Scotland’s Independence

Heading to Parliament


Scotland claims credit for inventing the telephone, television and penicillin, not to mention modern economics. Its people built ships, bridges and locomotives for the world and, more recently, Grand Theft Auto. In a September 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should break away to become Europe’s newest state, 55 percent voted to remain in the three-centuries-old United Kingdom with England and Wales. Rather than settling the matter, the nationalists on the losing side gathered strength and numbers, then became key power brokers by winning most of Scotland’s seats in the U.K. Parliament in the May 7 general election.

The Situation

Less than eight months after the referendum put politics back into pubs and living rooms, the movement that brought voters out in record numbers had evolved into a mass phenomenon. The Scottish National Party stole most districts from the Labour Party to capture all but three of the nation’s 59 seats and become the third-largest group in Westminster. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives won a surprise majority. After the referendum, the nationalists replaced leader Alex Salmond with his former deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who picked up the baton of challenging the U.K. government’s austerity. Sturgeon, who runs Scotland’s semi-autonomous government, says Scottish voters must have a louder voice in the U.K. Salmond, who won a seat in Parliament, is being portrayed by opponents as a bogeyman who could end up dictating the running of Britain. The nationalists say they want to promote equality – both in Scotland and in the broader U.K. — by raising taxes on the rich and increasing the minimum wage, while protecting the health service. The party’s membership quadrupled to more than 100,000 after the referendum — or about one in every 50 Scots.

Source: Scottish National Party
Source: Scottish National Party

The Background

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh was restored in 1999, with the U.K. government relinquishing oversight of education, transportation and health. The momentum of the secessionist campaign forced the U.K.’s main political parties to promise Scotland an accelerated plan for more financial powers — including control over income tax – to help keep it in the union. The new nationalist lawmakers now plan to descend on London to hold them to their word. The nationalists also want to remove Britain’s nuclear weapons from a deep sea loch in western Scotland. Independence movements are often about ethnic or linguistic splits, but just as frequently they’re about economics. The U.K. was formed by the Act of Union in 1707, as Scotland faced financial ruin after a failed project in Panama. Even after all the years of intertwining, the distinctions between the nations go beyond kilts and bagpipes. Scotland has 5.3 million people — less than a tenth of the U.K. total — yet historical differences means it has a separate legal system, its own soccer league and a Gaelic television channel.

Source: Scottish Government, U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change
Source: Scottish Government, U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change

The Argument

The election result provides a way for Scotland to use its unprecedented national influence to get more of what it wants from the U.K. or press for another vote on independence. The September referendum forced politicians on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall to map out what an independent Scotland would look like and debate whether it would be able to keep the British pound as its currency. Since its economy would be underpinned by North Sea oil, opponents of independence say the drop in oil prices since then proved voters were right to decide that there was too much risk in going it alone. They argue that Scotland needs to remain part of a larger country that has a greater say in the world. The secessionists say that self-determination would allow Scotland to pursue its own distinct economic and political path without having to pander to a U.K. that is centered in the southeast of England. They want an independent Scotland to be part of the European Union, a vision at odds with U.K. politicians pushing for a vote on leaving the bloc. Cameron has promised an EU referendum by the end of 2017.

The Reference Shelf

  • Interactive map of U.K. election results from 2015 and 2010. 
  • QuickTakes on Britain’s multiparty politics and the threat of a U.K. exit from the EU.
  • “What Scotland Thinks” blog from John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
  • Scottish National Party’s website and its manifesto for the 2015 general election.
  • Scotland made its case for independence in a series of government reports and the U.K. published a collection of research papers.
  • Research on independence referendums from Matt Qvortrup, a researcher at Cranfield University. 
  • “How Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book by Arthur Herman, a former professor of history at Georgetown University. 

First Published Feb. 14, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at