called devolution process: the decentralization of the decision making processes in the United Kingdom to give citizens a better local representation, involving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Given the bulwark of hope given by previous reforms obtained, the significant cultural differentiation with the rest of the UK (i.e. the Gaelic language) and a national identity that has always remained fervent in the country, the Scottish desire for independence has not ceased to proliferate. In 2014, a referendum on Scottish independence was called, with the approval of the Conservative Prime Minister Cameron: the idea was that the Scottish independence movement was too weak to win. In the mean time, The Vowwas published, a manifesto signed by the leaders of the major English parties with promises about constitutional reforms and concessions of greater autonomy to the country if it had remained in the UK.
Should Scotland be an independent country? this was the question to which 44.7% of the Scottish population answered with a yes. This extremely divisive result did not lead to a process of independence, but showed distinctively the strength of the pro-independence movement and of the SNP (Scottish National Party), in government since 2007. As a consequence, the Scotland Act of 2016 was implemented, giving the Scottish Parliament greater powers, mostly in financial matters.
With Brexit, new troubles
However, what has led to an exacerbation of the already existing rift between UK and Scotland is certainly the exit of the UK from the European Union, with Brexit in 2016. The fundamental reason that Scottish nationalists have rekindled the attention of Scottish independence is linked to the "forced" exit from the EU the country had to face (the so called hard Brexit). Scotland was the country where consent to leave the Union was the lowest recorded (only 38% in favor of Brexit). This clearly did not prevent the British Government from finalizing the decision of the UK’s exiting the EU, but Scotland felt it was deprived of benefits the citizens did not want to give up. Scotland lost all his 6 representatives in the European Parliament and key privileges such as access to European funds, from which the country had benefited in previous years.
Riding the wave of discontent Nicola Sturgeon, then Prime Minister of Scotland, proposed the held of a new secessionist referendum. She requested it based on the same clause of the Scotland Act of 1998 that allowed to bring the population to referendum in 2014.
A boycott to independence?
The promised referendum for 19 October 2023 was not held: the English Supreme Court declared that Scotland cannot hold a referendum for independence without the green light from the London Parliament. The court appealed to the need to involve London as this is a decision with potentially pervasive effects across the UK. The SNP, however, continues to invoke it as a right: the results obtained in 2014 can no longer be considered valid, as with the Brexit the position of the Scots has changed. There is currently not enough support within the English parliament for the referendum proposal to be accepted, with the SNP in opposition to a conservative government.
Democracy and auto-determination
The debate on the lawfulness of the court’s decision, along with the never-ending dispute between independentists and unionists, is increasingly heated and it stimulates reflections on democracy, and the principle of self-determination of populations. Sionaidh Douglas-Scott (Oxford University) in 2022 wrote an interesting analysis of UK’s behavior legitimacy towards Scotland. First of all, there is consent to be taken into consideration: the union between Scotland and England is a voluntary union declared from both countries in 1707. As that, for the union to remain lawful as voluntary there must be no manifestation of other will. Then there is the matter of self-determination, considered a fundamental right from the International Law and protected by the UN charter. “Where there is a desire for self-determination, consent to continue a relationship may be withdrawn”, writes professor Douglas-Scott; this principle seems not to be respected by UK’s government. Always in the wake of the principle of consensus, the change of circumstances represented by Brexit would be enough to require a confirmation of this unionist will, which can not be considered still confirmed by 2014 referendum given 2016 developments. Can changes in circumstances nullify agreements? The UK is as well accused of not acting according to the principle of good-faith, as UK constitutional law would require in its relationship with Scotland. For Douglas-Scott, listening to Scotland’s referendum demands would be necessary according to good-faith.
In recent years, the SNP government has been accused of neglecting too many internal issues to devote itself to the issue of independence, becoming target of criticism and discontent. At the same time, the independentist movement relies on the lack of autonomy of the country as a cause of the ineffectiveness of the government, which seems to have no room to act in the real interest of the population.
So has the Brexit referendum been democratic to the Scottish population? Has the country the right to decide for a secession and would it be beneficial?
The subject id divisive among legal experts. The only thing we can give for sure is that, if the future of Scotland and its secessionist sentiment were to flourish, the repercussions on the international sphere would be enormous: Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Basque Country, Corse, Istria, Flanders and many other smaller pro-independence movements may be ready to speak up.