After a lengthy independence campaign, driven in by part by complaints about taxation, public spending, mismanagement of oil reserves in the North Sea, and environmental policy, Scottish voters have decided to remain in the UK, by a 10.6 margin. However, during the campaign, the UK promised a devolution of power back to Scotland. The UK will now have to stand by those promises, which include giving Scotland’s parliament greater power over taxing and welfare.
Even without independence, there are likely to be two main effects of Scotland’s referendum.
It will influence secessionist movements all over the world.
By allowing independence to be decided democratically, the UK set an example that secessionists all over the world will push their governments to follow. The most obvious example is Catalonia, in Spain, which will have a non-binding referendum for secession on November 9. Flanders, a Dutch-speaking portion of Belgium and one of the most profitable components of the Belgium economy, also has a secession movement. In fact, there are over 40 secessionist movements in Europe alone. Other would-be secessionists include the Faroe Islands which want to be free of Denmark and Padania in northern Italy. Even within the UK, the devolution of power is likely to encourage similar devolutions in Wales and Northern Ireland. These movements now have what they never did before: an example to live by—and to hold their mother countries to.
Devolution of power is likely to gain steam.
The most important result is that the UK will have to stick by its promise of devolution of power, and not just for Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to receive the same concessions, and there is even talk of creating a separate English parliament to handle English issues.
This is part of a larger trend of devolution and return to local governments. According to The End of Power by Moises Naim, “Devolution is an international trend. Italy set up elected regional councils as early as 1970. France followed suit with regional assemblies in 1982. Belgium turned itself into a federal system in 1993,” and Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway have continued the trends. Also “Major decentralization programs are also under way in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Estonia.” All over the world, since the 1940s, empires have given way to countries which are devolving into ever-smaller states. There are 4x as many sovereign states as there were in 1947.
However, devolution does not necessarily mean greater autonomy. While libertarians are always advocates of decentralization and local autonomy, the truth is that the path is long, and the intermediate time won’t necessarily be clearly more free.
There’s no going back – we’re part of a global economy. Even if Scotland had achieved independence, it would have continued to be a member of the European Union, NATO, and other international forums; Scotland would continue to share currency with the UK; an integrated social security bureaucracy is likely for at least some time after independence; even a single energy market was proposed. In short, at least initially, there would have been a proliferation of bureaucracy and rules, not a reduction.
It’s no longer true that a country’s laws are the only limits on its actions. International treaties (the number of which have tripled since 1970), international organizations like the IMF and non-state actors such as investors have a strong influence on a state’s monetary, foreign, communications, trade, finance, migration, nuclear proliferation, endangered animals and more. Gridlock is an international trend, and one that looks like it’s here to stay. And adding another level of government – in this case, a Scottish national government – tends to complicate rather than simplify.
Moises Naim uses the analogy of Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians: everyone country is constrained by hundreds of considerations. A thousand micropowers lead to a proliferation of gridlock. In some ways this is good – at least it becomes difficult to pass new laws – but also bad, because it means truly innovative, individual or community-driven solutions will be likely blocked, watered down, or fundamentally altered. And that stasis is probably going to get more pronounced before it gets better.