TOPIC GUIDE: Scottish Independence

"We should maintain the Union"

PUBLISHED: 31 Aug 2011

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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In May 2011 the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won a surprise majority vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections [Ref: STV], something those who established the devolved Scottish system of government back in 1998 believed would be prevented from happening, instead encouraging coalition government between Scotland’s political parties. The new SNP majority means it can pursue its own political agendas, including the party’s long-held manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on a fully independent Scotland [Ref: SNP], unhindered by opposition parties or the need to work in coalition, with the necessary compromises to manifesto pledges that entails [Ref: Guardian]. In 2007 the SNP had already formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament as the then largest party, and Alex Salmond became the first nationalist politician to hold the post of First Minister [Ref: Guardian]. That same year also marked the 300th anniversary of the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland. The two parliamentary acts (one passed in England on 1706 and the other in Scotland in 1707) saw the union of the two separate kingdoms, creating a new kingdom of Great Britain [Ref: Wikipedia]. The rise of the SNP to power has prompted a new wave of discussions about the future of Scotland, and a referendum on Scottish independence in the next few years appears to be a real possibility. But the discussion about Scottish independence affects more than just the Scottish electorate - it calls into question the very union which formed the nation we have today.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Time for Scotland to rise again?
The new Labour government of 1997 put the issue of devolution for Scotland and Wales at the heart of it’s election manifesto. Devolved regional assemblies and parliaments were intended to both recognise a demand for more regional control, whilst maintaining political and fiscal union between all the countries of the union. The last national referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979 failed [Ref: BBC Scotland], and the SNP’s increased influence in Scottish politics in the intervening period can be explained, some argue, by the ‘Democratic Deficit’, which saw Scotland vote overwhelming for a Labour government between 1979 and 1994, but had a Conservative government return each time [Ref: Telegraph]. Those in favour of increased devolution, or complete independence, argue it’s time to review the union, which was a product of its time, and is now due a rethink three hundred years on [Ref: Huffington Post]. What may have been practical reasons at the time for ceding sovereignty to Westminster, such as the Scottish crown’s bankruptcy, shouldn’t be the basis for a modern democratic Union in the twenty first century, which should surely be able to cope with the separate political ambitions of each of its component parts [Ref: Guardian]? Is there not the capacity to have a Scottish parliament which makes decisions concerning its people, whilst contributing to a union of federal states which look after the shared interests of its respective nations, much as the European Union aims to do? The nation state, supporters of devolution argue, is in decline around the world, and is being increasingly replaced by autonomous states working in economic and defence federations [Ref: openDemocracy].

Stronger together than apart?
One of the consequences of the discussion about Scottish and Welsh devolution was the formation of English campaign groups asking whether England might not be better outside of the Union too [Ref: Campaign for an English Parliament]. At the heart of this discussion was the ‘West Lothian question’, a constitutional anomaly created by devolution whereby Scottish MP’s sit and vote in the Westminster parliament, but English and Welsh MP’s cannot vote on Scottish matters at Holyrood [Ref: Telegraph].  Similarly, the perceived unfairness of the Barnett Formula [Ref: Parliament], whereby Scotland receives 10% of available government money is, argue its critics, primarily unfair to English taxpayers who generate the larger tax revenue to the Treasury. Others question the economics of Scotland ‘going it alone’, and ask, for example, how shared UK resources (such as North Sea oil and gas) and defence could possibly be divided up. Some also question where this ‘balkanisation’ of the UK might stop, with recent campaigns for Cornish independence [Ref: Telegraph] and suggestions of a devolved Yorkshire parliament [Ref: BBC News] used as examples of a tendency to fragment if we begin to break up the Union. Beyond the practicalities, some argue the UK was the first modern society based not on ethnicity or race, but of shared purposes and beliefs, not ‘formed at the end of a bayonet’ as so many other states were in the same period, but as a product of Enlightenment thinking which recognised shared economic and political values, and an intricately linked history [Ref: Guardian]. The nationalist’s idea of Scotland being an independent state within the context of a broader European Union is also called into question in light of recent EU economic troubles, and the uncertainty surrounding the support smaller states can expect to receive.

Sleepwalking into a breakup of the union?
Whilst many commentators are discussing the issue of Scottish independence in light of the recent SNP Holyrood victory, opinion polls taken after the May elections suggested that there was little appetite on the part of Scottish voters for breaking away from the UK [Ref: UK Polling Report]. Indeed, some commentators suggest that disillusionment with the old political parties, and the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, did more to thrust the SNP to power than the issue of an independent Scotland [Ref: spiked].  If the demand for Scottish independence is a minority one, but no defence of maintaining the union is made, might the UK run the risk of sleep walking into a breakup of the union [Ref: Spectator]? Can those in favour of the union make a valid case today for maintaining it? Or is the growth of competing nationalisms the next inevitable shift in the islands history? In a Britain already concerned about social cohesion, what effect will the breakup of the union have? As the notion of nation states is increasingly being called into question, what it means to be British, or indeed Scottish, becomes a valid discussion [Ref: Guardian].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Let’s all vote to stick together

Simon Moss Guardian 20 May 2011

We must fight to preserve the Union

Alan Chochrane Spectator 5 August 2009

Torn asunder

Ruaridh Nicoll Guardian 7 January 2007


Why Alex Salmond is not Braveheart

Craig Fairnington spiked 10 May 2011

Scotland should hold an independence referendum

Daniel Hannan Telegraph 6 May 2011

Scotland’s politics of evasion

Tom Gallagher openDemocracy 11 December 2009

Salmond’s bold new era of progressive nationalism

Iain MacWhirter Herald Scotland 22 December 2007


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The Eurocrisis Squeezes the SNP

Alex Massie Spectator 25 August 2011

The Scottish diaspora: Migrant tales

Economist 20 August 2011

UK Polling Report

YouGov 12 May 2011

The West Lothian Question

Telegraph 28 October 2007

How black gold was hijacked: North sea oil and the betrayal of Scotland

Ben Russell and Paul Kelbie Independent 9 December 2005

The 1979 Referendums

BBC Scotland

Barnett Formula



Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Scottish Conservative Party set to disband

Telegraph 3 September 2011

Scots also seek control of corporation tax

Financial Times 21 August 2011

Union in poor state on 300th anniversary

Telegraph 16 January 2007



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