Since the United Kingdom officially left the EU, the Scottish independence movement has as much momentum as it has ever had before. As such, the UK government faces an existential crisis in maintaining the integrity of the union. This article outlines the impact a Biden administration could have on a Scottish bid for independence, and the strategy Boris Johnson could implement to stop it.
On 30 December 2020, the European Union (Future Relationship) Act was passed in the UK’s House of Commons. The 1,246-page act, which sets out the conditions, amongst other things, for Britain’s trading relationship with the EU was passed with a clear majority of 521 votes in favour. Of the 73 votes against, the largest share was attributed to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) whose 46 MPs used their vote to express their opposition to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Whilst this defiance may have appeared symbolic, it actually represented the very real and looming threat of a surge for Scottish independence and thus, the breakdown of the United Kingdom in its present form. Recent elections in Scotland meanwhile, have placed additional precedence on the debate regarding independence and the state of the British Union.
On the other side of the Atlantic, significant change has also been afoot with Joe Biden being inaugurated as the 47th President of the United States. Whilst his predecessor Donald Trump had declared his opposition to Scottish independence and was a fan of Boris Johnson’s populist rhetoric, Biden’s level-headed diplomacy and support for multilateralism appears to align more closely with Nicola Sturgeon’s (leader of the SNP and Scotland First Minister) outlook on policy. Despite the issue of independence being a domestic matter within the UK, approval from a US administration is beneficial for any newly sovereign state, in terms of attaining desirable trade agreements (the US is Scotland’s largest export partner outside of Europe) and pursing multilateral policy objectives like joint initiatives on security or climate change mitigation. Scottish nationalists will be cognisant of this, as the reconfiguration of British and American governance starts to take effect.
The outcome of the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections, which took place on 6 May, is also of significance in the context of Scottish independence. They resulted in the SNP winning 64 of the 129 seats available in the Scottish executive, Holyrod chamber. Despite being just one seat short of a majority, the SNP are expected to coalesce with the Scottish Greens as in the previous administration, who are also a pro-independence party. Sturgeon has already claimed this as a clear mandate to push forward with independence and pursue a referendum on the basis of an election that saw the highest ever turnout of voters at 10% above the average for Scottish elections. Armed with these fresh election results and a ‘roadmap to independence’ strategy, which outlines the legal basis for holding a referendum even in the eventuality that the UK government would not consent to it, the SNP will be confident in their ambitions for independence going forward. Moreover, Brexit has been a catalyst for increased exposure to the ‘constitutional question’ and debate regarding independence, as the harsh realities of life outside the EU’s single market become apparent. This is particularly pertinent considering that in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the reason most cited by those who voted against independence is the economic insecurity associated with leaving the UK and thus the EU.
Owing to Biden’s views, Scottish grievances rooted in EU non-membership might garner support from the new US Presidential administration. Biden (unlike Trump) has consistently been a vocal opponent of Brexit, paying particular attention to the ostensible threat to peace on the island of Ireland, from which his ancestry is derived. He even went as far as making any post-Brexit Anglo-US trade deal contingent on the avoidance of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Biden thus appears to sympathize with those who feel aggrieved by the impact of Brexit and British Euroscepticism broadly speaking. Considering the political momentum behind another drive for Scottish independence off the back of Brexit, and the mandate claimed by Sturgeon and Co with their pro-independence coalition, Biden would be more hesitant than his predecessor in the White House, to expressly inhibit the will of the Scottish people in this regard.
Aside from an improved ideological affiliation, Scotland and the US under Biden share common policy goals which may also serve to strengthen their relationship. In the area of climate change mitigation, Biden has taken extensive measures, encapsulated in the ‘Green New Deal’, which will usher in widespread reform of climate policy as well heavy investment in renewable energy resources. Considering that Scotland will host next year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), it is an excellent opportunity for them to stake out their impressive renewable energy credentials and assert themselves as a key player in the fight against climate change. For example, Scotland targeted its electricity to be 100 per cent renewably generated by 2020 (the actual figures have not been released yet). Furthermore, levels of renewably generated electricity were 45 per cent higher than the equivalent figure for the rest of the UK in 2018. If the SNP, who have presided over these policies, can frame this as a national effort rather than a policy pursued in conjuncture with the UK government, their ambitious approach to climate change might mean Biden will support their other interests going forward.
Despite the potential impact a Biden Presidency might have on support for Scottish independence, Boris Johnson also may assert his influence to try and hinder the movement and protect Unionism. Aside from preventing a referendum from taking place at all (something that Trump, as well as many British conservative politicians, have suggested), a more effective long-term solution could be to confer more legislative powers to the Scottish parliament than what they already have.
Due to the Scotland Act of 2016, Scotland’s government already holds relatively comprehensive powers. Further constitutional measures could be taken, however, for example, by granting Scotland full fiscal autonomy. More often referred to as ‘devolution max’, this arrangement is akin to Scotland becoming a federal state of the UK, whereby the Scottish Parliament receives all taxation levied in Scotland rather than receiving a block grant from the UK exchequer as at present. Under such conditions, Scottish Parliament would be responsible for most spending but would have to make payments to the UK government to cover the costs of defence and the conducting of foreign affairs. This is the closest to independence Scotland could get, without being officially independent.
As was debated before the 2014 referendum, the prospect of including a third option of a ‘devolution max’ on the ballot paper of an independence referendum (if it were to take place) has been expressed by a number of political figures in Scotland. Whilst Johnson has previously been reported to have called devolution in Scotland a ‘disaster’, at this point in time it might be shrewd for him to support such a move.
The view that neither the status quo nor full-blown independence is desirable options certainly exists amongst certain cohorts of Scottish people. For example, 21% of people who responded to a recent poll said they would be in favour of a ‘devolution max’ yet the majority of polls from the last year or so suggest that a ‘Yes’ to Scottish independence will be achieved if people are given a binary choice between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Importantly, there are still a lot of ‘Unsures’ in these polls, ranging between 5-15% of respondents. Considering this, a third option of a ‘devolution max’ might be the pro-Union camps best chance of swaying people who are unsure of their choice but still potentially in favour of a change.
Due to the far-reaching influence of the US on international affairs, its foreign policy can significantly impact domestic politics elsewhere. Whilst perhaps less likely to unequivocally endorse Scottish separatism, Joe Biden’s presidency could give Scottish nationalists confidence that if they break out on their own, a friendly face awaits them in Washington. Boris Johnson on the other hand faces the daunting task of quelling a Scottish nationalist movement that he helped to fuel through his pursuance of Brexit. With limited options available, a ‘devolution max’ might be his best hope in the long run, by placating those who desire more autonomy. In doing so the Union might just last.
About the author:
Andrew is a Political Sociology Graduate (MSc) based in Dublin, aspiring to work in public policy. His Master’s thesis focussed on variation within conceptions of national identities in England and their subsequent impact on Euroscepticism within the context of the Brexit referendum.
The Article is the sole work of the author. It does not represent the views of the Atlantic Community Blog or the Atlantische Initiaitive e.V.