clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Scottish independence is a bad idea

A Scottish flag flies over 10 Downing Street
A Scottish flag flies over 10 Downing Street
Peter Macdiarmid

I love Scotland. It is the current home of both of my parents, one of my sisters, and all of my fond memories of college. It's where I learned that reeling is fun (though woe betide the toes of anyone with the misfortune to partner me); that if you lead tourists into the tunnels below Edinburgh, one of them will eventually faint; and that haggis is, if not good exactly, surprisingly okay.

On September 18, Scottish voters will decide whether to become independent from the UK. Because Scotland is such a thoroughly wonderful place, my adoration of it is almost enough for me to get swept up in the romance of its independence campaign, which recent polls suggest may have a chance of succeeding. Almost.

But not quite. Because the reality is that independence would expose Scotland to big, unnecessary risks. There are two major categories of risks that Scottish independence would bring: risks associated with becoming independent — things that Scotland could lose during the process of "divorce" from the UK — and risks associated with being independent once the separation is complete. In both categories, the risks are serious enough that I don't see how the benefits of independence outweigh them.

Breaking up is hard to do

Glencoe deer

This deer near Glencoe, Scotland seems skeptical of the arguments for independence. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Let's start with the divorce. There are a lot of ways that could go wrong. Right now, Scotland has relatively few purely "Scottish" institutions. Its universities are full of students from the rest of the UK. Its banks relied on London for a bailout when the financial crisis hit. Its research labs rely on UK funding, its wind farms on subsidies administered by Westminster. I could go on, but you get the idea. It's hardly surprising that Scotland's economy and institutions act like they're part of the UK, because, you know, they currently are.

But that means that the process of separating out from the UK could be very, very messy. The Royal Bank of Scotland says that it would relocate its headquarters to London in the event of a "yes" vote on independence. (No word yet on whether it would change its name to the Royal Bank of We Sure Are Grateful for that Bailout.) The green energy sector says that investment in wind power could stagnate for years due to uncertainty over the future of the current subsidy scheme. Scottish universities are worried that they wouldn't be able to obtain research funding from their current sources and that their best scholars would leave. It's unclear how much of the UK's national debt Scotland would be saddled with, or whether independence would lead to costly litigation over the North Sea oil fields. It's true that all of those things might work out in Scotland's favor — but then again, they might not.

The challenges of being independent

Arran seal

This seal on the island of Arran looks concerned about the ramifications of keeping the pound (UIG/Getty Images)

And then there are the problems with actually being an independent country. The issue that has gotten the most attention is what currency an independent Scotland would use for its money. The Scottish independence movement has made clear that it wants to keep using the pound, which would mean that Scotland would be at the mercy of the UK's monetary policy. Even setting aside the lessons of the Eurozone's recent history on whether it's a good idea for small countries to rely on a currency union they don't control (it's not) this is an astonishing plan in the context of the broader arguments for independence. If the pro-independence crowd thinks that the UK is screwing Scotland now, why would it be a good idea for the UK to have control over Scotland's currency, but no democratic accountability or responsibility for its economy at all whatsoever?

The second option would be for Scotland to join the euro — as Vox's Matt Yglesias points out, that may turn out to be mandatory if Scotland joins the EU — but joining the Eurozone would risk even more severe problems, because the Eurozone has already proven itself to be an economic calamity.

A newly independent Scotland would also be more vulnerable to economic shocks that arise from circumstances beyond its control, such as if North Sea oil reserves run out sooner than anticipated, or if the price of oil falls. It is of course possible that there's plenty of oil left and its value will remain high, but it's still a risk — and one that Scotland will have greater exposure to as an independent country than as part of the UK.

Is it worth the risk?

Highland cows

These highland cows seem like they're saying "if you love something, set it free. Unless it's Scotland, in which case remaining in the union seems like a sensible bet."  (Domaine de la Ganne)

Most of the pro-independence arguments rely on claims that those issues will work out in Scotland's favor — that they'll keep the pound and it will go fine, that there's plenty of oil, that independence will have an invigorating effect on the business sector — but that still leaves us with the question of why Scotland should expose itself to the risk that those predictions might be wrong.

There's no reason to accept the possibility of great losses unless it's in exchange for a possibility of great gains. And the gains from Scottish independence are just not that clear to me. It's not as if the Scots are fleeing persecution — they just have legitimate political differences with the rest of the UK. While independence would give Scotland more room to implement policies that reflect Scottish voters' preferences than it has now, remaining in the union probably would too, because the UK's major political parties have all pledged to grant Scotland greater control over its own affairs if it stays in the UK.

Remaining in the union, by contrast, would mean that Scotland could avoid the "divorce" risks entirely, and that it would have more protection against some of the others, such as the uncertainty about oil reserves. That seems like a much better way to protect Scottish interests than independence does — even if it's a lot less exciting.

Read more:

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.