Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh
On 18 September, the Scottish electorate will make an historic choice, completing a ballot which asks: Should Scotland be an Independent country? But what does it mean to be an independent country in an interdependent world? Finance is increasingly transnational, challenging the economic sovereignty of nation-states. International and supranational bodies issue policy directives or set norms that steer national decision-making. Policy challenges like climate change, trafficking, food security, or pandemics have little respect for national borders, forcing governments to work together. Such interdependencies place constraints on the decision-making autonomy of individual nation-states such that no country is truly independent, unaffected and unconstrained by the decisions of others.
The Scottish Government’s prospectus for independence recognises and accepts that formal independence would coincide with pooling sovereignty within broader political, social and economic structures, including the European Union, NATO, and other international forums. But one of the striking features of its vision of Independence is the extent to which it entails significant cross-border co-operation and shared governing with the rest of the UK. Such embedded independence can also be seen in the programmes and platforms of other European sub-state nationalist parties vying for self-government.
For the Scottish government and Yes Scotland, independence would mark a new relationship between the nations of these islands – a new ‘partnership of equals’. The Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, set out a variety of proposals for sharing institutional assets and services with the rest of the UK, alongside proposals for change. For example, it reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to press for a formal currency union with the rest of the UK, with Scotland’s government effectively becoming a shareholder in the ownership and governance of the Bank of England. In broadcasting, a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would participate in a joint venture with the British Broadcasting Corporation, ensuring access to existing BBC services and programmes. The White Paper underlines commitment to maintaining the British Isles Common Travel Area (currently operational between the UK and the Republic of Ireland) to facilitate cross-border travel and avoid the need for border posts. In energy, the White Paper indicated a preference for maintaining a single energy market, including a common trade and transmission system and shared system for incentivising renewables. There are many more institutions where the Scottish government wants continuity and shared service delivery. Many of these are functional, low profile institutions, like the Office of Rail Regulation, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Green Investment Bank. The National Lottery and the Big Lottery Fund would also continue as now, and the UK research councils would be shared and co-funded. Even in today’s world, this all points toward a degree of interdependence and shared cross-border arrangements which is greater than that found between most independent nation-states.
All such shared arrangements would of course be subject to negotiation with the UK government, and it is far from clear that the latter would be a willing partner. The UK government, and the UK parties, have already rejected a formal currency union, and hinted strongly that other cross-border arrangements may be unpalatable, impractical or impermissible under EU law. If there is a Yes vote, political pragmatism may alter this position, but competing interests and perceptions of national interests would bring pressure to bear, pushing negotiators toward, or away from, a more accommodative approach.
Whatever agreement could be reached, managing institutions and services on a cross-border basis would require some mechanism for joint decision-making, oversight and governance. Yet, the Scottish Government’s White Paper said very little about how such governance arrangements would be designed. Experience from elsewhere suggests that a variety of treaties and bilateral agreements would be necessary, supported by less formal day-to-day co-ordination and communication. But some formal mechanism for intergovernmental relations may be needed to underpin and facilitate informal coordination, not least to resolve any disputes that may emerge.
The existing intergovernmental institutions seem wholly inadequate to the task. Two key institutions are relevant here. The Joint Ministerial Committee, a multilateral forum bringing together senior UK ministers with ministers from the devolved nations, is principally a forum for member administrations of the UK, and so it is unlikely that it could accommodate an independent Scotland. Nor is an independent Scotland likely to want to be a member. The JMC is hierarchical, placing the UK government in the dominant position, and remains a forum which is predominantly for communication rather than co-ordination. It rarely met during the early years of devolution, though meets more frequently now after pressure from the devolved administrations. Although it has a formal role in the resolution of intergovernmental disputes, this function is rarely invoked.
The British-Irish Council is a multi-lateral forum involving the UK government, the Irish government, the UK devolved administrations and the crown dependencies. A product of the Northern Ireland peace process, the Council’s objectives are to foster and strengthen practical relationships across the British Isles, and to encourage communication and co-operation between governments. Its secretariat is based in Edinburgh and its work spans a broad range of policy spheres, including energy, environment, early years, health, demography, digital inclusion, tourism and transport. It is not difficult to envisage – as the Scottish First Minister has done – that this forum could easily accommodate Scotland’s changed status after independence. More problematic is to regard it as a forum for managing complex cross-border arrangements such as those envisaged in the White Paper. Although viewed positively by its members as a forum of good communication, important issues of state and intergovernmental co-operation, whether between the Scottish and UK governments, or the Irish and UK governments – take place in less formal bilateral exchanges well away from the BIC.
