On Thursday, Scotland will vote in an independence referendum. Polls suggest the vote could go either way. At risk is the continued existence of Great Britain, America’s closest friend and ally. It is for the Scottish people, and the United Kingdom, to decide the fate of the Anglo-Scottish union, but the United States has a profound concern — and important interests at stake — in the outcome.
Those interests are not partisan. Both American and British conservatives have on occasion argued that from a political point of view, the Conservative Party would be better off if Scotland left the union. As former Prime Minister Sir John Major put it recently, “the Conservative party would be much better placed without Scotland because somewhere down the line we have mislaid our Scottish votes.”
It is true that of Scotland’s 59 MPs, 58 are not Tories, so the argument that the cause of conservatism would be better off without Scotland seems sound. But there are no permanent advantages to be won in politics: if Scotland leaves, the rest of the UK will rebalance over time to bring the main parties back into rough equality. There are laws of political gravity, and it is not possible in a democracy for one party to win an enduring edge if a politically inconvenient part of the nation drops off.
And there is another consideration. The full name of the Conservative Party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Admittedly, the Union the name refers to is the union between Great Britain and Ireland, which ended – Northern Ireland apart – in 1922, not the 1707 union of England with Scotland. But even if Scotland exits and the balance of MPs shifts in the House of Commons, it is difficult to believe that a party built on the union of the entire British Isles will benefit by losing another part of it. The Conservative Party is preeminently the party of Britishness, and traducing that tradition must weaken its appeal in the long run, even if it momentarily strengthens it in the Commons.
The example of 1922 is instructive. The Irish Nationalist MPs had been a major prop of the pre-war Liberal Governments. Once they left, the way seemed clear for the Conservatives to dominate. And indeed, from 1922 through 1945, they were the majority party. But even in the face of that majority, Labour managed to form governments in 1924 and 1929. And after 1945, a natural reaction against the Tories made Labour the majority party in the country – if not always in the Commons – until 1979, as demonstrated by the unwillingness of Conservative politicians to challenge Labour’s welfare state. The Tories gained no enduring advantage from the end of the Anglo-Irish Union.
So the way to think about Scotland is not to focus on political or ideological interests. It’s to think about U.S. national interests. Leading U.S. politicians, while respecting the fact that the decision is not theirs to make, have backed the union. President Obama has said he wants to see the UK remain “strong, robust, united and effective.” A bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives emphasizes the importance of the Anglo-American Special Relationship in supporting “a united, secure, and prosperous” UK.
This widespread interest reflects the U.S. stake in the Scottish vote. While the Special Relationship is too vital a partnership to be destroyed by a Scottish vote for independence, the UK would not be the same without the contributions, in war and peace, of the Scottish people.
The prospect of an independent Scotland raises serious questions about the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and NATO. If Scotland votes for independence, the UK will likely no longer be able to base its nuclear-armed submarines at Faslane, on the west coast of Scotland. Few if any other locations in the UK meet the criteria for a submarine base. Closure of Faslane would weaken NATO’s position as a nuclear alliance and reduce the number of ports open to the U.S. submarine fleet in the vital North Sea and Arctic regions.
Scotland is also home to other defense assets, including NATO early warning stations, which are vital in the face of Russian aggression. But as an independent nation, Scotland would have to re-apply for membership of NATO. Other members of NATO, including Spain and Italy, might not want to set the precedent of allowing Scotland to rejoin, as they also face regional independence movements. Moreover, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) rejection of nuclear deterrence suggests that re-admitting Scotland would make it even harder for NATO to act as a unified alliance.
But the fundamental problem is that outside the UK, Scotland would make almost no contribution to NATO’s defense capabilities. Even if Scotland were not re-admitted to NATO, the U.S. would, in practice, be obliged to defend it as though it were still in the alliance: Scotland can be separated politically from England, but it cannot be separated geographically. But on its own, Scotland would have a projected defense budget of only £2.5 billion, and fewer than 4,000 active duty military personnel. Scottish independence is all loss and no gain for U.S. defense policy.
More than the defense interests of the United States are at stake in the Scottish vote. The U.S. and Britain have made innumerable bilateral and multilateral commitments to each other, both through treaties and through generations of practice. It would be right for the U.S. to regard an independent Scotland as inheriting the formal rights and obligations of the United Kingdom, unless they are renounced by the Scottish government. But the routines of practice that shape Anglo-American relations will also be disrupted, and those will be harder to repair.
The U.S. has a major interest in the prosperity of the UK, which is far and away the most important investor in the U.S. If Scotland votes for independence, both world markets and the British pound will suffer, though both will recover in time. But an independent Scotland could prove to be a more enduring source of weakness. The Scottish economy will forever be closely linked to that of the rest of the British Isles, and financial or economic weakness in Scotland will be felt south of the border.
This problem is particularly serious because the SNP’s plans for Scotland’s economic future are confused at best. Leading British politicians have made it clear that Scotland will not be allowed to retain the pound sterling, but while the SNP wants to re-join the EU, it does not want to adopt the Euro. Moreover, while the SNP argues that independence will produce a financial windfall, this assertion is based almost entirely on extremely optimistic assumptions about the production of oil in the North Sea.
No matter what currency it adopts, Scotland will have to live within its means. It cannot afford to chase investors away with higher taxes, because it will not automatically have London (and the Bank of England) to bail it out if things go wrong, as they did at the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008. Moreover, another bailout from any source would make it obvious that Scottish independence was a fiction. It would be a replay of the Scottish financial crisis of the late 1690s that helped lead to the Anglo-Scottish union.
A Scotland in the tradition of Adam Smith would be prosperous, but a Scotland that wants an ever-greater welfare state and uses a currency it does not control runs a risk of becoming the Greece of the North. As the SNP wants to increase spending by about one percent of Scottish GDP, the economic case for independence rests uncomfortably on optimistic assumptions and best-case scenarios. The risk to the U.S. cannot be calculated precisely, but the example of the Euro crisis makes it clear that a risk does exist.
Outside the union, if Scotland were to become part of the EU, it would have almost no say over policies adopted in Brussels: It would receive approximately 13 Members of the European Parliament – less than 2 percent of the total of 750. Scotland currently has over 9 percent of the House of Commons. In the EU, Scotland would suffer even more severely from the EU’s encroachments on national sovereignty than larger nations like the UK, whereas, in the union, it has steadily gained power and autonomy through the process of devolution. Leaving the UK would, in material terms, give Scotland little it does not already enjoy, would end a system of government which everyone understands, and would subject it increasingly to EU policy over which it would have no control.
The U.S. has a final interest. The 18th and 19th centuries were an era of state-making, an era when both the U.S. and the UK were formed and defended. Today, by contrast, is an era of state-breaking, when even well-established democracies like the UK risk being pulled apart. While the U.S. embodies the sacred right of independence, it also reflects the making of one out of many, e pluribus unum.
No call for democratic self-government can leave Americans unmoved. But Americans also know that the Declaration of Independence cautions that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” The Anglo-Scottish Union is over 300 years old. The question of prudence is a serious one.
The union of peoples under law, founded on limited government and respect for inherent liberties, is both precious and all too uncommon in the world. Even more than most long-established governments, such a union deserves the respect of prudence. As the people of Scotland vote, they must weigh the dictates of prudence. The people of the United States, with their many interests at stake, will await the outcome.
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D., is the Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.