“My Civil War”: Breakaway Scottish Independence
Posted on 8th August 2022 at 16:17
By Sebastian Grace
This piece was inspired by Dr Jessica Stern's thought exercise assignment for students in her classes at Northeastern University and elsewhere, and later adopted by Dr's Mladen and Dennis of the Balkan Puzzles Dialogue of Civilizations Program at Northeastern University.
To imagine a civil war after five weeks in the Western Balkans is a dark task given the all too recent painful history of violence in the region. While solely hypothetical, it was too much of a stretch, even with this recent context, to picture a similar breakdown of societal fabric in my town, the sleepy suburb of Birmingham that I call home. However, though painful to admit, it was much easier to picture said conflict just a few hours’ drive to the north – a civil war over Scotland.
The United Kingdom has an ancient past and a shaky future, and the issue of Scottish and English coexistence in a larger Britain has been contested for centuries in London, Edinburgh, the Borderlands (see map below) and beyond. George Orwell, one of the Union’s finest literary exports, wrote in one edition of his “As I Please” series for the Tribune newspaper, "Up to date the Scottish Nationalist movement seems to have gone almost unnoticed in England . . . It is true that it is a small movement, but it could grow, because there is a basis for it … Scotland has a case against England.” In this brief, offhand evaluation of the day's politics, Orwell captures the essence of Scottish nationalist gripes with the English-dominated status quo and the fuel of political cleavage from which a civil war in mainland Britain could burn.
Constitutional disputes, political gridlock and institutional dissolution are often catalysts for the breakdown of states into civil war, and each is fundamental to the Scottish independence question. For context : in September 2014, the Scottish people rejected independence. A 55 to 45 per cent result was clear enough while also allowing independence supporters the hope that the issue was not settled once and for all. The SNP, the Scottish National Party, won 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies at the general election the following year. However, it was accepted - even by Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and the leader of the SNP - that an election victory on this scale could not change a recently established constitutional reality, and there were no grounds for another referendum. The SNP acknowledged that there would need to be significant and prolonged support for independence to force the issue back onto the agenda, something like 60 per cent support for at least six months, which the cause has never yet managed to attract. Sturgeon insists secession must be lawful and therefore recognized by the international community. That means a referendum must have the consent of the Scottish people and, crucially, the British Government, who maintain a 'not never, but not now' stance.
So, there will be no referendum this year or the next, but as for the future, who knows? Will the electoral dominance of the SNP grant them the unilateral right to ask the same question again and again until Scotland's weary and mostly apathetic people give Sturgeon the answer she desires? Since the independence referendum in 2014, an inevitably has surrounded debates regarding Scotland's future outside the United Kingdom, with the politics of the nation-state overwhelmingly tilted towards a second, successful vote and ultimate secession. Tom McTague wrote in The Atlantic that “The grim reality for Britain as it faces up to 2022 is that no other major power on Earth stands quite as close to its own dissolution…. [Today, it faces] something close to a spiritual crisis…The overwhelming sense that I came away with from my time in Scotland was one of loss, not enduring stability.”
Civil wars are often expedited by momentous, seemingly unrelated, external events. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in 2016 is potentially one such event. While far from guaranteed, the economic devastation, a breakdown of order and socio-political stasis caused by such a momentous event as breakaway Scottish independence would outweigh anything similar post the Brexit vote in 2016. However, the two are indeed connected. More than 60 per cent of Scots under 50 support independence, while increasingly, those in Government and elsewhere south of the border couldn't care less. Brexiteers don't think the Union is as important as their Brexit project. 80 percent of Leave voters in England considered Brexit more important than the Northern Irish peace process or the Union.
Brexit has reanimated an independence movement that would otherwise have had nowhere to go. This lack of commitment to the Union is perilous. The United Kingdom remains an unsettled, disputed place, and Brexit further complicates matters and contributes to this uncertainty. Seven in ten think there is at least a fair amount of tension in Britain between people of different races and nationalities, and one in five say there is a great deal of tension. Similarities with the Western Balkans region abound. The United Kingdom is a deeply unusual country - four nations within one - and many overlapping identities are evident on the island. Contested identity is often the predominant cause of conflict over which civil wars are fought, mainly when exploited in us vs them political debates amid societal fracturing born from poor economic conditions and low quality of life. Scotland would emerge from any breakaway in a fragile economic position , the ultimate arbiter for holistic quality of life in the country.
