A Not so United Kingdom

José María de Areilza. Professor. IE Business School

27 February 2007

The issue of Scottish independence is once again on the agenda in The United Kingdom. But this time it’s the English, and not the Scottish, who are advocating the change.

THE UNION between England and Scotland is now 300 years old. But however long-lived the marriage, its days may be numbered. The territorial reform launched by Tony Blair, based on an à-la-carte autonomy, responds to a real demand from Scotland for regionalism. But what it also has done is greatly enhance the desire for distinction. Nowadays, 52% of Scottish people are in favour of independence, although they still tend to vote for Unionist parties, and the Scottish National Party has yet to enjoy a clear victory on its home turf. But the risk of separation is real.

In a recent Daily Telegraph survey, almost 60% of the English supported Scotland´s independence. Many English consider unfair the real legislative power and separate legal system that the region enjoys. What is more, in Scotland public spending is 30% higher per capita then it is in the rest of the UK. English public opinion shows that it opposes this privileged treatment. Not long ago, it also explicitly rejected creating an English Parliament, parallel to the British parliament of Westminster and similar to those in other regions such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the other hand, promoting an English region would be difficult since 85% of the UK’s population lives in England and, more specifically, in and round the thriving city of London

In English circles, the so-called West Lothian question--which revolves around the issue of why there are still MPs of Scottish constituencies in the Parliament of Westminster-- is gaining importance. The members of the House of Commons elected in Scotland decide on the legislation that is applicable throughout the United Kingdom, but not within their own region. They have no duties in their original districts because Parliament has almost no power over Scotland and voluntarily declines to debate what happens there.

In a few months´ time, when Tony Blair keeps his promise of resigning during his term of office, Gordon Brown will become the Prime Minister. One of the difficulties he will face in the next elections, besides that of the wear and tear of the government’s 10 years in office, is the fact that he is also Scottish. However, this solid Chancellor of the Exchequer is part of a long tradition of honourable public service given to the United Kingdom by the Scottish throughout history. Since 1707, the Scottish have made decisive contributions to the growth of the British Empire, which include the important work carried out by the illustrious military and political governors of the 19th century.

The Scottish identity as it is known today was actually created by some Englishmen who settled in Scotland. During the 18th and 19th centuries, and for various reasons that range from business to boredom, the newcomers invented a new past for the region, full of kilts, clans and bagpipes, which had been up to that point only lowly symbols of Irish origin. Once again we can see that the past is unpredictable, and today this identity holds the seed of separation. But regional secession makes little sense in a European Union where well-developed norms and principles focus on promoting compatibility between identities. In other words, EU legislation is designed to join rather than to separate. The problem in the case of Scotland is that independence is now more desired by the English than by Adam Smith´s descendants.


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