Journal of International Affairs / Siwrnal Materion Rhyngwladol
The Case for Scottish Independence: Regional Trade, Energy and Power
Originally published in February 2012.
In 2011, Alex Salmond MSP led his Scottish National Party (SNP) to electoral victory in Holyrood on the back of a tacit – and often explicit – desire for Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom (UK) and form an independent state. A referendum has since been scheduled for 2014, tabling the question of Scottish independence to the electorate; with much clamour in the media and political circles accompanying the announcement on Robbie Burns Day. The case against Scottish independence (or, as it is characterised, the “end of a United Kingdom of Great Britain”, despite that also requiring the end of “Britishness” has been circulating rapidly since then – but what about the case for Scottish independence? How will Scotland’s presence – and by inference, the UK’s presence – in international relations be fundamentally altered? What benefits can Scottish independence bring to the Scot-free UK, Scotland and other international partners? This short essay looks at three areas in which Scottish independence would benefit both Scotland, and a smaller UK: trade, energy and power. For the benefit of this article, any mention of the UK, or Britain, refers to a Scot-free United Kingdom.
At a time when currency is a political weapon, and when the economic crisis has turned the arena of international trade on its head, an independent Scotland could stimulate cross-border trade with the North of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Careful regulation of public and private sector investment should allow the UK government to empower Northern businesses to take advantage of a Scottish economy invigorated by a successful independence campaign – and a weaker currency, if Scotland were to detach from the UK pound or even join the Euro – and use trade distortions as a result of currency differences across the border to gain a comparative advantage.
Protected by the European Union single market regulations, neither the UK nor Scotland could impose tariffs, allowing for both nations to take full advantage of the unique economic dynamics arising from cross-border trade. The inevitable ‘freedom of movement’ agreement, akin to the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area and the EU-wide Schengen zone, would allow both Scottish and UK nationals to take advantage of new labour markets which could develop across the border.
Cross-border trade is also a pertinent area to look at when discussing the settling of state rights to natural resources – namely, the extensive oil and gas fields in the North Sea. Were Scotland to gain independence, and full possession of the rights to its North Sea oil fields, the creation of a mutually beneficial system of trade norms and regulations between the UK and Scotland should allow for a sustainable energy-relationship between the two states.
Further, while the lifespan of North Sea oil is disputed, the new opportunities presented for British natural gas reserves gives Britain the stronger hand in energy disputes; while the strong results from scientific research into oil-alternatives limits Scotland’s ability to take full long-term advantage of oil reserves in international trade. 
Perhaps more meaningfully in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty, in which the values of democracy, freedom and political rights for citizens across Europe were re-iterated, the support for greater local democracy and political accountability of decisions could help reverse the contempt held for the British establishment by Scotland, other British citizens and Europe. This is particularly icy ground for the UK after the much-lauded and much-derided ‘veto’ of EU treaty change by the Prime Minister David Cameron MP, which threatens to derail British calls for EU reform – especially in the realms of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy. The first is lacking in technical success, props up bloated and unsustainable agricultural sectors in the developed Northern Member States and limits the resources available to develop the weaker agricultural sectors in the newer, southern member states; the latter two policy areas are severely lacking in democratic accountability at the national level.
To gain a meaningful level of power over the reform agenda in the EU, as the current UK is attempting to do, requires having a credible voice in Europe – other EU politicians, technocrats and bureaucrats would take Britain seriously, as it leads by example in increasing democracy according to the subsidiarity principle, and demonstrates a new approach to developing the undernourished, regionalised sectors of its economy. This credibility would grant British proposals for reform greater weight on the table, and increase the directional leadership – and soft power – of the UK in Europe. Perhaps also pertinent is that it is unlikely that a Scottish voice in Europe would be grandly divergent in policy aims, proposals and implementation from the UK, potentially forging a strong and healthy alliance between two independent member states around the negotiating table in Brussels.
In trade, energy, and political power, the case for Scottish independence is compelling- but there are other areas in which the case against Scottish independence is perhaps equally as strong. The difference is that it is no longer policy-makers, in their “ivory-and-oak towers” at Westminster, who make the decision. Now it is the people of Scotland, who deserve access to as much information as possible, and who ought to use that information, who will make that decision.