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Breaking up the Family: Why does Scotland want to go Independent?

19 May 2021
By Conor McLaughlin
PM Boris Johnson visits Darnford Farm in Aberdeenshire. Source: No 10 Downing Street

The Scottish National Party’s election outcome, coupled with a pro-independence majority in the parliament, have intensified calls for a referendum. The undercurrent of the independence debate is less about antipathy towards the union, but rather its ineffectiveness.

As predicted, on the sixth of May, 2021, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned for its fourth term in government, gaining its largest parliamentary seat share in a decade. Despite not gaining an overall majority, what remains pertinent and continues to be so is that the Scottish parliament now hosts its largest pro-independence seat share in its history, with a 72-57 margin. As a result, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invited Scotland’s returning first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the other leaders of the UK’s devolved nations for crisis talks to discuss the state of the union.

Even though an independence referendum is more likely, it is by no means imminent, with both Johnson and Sturgeon commonly agreeing that the main priority for both the Scottish and British governments will be to steer the country through its post-pandemic economic recovery. However, regardless of the realities of when an independence campaign might materialise, it is increasingly important to understand why the desire for an independent Scotland is emerging once again.


Little over a generation ago, in the 1950s and early 60s, the union could not have been more secure. The UK’s traditional dual party Conservative-Labour system favoured maintaining the integrity of the union as better together, fighting for common values on a common approach. During this time, a desire for Scottish independence was virtually non-existent, and the SNP was more of an irrelevant and eccentric sect as opposed to the mainstream political party we witness today.

Indeed, during this time, the distinct identities of Scotland and England played a reduced role in the national consciousness, resulting from the collective memory of British sacrifice of the second world war. Concurrently, the British Empire, which Scots were so fundamentally involved in, started to dissolve, therefore opening cracks up for a discussion to occur about the strength of the union. Yet despite this, the welfare state was established soon after, coupled with the nationalisation of key industries further strengthened the idea of a British-wide collective economic enterprise and became the new anchor for the union.

Economics and Trade

In keeping with the economic frame, when Scotland entered into the union in 1707, the principal narrative governing the decision was the desire for Scotland to gain access to not only England’s domestic market but its lucrative colonial enterprises. However, the importance for Scotland of maintaining free access to the English market reduced when the British Empire collapsed, coupled with the UK’s membership to the European common market in 1973.

A decade later, the Scottish story of the 1980s is perhaps the most crucial turning point to understanding Scotland’s appetite for independence. During the Thatcher-led Conservative government’s neoliberal agenda, Scotland lost close to a third of its manufacturing capacity, largely due to a retraction of subsidies provided by the British government. The heavy industries that had supported the Scottish economy for over a century virtually disappeared in a matter of a few years. A post-industrial economic structure did not emerge in the years following, leaving Scotland increasingly dependent on the welfare state and public spending towards essential services, which too witnessed a sharp decrease in funding from the same government. Herein lies much of the basis of a divergence in political cultures between Scotland and England.

Political Differences

Following the Thatcher administration, Scotland soon became a Conservative-free zone. However, if we scratch under the surface of the contemporary debate, we again see a similar pattern. The most apparent reality which is driving Scotland’s desire to leave the United Kingdom is not so much an outright animosity towards England, nor the union more generally, but rather the recognition that the nations of the union appear to be adopting different political paths.

Looking beyond the Conservative-free dynamics of Scotland, the political divergence is commonly characterised by the notion of a “democratic deficit.” That is to say, because of Scotland’s relatively low population in comparison to England, its share of seats in the Westminster Parliament are less likely to result in meaningful impact to British policy decisions. From the Iraq War to Brexit, the financial crisis to austerity, Scotland’s position on all of these matters was in stark contrast to that of England’s. Nonetheless, because Scotland maintained a reduced capacity in Parliament to influence decisions, it became entrenched within a predominantly English-oriented government policy.

Indeed, the counter argument to this interpretation is that since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, the powers granted to the Scottish assembly have undoubtedly increased since its creation. The Scottish Parliament has responsibility over health, education, housing policy, justice, and communities. Despite this, however, the vast majority of the social security system, as well as foreign policy, defence, and economic issues are still reserved for the Westminster Parliament.

The union, since its inception, has undoubtedly been a balancing act. When the bonds of union have begun to loosen at any point in time, there has always been another policy or government action that has reinforced the knot. However, three centuries of productive union have largely been forgotten about by three decades of neglect. The Scottish independence movement is the trigger for an end to a political union rightly thought by many Scots to be no longer fit for purpose, and the SNP, for the most part, is holding the gun.

Conor McLaughlin is the Research Coordinator in the Defence and Research Engagement portfolio at Edith Cowan University (ECU).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.