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Common Cents

Great Britainís Sunset?

Ralph Murphy

'When people say England, they sometimes mean Great Britain, sometimes the United Kingdom, sometimes the British Isles - but never England.'
              - 'How to be an Alien' by George Mikes

(5/9/2014) Winston Churchill was famously quoted as saying "the sun never sets on the British empire". While that's largely true of the 53-nation Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), his assertion has not stood the test of time as regards sovereignty. A Scottish referendum for independence is set for 18 September and Great Britain (or simply Britain) would fall largely into historic oblivion. If approved, Britain could lose one third of its territory and one twelfth of its population. This says much about international alliances and domestic pressures being exploited by opportunists.

The Irish struggled for hundreds of years against English rule, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has waged a bloody campaign with roots in the "Irish Volunteers" of 1913. Many respect the effort and it continues with less violence in Northern Ireland to this day. To win full autonomy and international inclusion as the Scots may very well do shortly, without a shot being fired indicates something is painfully wrong with the British ruling structure.

Scotland was an independent country for 800 years before being formally annexed by England in the Treaty of Union of 1707. The region was granted an assembly and home rule by 1853, and in 1928 a National Party of Scotland was created. This political movement was the forerunner to the Scottish National Party (SNP) which emerged in 1934, and continues to this day.

The SNP is a major player in the modern Scottish Parliament, which had its beginning in the 13th century and continued to incorporation with the English Parliament in 1707 to form Westminster Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is located in Edinburgh and was voted back into existence in a Scottish referendum of 1997. The parliament convened for the first time in almost three centuries through the Scotland Act of 1998.

Curiously the formation of the new Parliament was preceded by a 1979 referendum on devolution of powers from London to Edinburgh which actually won a 48-52% majority, but was cleverly downed by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government for not having won 40% of the voting electorate. The 1997 effort brought out 44.8% of the voters and gained 74.3% approval.

This act offered "devolved powers" from Westminster, or areas it can make laws, and not a part of "reserved powers" or those retained by London. Devolved powers are important, but relatively minor sectors of jurisdiction to include "local agriculture, fisheries and forestry, environment, food standards, health, and regional laws". The reserved powers retained by England as explicitly stated in the agreement are legally outside the Scottish Parliament and its Ministries domain. The excluded powers include "abortion, broadcasting policy, civil service, energy sources to include nuclear power, coal and gas, defense, drug policy, social security, and the UK's fiscal and economic monetary system".

London retained control, and the arrangement appeared to work, but then Scotland started to push. In 2007 Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond led the SNP to largely, undisputed leadership of the Legislative Assembly. He rallied a "National Conversation" in August of that year which pushed for further devolution or even outright independence. That effort stalled, but was followed in 2010, by an SNP-backed, 84-page demand on "Scotland's Future". It sought approval for increased powers from Westminster.

The paper was followed by an appeal for Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) support for a law change in the Scottish Parliament to either control "all laws, taxes and duties in Scotland", but allow Westminster to continue its rule in "foreign affairs, financial regulation, monetary policy, and the currency". Voters could also opt for additional "fiscal reform, with associated tax and government borrowing" or most importantly allow the MSP to consider converting Scotland into "a country that would have the rights and responsibilities of a normal, sovereign state". This last effort lacked a majority in 2010, but by 2011, with an increased SNP presence in the nation's parliament, was approved as a referendum issue for voters in a future poll.

Those eligible to vote on the measure were announced to include "British residents of Scotland, citizens of 53 Commonwealth countries resident in Scotland, citizens of other European Union countries resident in Scotland, residents of the House of Lords resident in Scotland, and service and Crown personnel serving overseas in UK armed forces who are residents of Scotland". Quite a wide swath. The mostly liberal Scottish Parliament also sought to reduce the voting age from 18 years to 16.

Reaction was swift from Westminster. House of Lord's Baroness Symons allowed that since the whole of the United Kingdom would be affected all should be entitled to vote. The House of Lords is largely void of power, and the government's position was better reflected in Advocate General Lord Wallace's abdication in allowing that "whether or not Scotland remains in the United Kingdom is a matter for Scotland".

The independence movement has been forwarded by a largely center left coalition which currently includes the SNP with 65 Parliament seats, and Scottish Labor with 38. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party mustered a mere 15 MSP's and are the closest that region has to an opposition for a movement seen as backed by the EU. Former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson allowed that Scottish independence could be "cataclysmic for the West. The breakup of the UK and therefore the disintegration of one of the key pillars, the anchor of the Western alliance." HIs concerns were echoed by former Prime Minister John Major who warned England may "lose its permanent seat in the UN Security Council".

Westminster appears generally against independence, but somehow is ready to let it happen. In January 2012 the UK government "provided the Scottish Parliament with the specific powers to hold a referendum provided it was clear, legal, and decisive". The Scottish government announced 21 March, 2013 the referendum would be held 18 September, 2014. It received "Royal Assent" on 7 August, 2013, and judging by the almost three quarters approval for devolution in 1997, and continued separatist momentum, really could lead to the avulsion. There are almost no breaks to the measure at this point, and much Scottish and EU approval.

The "Yes Scotland" party for separation includes the SNP, Scottish Green Party, and Scottish Socialist Party. The government this coalition leads promises a 15,000 unit land, air, and sea military force by 2026. At that level the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) probably wouldn't accept them as a member. The UK has a Trident Nuclear Weapons System based at Coulport in the Firth of Clyde area of Scotland. The SNP wants them out, but London says there's no alternative location available. This is a point of friction that is yet to be resolved.

The "Better Together" party has widespread English backing, even Labour Party and Liberal Democrats along with predictable Tories. That apparently hasn't translated into Scottish support. Labor's Alastair Darling, Campaign Leader for the Scot Group felt "Yes Scotland" unrealistic in its policies. "Instead of a credible and costed plan, we have a wish list of political promises without any answers on how Alex Salmond would pay for them".

Economically the economy is at present roughly comparable to that of England were it to be separate. Per capita income or Gross earnings divided by population was reportedly 26,440 for Scotland and 22,300 for England in recent years. Unemployment in Scotland is 8.5% to England's 8.9%. The Scots would adopt North Sea Oil reserves, but these have decreased. There has been a 41.5% drop in oil revenues in recent years while the spending deficit has spiked.

RBS and Lloyd's Banking group concede they might relocate from Edinburgh to London "for financial security concerns". An Oxford study commissioned by the Weir Group also cited "additional costs and complexities in the operation of business pension schemes. The report notes that 70% of all Scottish exports (are sent to England)" giving the British trade leverage. The United States Federal Reserve has committed $464 billion to the Bank of Scotland, but might be weary of a continued presence given questionable risk insurance associated with the separation.

The Scottish Independence referendum is set for 18 September. If Scotland secedes, as seems likely by the polls, there will be a plethora of changes in domestic and international dealings. England would likely look to punish its new neighbor economically, and has already indicated the Scots will probably have to print their own money or adopt the Euro- as the Pound Sterling is not an option. A "red herring" perhaps, but a background issue all the same. If Scotland does vote for independence, and Westminster doesn't rally its reversal, the two nations will be marginal world players. However, this will not happen until Westminster formally approves the referendum. This could happen soon.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

Read past editions of Ralph Murphy's Common Cents