Scotland’s Independence Bid


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. Many Scots said they deserved to break away from the United Kingdom — and the 307-year-old union with England and Wales — to create Europe’s newest sovereign state. Scottish voters age 16 and over said “no” in a Sept. 18 referendum, settling the matter for now but hardly resolving it forever.

The Situation

After a record turnout, 55 percent of voters wanted to remain part of the U.K., with 45 percent favoring a split. The referendum was set in motion after the Scottish National Party won a surprise majority in the 2011 regional election as the pain of Britain’s austerity drive kicked in. Its leader, Alex Salmond, said his nation should emulate smaller European countries like Norway and control its own finances.  The pro-independence camp started out well behind in the polls but the gap closed as he portrayed a split as the best way to create jobs, promote equality and protect Scotland’s health service. After losing the vote, Salmond said he would step down, though the campaign more than tripled his party’s membership. Politicians on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall had been mapping out what an independent Scotland would look like. It has 5.3 million people — less than a tenth of the U.K. total — and an economy underpinned by the North Sea’s oil and gas fields. The Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999, with the U.K. government relinquishing control over education, transportation and health. Lawmakers want to direct a wider range of policies, from Scotland’s pensions to its passports. They also want to remove Britain’s nuclear weapons. The main U.K. political parties offered Scotland an accelerated plan for more financial power, including control over income tax, to help keep it in the union. Scots dissatisfied with the outcome may now press for faster change. The vote also has implications for other secessionist movements, like Catalonia’s, which plans to hold a ballot in November on leaving Spain.

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

The Background

Scotland’s vote was the 51st independence referendum worldwide since World War II. The first was Iceland’s break from Danish rule, with the latest creating South Sudan. There was a flurry in the 1990s as countries left the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fragmented. Voters favored secession in 27 cases, with 24 against. The French-speaking province of Quebec voted to remain part of Canada in 1980 and 1995, though only by a wafer-thin margin the second time. 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. It covered everything from the exchange of Scottish and English pounds to trade tariffs and movement of livestock. Even after all the years of intertwining, the distinctions between the nations go beyond kilts and bagpipes. The accent changes almost instantly and Scotland has a distinct legal system. While there’s only one currency, Scottish banks issue their own pound notes. There’s a separate soccer league and a Gaelic television channel.

The Argument

The “Better Together” campaign argued that  Scotland needed to remain part of a larger country that has a greater say in the world and can better withstand financial shocks. (Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland was the biggest recipient of U.K. taxpayer money in the 2008 banking bailouts.) Voting “no” also ensured it kept the British pound after the U.K. government ruled out sharing the currency with an independent Scotland. The British economy is growing again and unemployment is falling, so why change things? Many voters were wary of the uncertainty a breakaway would bring, especially around the currency. The “yes” campaign tapped emotions by arguing 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 on the southeast of England. Those arguments are likely to surface again.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg News outlined 10 of the main fault lines in the debate.
  • Scotland made its case for independence in a series of government reports.
  • The U.K. government’s collection of research papers on Scotland’s independence movement.
  • Research on independence referendums from Matt Qvortrup, a researcher at Cranfield University. 
  • “What Scotland Thinks” blog from John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde 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