Staying in the UK has been worth about £10bn a year for Scotland, and the share of redistributed UK taxes is equivalent to the entire nation's hospital budget. Losing it, alongside all the other costs of setting up a new state, would lead to an austerity that would be a colossal and cruel price to pay for independence. The SNP needs detailed plans that it failed to present in 2014 for: a new border to manage with Scotland’s biggest trading partner ; operating for years as the only advanced economy in the world without its own currency or a central bank ; the subsequent establishment of a new unproven currency that will have to be defended in international markets; and managing the overnight loss of close to 15 percent of all public funding. As a result, leaving the UK is a complex and immensely challenging prospect, likely to cast the Scottish people into pariah status with minimal state apparatus available to assist with the breakaway transition and a less than certain future. The realities of an independent Scotland do not make pleasant reading.
Violent incidents in the lead-up to civil war could occur through the actions of extreme nationalist groups in response to these issues, encouraged by political parties who see their actions as politically expedient. One example is All Under One Banner, who march through Scotland and meet to cos-play as Robert the Bruce and sing songs about English and Scots killing each other. Under Sturgeon's leadership, the SNP are again attending events alongside groups they have previously banned or shunned. Another example is Siol nan Gaidheal, the fascistic group banned from the SNP decades ago who now provide the banners that SNP ministers march behind.
This type of political polarization is another critical indicator of emerging civil war. A second referendum is also exploited for political gain in England, even though using the Scottish independence issue as a political football is equally dangerous and reckless. After the recent demise of Boris Johnson’s premiership, a two-horse race for No.10 Downing Street has emerged. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss see the question of Scotland's future as a valuable tool for warming the coals of the Conservative Party's nationalist base. Consider the following from Liz Truss: “I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her. I’m sorry - she’s an attention seeker,” and Rishi Sunak, in response: "Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pose an existential threat to our cherished Union... We can't just bury our heads in the sand and pretend they aren’t there – we need to stop them in their tracks.” This disrespectful posturing will spark a wave of dangerous anger in everyday Scots everywhere and serves only to weaponize the ostracizing rhetoric of division in England.
However, it remains important to distinguish between reality and rhetoric. The concept of Scottish independence remains a delusionary pipe dream for only the most ardent of Scottish nationalists. Unionism has been resilient in the face of crises like COVID-19, and Sturgeon's haste to prompt a second referendum is at odds with a far more relaxed electorate. Many voters, even if they might be open-minded about leaving the UK, are in no hurry to be plunged back into the animosity and aggravation of another referendum. Less than a third of SNP voters list independence among their top five priorities. Nicola Sturgeon cannot have a second referendum on independence because, despite winning election after election, Scottish people do not want one. The English are Scotland's largest minority (more than half a million people born in England live in Scotland) and the two nations share many similarities, of popular culture, for example. As always, the majority is most silent, and this increased assimilation makes civil war, truly, almost impossible to imagine. Almost.
In conclusion, Scottish independence is a distant reality, but its loudest opposing sides remain real, reckless, and debilitating players in the politics of the Union. While purely hypothetical, the impacts of a hard Scottish breakaway from the United Kingdom would likely lead to a mass exodus of people both ways, economic devastation, and international destabilization - ripe conditions for the violent agitations of extreme nationalists on either side of the border.
Jamieson, Alastair. “Sturgeon Admits Border Checks Will Be among Post-Independence 'Issues'.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 14 Jun. 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nicola-sturgeon-border-independence-scotland-b2100721.html.
Eardley, Nick. “Scottish Independence: The Scots in England Who Want Scotland to Go It Alone.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Aug. 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27655496.
