The Independence Debate Explained

Yesterday I posted a blog about ‘The Second Question’ and a lot of people told me that they were very confused by the whole thing. The independence debate is likely to get very interesting very quickly; it will be picking up speed for the next two years and it’ll no doubt continue long-past the referendum. I’ve asked around and there are a lot of people, particularly in England, who are interested in the debate but have no idea how to follow it so here’s a guide to what’s going on. I’m not an expert on this but I’ve tried to be concise, informative and unbiased. I hope it’s helpful to anyone struggling to follow the debate and if you’ve any suggestions for something you’d like me to add then please get in touch!

A Very Brief History: In 1707, The Acts of Union brought Scotland and England together to form the Government of Great Britain at Westminster. Since then there have been arguments for devolution or independence but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Scottish electorate were given a chance to vote on the matter. The referendum resulted in a very narrow victory for the ‘yes’ side but it had previously been decided that the Scottish Parliament would not be established without support from at least 40% of the electorate. The ‘yes’ votes accounted for only 32.9% and, as such, devolution was not introduced to Scotland.

In 1997, Labour came to power and upheld their manifesto promise to hold another referendum. This time the referendum was won by the ‘yes’ side and resulted in the Scotland Act 1998, following which the Scottish Parliament was established at Holyrood in Edinburgh and first met in 1999.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was not independence for Scotland, it was a devolution of powers from Westminster to Scotland. This meant that Westminster was still in charge of ‘reserved’ issues for the whole of the UK (constitutional matters, foreign policy, defence, immigration and social security amongst others) while Scotland now had power over devolved issues (health, education, local government and the environment amongst others).

This year, The Scotland Bill passed into law and became The Scotland Act 2012 which transferred even more powers to Scotland but not enough for those who support independence over further devolution. The Scottish National Party (SNP) got enough votes to form a minority government in 2007 but at last year’s election they gained even more support and became the first party to form a majority government since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The SNP’s main priority has always been independence for Scotland and they now plan to hold a referendum in 2014. This time Scotland will be asked to decide whether or not they want independence from the UK, rather than devolution of powers.

The Referendum: In January of this year, Alex Salmond (leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister) announced that the referendum would take place in autumn of 2014. The Scottish Government ran a public consultation between January and May of this year, the results of which will be used to draft a Referendum Bill which will be debated at Holyrood in 2013 ahead of the 2014 vote. Included in the consultation were questions about the format of the ballot (including the controversial ‘Second Question’) and who should be allowed to vote. Since constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments will have to agree on the terms of Independence before it happens.

For and Against: I’m quite strongly against Scottish independence so I don’t think I could explain the arguments on each side without being a little bit biased but Liberal Youth’s blog, The Libertine, recently published posts for and against which are worth reading if you’ve yet to make up your mind.

Terms: Below is a list of potentially unfamiliar terms that are frequently used throughout the independence debate. If you know of any others that you want me to add, please get in touch.

Devolution: Devolution is moving power from central government (in this case, Westminster) to subnational government.

Unionism: Belief in ‘the union’. In this case, Unionists believe that Scotland and England are better off as part of the UK.

Devo+: A proposed alternative to independence and a form of increased devolution. It is a system proposed by some that involves both Westminster and Holyrood raising what they spend in Scotland themselves. It would hand more tax powers to Scotland.

Devo Max: Another proposed alternative to independence. This system would involve Holyrood raising its entire budget itself but passing a grant back to Westminster for spending on reserved matters.

Indy Lite: This is the term given to what most people consider to be independence. With Indy Lite, Scotland would be a constitutionally separate state but would keep the Queen as head of state and other unions may be maintained (for example, Scotland may keep the pound under Indy Lite).

‘Full’ Independence: This is independence ‘to the extreme’, if you will. This isn’t what the SNP seem to be proposing. If Scotland became fully independent it would be a completely separate state and would not share a currency or head of state with the UK.

The West Lothian Question: This question points to some holes in the current system of devolved government. There is a town called Blackburn in West Lothian, Scotland and there’s another town called Blackburn (where I was born, if anyone’s interested!) in Lancashire, England. The MP for West Lothian can vote on all issues relating to the Blackburn in England (because it is governed by the UK Parliament) but is unable to vote on some issues for the Blackburn in his own constituency because some of the matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

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