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Federalism in Scotland, and American lessons for Britain

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How do you deal with a political party that doesn’t even want to be in office?

That’s the question that British politicians are asking themselves in the ramp-up to the 2015 UK election. Less than a year ago, the Scottish National Party (SNP) masterminded the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and nearly pulled Scotland out of the United Kingdom. They failed, but now they’re surging in support and will likely take at least 45 of Scotland’s 49 parliamentary seats. Moreover, it looks like neither the ruling Conservative Party nor its Labour opponents will secure enough seats in Parliament to form a government on their own. We may well see an actively secessionist political faction holding the balance of power in the United Kingdom, America’s most famous ally and the fifth-largest economy in the world.

People thought that the Scottish independence question had been shelved for the foreseeable future. But the referendum does not change the existing tensions in British politics. Without reforms that entrench federalism and local autonomy in the UK, it seems almost inevitable that the issue will come up again. Will the independence movement survive the referendum, and if it does, how can an SNP bloc that retains its desire for independence function responsibly in a government that it ultimately wants to leave?

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Even though one referendum has failed, it’s hard to imagine that the drive for independence will completely disappear. Scottish disaffection with the Union will be a key force in British politics for years. If 45 percent of Californians voted to leave the Union, Americans would be panicking. How much alienation must Scots feel if 45 percent of them voted last year to leave? Yes, 45 percent is not a majority, and so Scotland stayed in the Union. But it is an absolutely massive minority. British politicians need to ask why Scotland came so close to seceding in the first place.

Will the SNP try to call a second referendum, now that it may soon be able to force Labour to its knees? The time is not right. Oil-rich Scotland’s economic case for independence has been severely hurt by the recent collapse in energy prices – a race to the bottom that would have torn an “£18 billion black hole” in the Scottish budget. A drive for a second referendum would make the party look like it was chasing shadows. And further demands, especially when a legitimate vote has already been taken, would definitely hurt the SNP’s image south of the border. The center-left SNP has ruled out any coalition with the Conservatives, but regardless, we don’t know if unionist voters in the social-democratic Labour Party would respond positively to their elected representatives working with secessionists, even politically similar ones. They know that if the SNP gets its way, any political alliance would be temporary at best.

So for now the SNP is in a strange position: unable to enact its signature proposal (independence), yet at the same time wielders of an imminent and massive power in a government it technically wants no part of. That sounds like a gilt-edged opportunity for the SNP to redefine itself: to turn from independence, become a long-term force in Parliament, and work to further Scottish interests while acknowledging the primacy of the UK. Yet it’s equally clear that the SNP isn’t going to quit.

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The independence movement is not going away. It has been delayed, to be sure: SNP party boss Nicola Sturgeon has now coupled her continued demands for independence with a call for increased autonomy, as long as Scotland remains within the existing UK political framework. But ultimately these aims are at cross-purposes. The SNP loves to talk about how it’s going to influence politics in Westminster, but it has to ask whether it should work with the all-UK parties or ignore them altogether. And it’s doubtful whether the SNP can or should even want to accomplish the former.

Yes, the federalism that Sturgeon seeks may cause Scotland’s economy to diverge from that of the United Kingdom as a whole. (It is a curious but understandable concession to politics that the SNP nevertheless wants to stay wedded to the British pound, which would force Scotland to accept the financial hegemony of the Bank of England.) And the greater the divergence, the easier a political split would probably be.

However, the United States, Canada, India and many other countries have found that federalism actually works wonders in convincing people from different regions to live under the same overall banner. Limited self-government is important, and the UK will still survive if Scotland assumes more authority and power in areas that concern only Scotland. The central government (or in the the aforementioned countries’ cases, the federal government) doesn’t need to control every aspect of people’s political lives.

Federalism and devolution may give moderates in the SNP a reason to rethink independence and return to the unionist fold. What if the UK allowed Scotland to vote on whether to keep Trident-equipped nuclear submarines in Scottish ports? Pollsters can argue about the exact numbers, but many Scots aren’t too happy about the current arrangement. So if the subs move elsewhere, that’s one fewer reason to leave the UK. Replicate that effect for all sorts of other divisive issues, and you erode away much of the SNP base. Consequently, devolution could be the undoing of the SNP as a major force in British politics, as long as independence remains the primary reason why the SNP exists.

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I asked at the beginning of this column, “How can an SNP bloc that retains its desire for independence function responsibly in a government that it ultimately wants to leave?” Perhaps “responsibly” is the wrong word, but if you believe that parties in a government should try to make that government more effective, the SNP may end up disappointing you. Effective government from Westminster that better responds to Scottish concerns can only undermine the independence movement that the SNP claims to champion.

The best thing that could possibly happen to the SNP right now is if it made demands for political devolution – something that Westminster actually offered in the run-up to the referendum – only for these demands to be rejected. A failure to enact meaningful reforms would add to the independence movement by strengthening the conviction that the political interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK are irreconcilable.

Gridlock and political instability — the almost inevitable result of the vote-by-vote support that the SNP plans to offer a Labour minority government — will further tarnish Parliament in Scots’ eyes. Consequently, it is in the interest of the SNP to accentuate divisive issues and make demands that it knows will never be accepted. But the SNP still needs the UK to play into Sturgeon’s hands, rejecting federalism and, in doing so, breaking what is generally viewed as a very visible political promise. And the UK will likely opt to head in a more rational direction.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.