Green, Chris. “Scottish Independence Will Result in a Trade Border with England, Says Nicola Sturgeon.” Inews.co.uk, 14 Jun. 2022, https://inews.co.uk/news/scotland/scottish-independence-trade-border-england-nicola-sturgeon-1686387.
Scotland, History. “'Idly Sauntering and Lithering about': The Scots in Early Modern England.” History Scotland, 2 Aug. 2021, https://www.historyscotland.com/history/idly-sauntering-and-lithering-about-the-scots-in-early-modern-england/.
Smith, Alison. “Here's an Impartial Take on What Independence Would Mean for the Scotland-England Border – Dr Alison Smith.” The Scotsman, 14 Feb. 2022, https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/what-independence-would-mean-for-the-scotland-england-border-dr-alison-smith-3567229.
Phillips, David. “What Might the Public Finances of an Independent Scotland Look like?” Economics Observatory, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.economicsobservatory.com/what-might-the-public-finances-of-an-independent-scotland-look-like.
McTague, Tom. “How Britain Falls Apart.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 26 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/01/will-britain-survive/621095/.
Matchett, Conor. “Would a UK/Scotland Common Currency Work after a Vote for Scottish Independence?” The Scotsman, 5 Aug. 2022, https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/how-would-a-common-currency-work-post-scottish-independence-3794389.
Mackay, Neil. “Neil Mackay: Can Sturgeon Harness Economic Fury to Secure Scottish Independence?” HeraldScotland, 5 Aug. 2022, https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/20603930.neil-mackay-can-sturgeon-harness-economic-fury-secure-scottish-independence/.
Learmouth, Andrew. “Sunak: 'SNP Are an Existential Threat to the Union'”, The Herald, HeraldScotland, 5 Aug. 2022, https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/20605233.sunak-snp-existential-threat-union/.
Carrell, Severin. “Liz Truss Dismissal of 'Attention Seeker' Sturgeon Will Horrify Scots, Says SNP.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Aug. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/02/liz-truss-dismissal-of-attention-seeker-sturgeon-will-horrify-scots-says-snp.
Paun, Akash, and Jess Sargeant. “Scottish Independence | The Institute for Government.” Institute for Government, 30 Jun. 2022, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/scottish-independence.
News, BBC. “Scottish Independence: Will There Be a Second Referendum?” BBC News, BBC, 21 Jul. 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-50813510.
Coldstream. “Nervous Times on the Scottish Border.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 1 May 2021, https://www.economist.com/britain/2021/05/01/nervous-times-on-the-scottish-border.
Hayward, Professor Katy, and Professor Nicola McEwen. "An EU Border across Britain: Scotland's Borders after Independence." The UK in a Changing Europe, 8 Feb. 2022, https://ukandeu.ac.uk/research-papers/an-eu-border-across-britain-scotlands-borders-after-independence/.
Huang, Hanwei, et al. “Brexit, Trade and Scottish Independence.” CEP - Centre for Economic Performance, The London School of Economics, 3 Feb. 2021, https://cep.lse.ac.uk/_NEW/PUBLICATIONS/abstract.asp?index=7723.
Frum, David. “How Scottish Independence Could Harm U.S. Interests.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 Sept. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/americas-stake-in-the-scottish-referendum/380228/.
Walker, David. “Nicola Sturgeon's SCEXIT Hopes Are a National Security Threat to America.” Scottish Daily Express, 16 May 2022, https://www.scottishdailyexpress.co.uk/news/politics/americans-warned-nicola-sturgeons-scexit-26974050.
Walker, David. “Independence Marchers Slammed for Chanting 'Tory Scum' Going through Stirling.” Scottish Daily Express, 26 Jun. 2022, https://www.scottishdailyexpress.co.uk/news/scottish-news/civic-nationalism-independence-marchers-slammed-27327514.
Marzella, Chris. “MSP under Fire Over Photo at Battle Commemoration Holding Ultra-Nationalist Flag.” Daily Record, 28 Jun. 2022, https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/local-news/stirling-msp-comes-under-fire-27349966.
Share this post: