The tiny victory of the ‘no’ side reveals Scotland’s strong perception of its identity and frightens the international community.
In the 18 September Scottish independence referendum, a slight majority of those who participated in the referendum voted ‘no’. Indeed, the ‘no’ side won with a narrow advantage – 55% to the 45% of the ‘yes’ side – while turnout was around 84% of eligible voters. Scotland decided to stay in the United Kingdom, meeting the expectations of Westminster, despite a poll that shook the unionist side 10 days prior to the vote, predicting victory for the pro-independence side.
It was an emotional loss for the Scottish movement for independence, which has passionate support among some within the country. Situated in the framework of a long difficult relationship is the current Scottish question, led by Salmond and the Scottish National Party, whose victory in the 2011 elections strengthened the nationalists’ control of Holyrood and brought Scotland to the referendum.
It would appear that the issue of Scottish independence has had an impact not only on the future of the nation itself, but is relevant to the overall geopolitical arrangement of Europe. It is part of a more general trend that affects the integrity of Europe, pushing other ‘stateless nations’ to seek their own independence. Indeed, it is only one among a chain of regions in the Western democracies calling for independence, such as Flanders in Belgium, or Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain. In fact, Catalonia’s support to Scotland’s claim for independence shows the extent to which European secessionist movements are connected to one another and benefit from one another’s success.
The international and national press have long held a stance of general indifference towards the issue of Scottish independence. A shift in public discourse occurred in early 2014, when opinion polls signaled that the Scottish nationalist cause was exceeding expectations only a few weeks before the referendum, when a YouGov survey showed a sudden loss of 22 points for the ‘no’ side (Limes, Hulsman). This prompted politicians to re-evaluate their somewhat complacent attitude toward the referendum, on both national and international ground. In a public press conference on 5 June, American President Barack Obama expressed his concern, wishing that the UK would remain ‘a strong, robust, united and effective partner’.
Some days later, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Quekiang struck a similar tone on the occasion of a three-day trip to the UK, stating that PRC would ‘welcome a strong, prosperous, and united United Kingdom’. In his speech, the Chinese Premier pointed out his concern for the alleged implications that Scottish secession would have on separatist ambitions abroad, doubtless preoccupied with what the possibility that people could decide their own fate might mean for Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The political implications of the Scottish independence referendum highlight the fragility of the identitarian bond that links the states within the EU
The effects of the Scottish referendum have been felt far beyond London, as identified by the BBC monitoring report entitled ‘Scottish independence: World media suggests ‘domino effect’’, which shows the growing international press engagement on the matter. The shock stemming from the real possibility of a secession affecting the UK has its basis in the common and unquestionable assumption of a state’s continuity, as well as that of its indisputable borders and institutions. However, the official reactions of governments across the world sharply contrast the resonance that the referendum had among secessionist movements, such as those of Spain and of the Canadian province of Quebec.
The referendum led European governments to worry about a change in the geopolitical status quo of the European Union. A possible Scottish departure from the UK would have represented a decrease in the influence of a prominent ally for both the EU and the United States. The damage would have been visible not only in terms of international credibility, but the consequences would have also been felt in terms of defence policy. The UK without Scotland would mean a smaller British army, a different nuclear policy and, worth considering, is its potential impact on NATO. Furthermore, the threat of the success of the pro-independence camp has re-legitimized several secessionist movements in Europe, compelling local governments to take action. Despite the victory of the pro-unionist camp, the debate does not end here. Cameron’s draft law, meant to be ready by January 2015, aims to recognize many new Scottish powers. This action could lead London to concede further jurisdiction to Wales and Northern Ireland, and this would involve a radical change in the British domestic political and social balance.
On the other hand, Cameron has to balance the consequences stemming from new powers for Scotland. In the UK there are concerns related to the possible disadvantages this implies for the country. In fact, according to Conservative lawmaker James Wharton, as reported by Reuters, although England is the biggest British nation, it is the only region that does not enjoy any devolution of powers. Therefore, despite the tidy victory of the ‘no’ side at the polls, the level of uncertainty remains very high, and for the moment there is no definitive political solution on the horizon.
W. Walker, International Reactions to the Scottish Referendum, International Affairs 90: 4, 2014
M.Gillies, Londra Ballerà da sola?, in Limes, L’impero è Londra, p. 59-80,2014
Article written by Sabella Festa Campanile
For more on the topic of Scottish referendum, please check out the following article published in SEN: