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The View from Scotland of a Disunited Kingdom

Image of Scotland march for independence in January 2020
Nicola McEwen

Nicola McEwen

Professor of Territorial Politics in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, and Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe

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The views expressed are solely those of the author (s) and not of Oxford Global Society.

Nationhood in the UK

The subject of this year’s Putney debates is the Unity of a Nation, how disparate regions come together to form a unified whole. But is the United Kingdom a nation? Are its citizens part of the same unified whole? After all, as Richard Rose pointed out in his 1982 book, Understanding the United Kingdom, nobody speaks of the ‘Ukanians’ as a people.

In Benedict Anderson’s celebrated definition, a nation can be understood as an ‘imagined political community’, with limited boundaries and a people who share ‘the image of their communion’ (Anderson, 1982: 6). In this respect, we may consider the UK to be a nation. Its boundaries are (reasonably) clear, and its citizens share some sense of commonality derived from their shared citizenship status. But the UK is also a plurinational state, composed of distinctive territorial communities, three of which are also nations – England, Scotland and Wales – and one, Northern Ireland, where nationhood is contested.

This pluralist conception of nationhood is important when we consider the other aspect of Anderson’s definition: that nations are imagined as sovereign, with ultimate authority derived from the people. When the boundaries of nations overlap, as they do in plurinational states, with which ‘people’ does that authority legitimately lie?

This rather abstract question was brought to the fore in the context of Brexit. The 2016 referendum was based on a UK-wide ballot, and thus from a legal perspective, the majority vote to Leave was entirely legitimate. But, politically, the result was more problematic. When Theresa May as prime minister wrote to Donald Tusk, the then president of the European Council, to initiate the Article 50 exit talks, she described the referendum result as ‘a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination’, thus invoking UK nationhood. But, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, considerably bigger majorities declared another preference, in the latter case exacerbating the difficult issues of national belonging that the Good Friday Agreement had helped to ameliorate. The inability to reconcile these preferences as the Brexit process unfolded has led the internal boundaries between the UK’s national communities to present as deep fractures.

The Unity of a Nation

Unity in the context of the United Kingdom refers to the series of Unions that bind the smaller territories to the state. The biggest challenge to the Union with Scotland came in 2014, when 45% of Scots voted yes to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country? At that time, the 45% yes vote was historically rather high, though it has proven to be a baseline since then. There was no particular reason for the 2014 referendum, other than the political opportunity created by the SNP’s election as a majority government. Surveys had indicated broad satisfaction with Scotland’s status as a devolved nation within the UK around this time.

One further take-away from the 2014 referendum process is the extent to which the Scottish Government’s decision to hold a referendum was facilitated by the UK Government. The constitution is a reserved matter under Scotland’s constitutional arrangements, but in the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, the two governments negotiated a temporary transfer of power to ensure that an independence referendum would be within the competences of the Scottish Parliament. The governments also gave a joint commitment to the electorate that they would respect the result and negotiate in good faith. A statement to this effect was distributed to every household before the vote: “If more people vote ‘Yes’ than vote ‘No’ in the referendum, Scotland would become an independent country”.Whatever its motivations, this pragmatic approach by David Cameron’s government contrasted starkly with the response of his Spanish counterparts faced with the contemporary secessionist challenge from Catalonia. Clearly, UK unity is not ‘indissoluble’. Indeed, the boundaries of the UK are only 100 years old.  

Threats to Unity

It is not for me, as a scholar, to reify national unity or make a judgement that values it over its alternatives. We can, however, point to the factors most likely to preserve or undermine that unity.

Brexit, as both an act and a process, has posed a threat to the UK’s national unity. The act of Brexit – the UK’s departure from the EU – has exposed the vulnerability of the UK’s plurinational diversity and the difficulty of reconciling competing self-determination claims. If Brexit was an expression of the will of the British people, from a Scottish, or at least a Scottish nationalist, perspective, it meant Scotland was taken out of the EU against its expressed will.

As a process, Brexit has undermined the system of devolved government designed to accommodate Scotland’s status as a nation within the UK, as discussed eloquently by Professor Douglas-Scott in her lecture. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, endorsed by 74% in the 1997 referendum, was the culmination of what the former Labour leader, John Smith, described as ‘the settled will’ of the Scottish people. Devolution didn’t alter the legal fact of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, but a convention quickly emerged which, in effect, modified that sovereignty: whilst the UK parliament could continue to make laws for Scotland and the other devolved territories, it would not normally do so without the consent of the devolved legislatures. The scope of the Sewel convention was such that altering the competences of the devolved legislatures was also thought to require the consent of those legislatures or, as has been evident in Wales, of the people in a referendum.

But several pieces of Brexit-related legislation that included changes to the responsibilities and competences of the devolved institutions have been enacted by the UK parliament, despite devolved consent been withheld, thus eroding one of the principles underpinning devolution. In addition, the UK government, particularly the Johnson administration, has reasserted its authority vis-à-vis the devolved institutions by reclaiming powers, including spending powers, to act in the devolved sphere, most notably in the controversial United Kingdom Internal Market Act (2020).

Disunited Kingdom?

Brexit is the reason why, just a few years after the issue appeared to be settled, independence has become the dominant issue in Scottish politics. And whereas in 2014 the independence referendum was held without an obvious grievance concerning Scotland’s constitutional status, the claims for a new referendum are founded on a Brexit-shaped sense of injustice and a belief that Scotland’s voice as a nation can no longer be accommodated within the UK.

That is not to suggest that the UK’s days are numbered. In contrast to the process that led to the 2014 referendum, there is no recognition on the part of the UK government of the legitimacy of the claim to a new referendum. Without that, any referendum legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament (where there is a pro-independence majority) is likely to face legal challenge. The First Minister has ruled out a Catalan-style referendum that could be seen as outwith of the rule of law.

Brexit – especially the form it has assumed, outside of the EU single market and customs union – also complicates independence. This is especially evident when we consider the Anglo-Scottish border. Under independence, this would become an international border between two nation-states. Under ‘independence in Europe’, where Scotland rejoined the European Union, it would become a new border between the European Union and the United Kingdom, imposing obligations on a Scottish Government to manage the border in a way that protected the integrity of the EU single market. This new context could make the case for independence a harder sell.

Independence may be the dominant issue in Scottish politics, but it also divides Scotland more or less down the middle. There is no sign of independence being the settled will of the Scottish people. But nor is there consensus in favour of unity. There are, of course, a variety of constitutional alternatives between independence and the union as currently configured, including a form of federalism, confederalism, associated statehood or strengthened devolution (‘devo-max’). Professor Douglas-Scott and the other panel contributors have examined some of these.

But reaching a new constitutional settlement that could secure consensus across the distinctive nations and territories of the UK requires a spirit of federalism (whether or not this is accompanied by a constitutionally federal system). The spirit of federalism implies a commitment to balance unity and diversity, to respect the self-rule of the constituent entities and to devise a system of shared rule where powers and responsibilities inevitably interact. There is little evidence of a spirit of federalism within the current UK administration. And, in Scotland, it is doubtful that consent for constitutional reform within the UK could be secured unless and until a decision on independence was permitted.

There is also one limitation of all of these constitutional alternatives to independence: none of them can address the issue that has remobilised independence demands. How can the nation of Scotland fulfil the desire to belong within the European Union when the nation that is the UK chooses otherwise?