Insights from UK-Irish relations
Although there are many examples around the world of close co-operation between sovereign states, the asymmetry in the size of Scotland and the rest of the UK – in population size and GDP if not necessarily in geography – is comparatively unusual. But there is one intergovernmental relationship close to home where the difference in scale is even greater.
The UK and Ireland have long shared a degree of interdependence, although this was marked rather more by continued Irish dependence for much of the twentieth century. Membership of the European Union was a central factor that changed the nature of that relationship. Ireland and the UK remained economically interdependent, but Irish dependence on the UK for both imports and as an export destination has declined significantly since Ireland joined the EU. Politically, too, for Ireland and especially the Irish government, Brussels slowly exerted a gravitational pull. This heightened the importance of Irish-EU relations, while normalising the relationship with the UK. The conflict in Northern Ireland and the partnership approach to the peace process helped to strengthen and institutionalise the new British-Irish relationship, and to generate mutual trust.
More recently, relative stability in Northern Ireland paved the way for a new era of British-Irish intergovernmental co-ordination, building on the feelings of goodwill generated by, and reflected in, the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011. The Joint Statement in 2012, signed by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, underlined the close relationship between the two countries, founded in history, culture, business and family ties, and pointed to their shared interest and co-operation in trade and EU relations. The Joint Statement underlined a commitment to ‘a decade of renewed and strengthened co-operation between our two countries’, and kick-started an intensive joint work programme spanning around a dozen policy fields. This involves departments across the UK and Irish governments, with annual leader summits as well as regular meetings and extensive networking among senior civil servants led by the Permanent Secretary/Secretary General. 2012 saw around a dozen such meetings to explore and implement the goals set down by the two leaders, with officials from both governments being steered towards “co-operation beyond the norm” (from interviews).
In spite of the resource disparities between the two countries, officials from both governments in interview confirmed that the relationship is conducted as an equal partnership. Ireland’s embeddedness within the EU has helped it to decrease its dependence on the UK, and engage more confidently as a neighbouring sovereign state. Ireland is also an important trading partner for the UK, and an important ally of the UK government especially in the light of its own awkward and seemingly reluctant membership of the EU, which often sees it isolated in Brussels.
Lessons for Scotland
A new partnership of some kind between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK seems feasible. The two states would clearly continue to share historic, cultural and trade links, while the fact of sharing a border and an island would necessitate co-operation in a host of policy fields with or without a common Travel Area. Although Irish-UK relations have developed within their own distinctive historical context, the Irish experience can lend useful insights into the likely dynamic and mutual dependence for such a Scottish-UK relationship.
First, a degree of economic interdependence seems probable. The rest of the UK would remain an independent Scotland’s most important single-country partner, but the flow is not all one way. Scotland is also the second biggest market (after the US) for goods and services produced in the UK. The Irish example would suggest that by investing in other bilateral and multilateral economic and political relationships, especially within the EU, an independent Scotland could avoid the Scotland-rUK relationship being characterised by dependence, and make the equality of status of both partners more meaningful in spite of inequalities in size and resource.
Secondly, intergovernmental relations are built upon mutual trust. Current UK-Irish relations are facilitated by the personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, as well as the close working relationship and mutual trust forged among officials during and since the peace process. The legacy of intergovernmental co-operation within the Union should have instilled the trust and interpersonal links upon which continued co-operation would depend. But that legacy would only have a lasting impact if there were efforts to ensure that trust was maintained. Scottish-UK inter-governmental relations in the event of Scottish independence (or indeed even in its absence) could be coloured by the manner in which the referendum and post-referendum negotiations are conducted.
Thirdly, bilateral exchange – formal or informal – is more important and conducive to joint decision-making than multi-lateral forums such as the British-Irish Council. Strong historical, political, economic and cultural links would be a solid basis for continued bilateral exchange, but the political and institutional commitment to such bilateral relations may not be mutually felt. Formal intergovernmental institutions or forums between ministers and between officials may still have a part to play, not least because they tend to encourage co-operation and help to generate the goodwill, shared knowledge and understanding upon which more informal co-operation depends.
Dr Nicola McEwen, is ESRC Senior Scotland Fellow and Associate Director of the ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh. For further information.