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Society, Politics & Law

Defending the Union: The case for staying in the UK

Updated Wednesday, 1st May 2013

Article six of eight: Examining the key arguments.

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The case for remaining in the Union has traditionally focused more on economic benefits and cultural security. However, as noted previously, the Better Together campaign have already admitted there is no longer a reason why Scotland cannot be an independent country. While claims are still being made about Scotland plunging into poverty after independence and that it will have to give up being, as Michael Portillo put it, a 'pensioner relying on the English taxpayer', the political ground has shifted to emphasising why Scotland should stay in the Union rather than why it has to. There are four key arguments being put forward, namely, that Scotland will have:

  • the best of 'both worlds' in terms of political representation
  • a well-established single market for Scottish businesses
  • 'real clout' on the international stage
  • social stability in terms of cultural and community interdependence.

The first of these is actually premised on the assumption that if Scotland opts to stay in the Union then the Scottish Parliament will remain an important, if not become an enhanced, feature of the political landscape. Scotland will benefit, therefore, from representative national (i.e. Scottish) government on the issues that 'matter most' to the people of Scotland, while at the same retaining a voice in Westminster over areas such as defence and foreign policy. Welfare benefits and payments could be a point of contention but devo-max and Devo Plus are feasible options for addressing some nationally specific social needs. However, one proposal in the wake of the referendum on independence is for there to be Devo Minus, leading to the removal of devolved powers from the Scottish Parliament. Here the claim is that Scottish devolution has been an experiment gone wrong, almost causing the break-up of the UK rather than securing its stability. As a consequence, if the Scottish electorate vote to stay in the Union then it is the Union that should be enhanced via a return of powers to Westminster. This would give a clear message to the defeated Scottish nationalists that the tide has turned. While an unlikely scenario, Devo Minus undermines the Better Together argument on Scotland having 'the best of both worlds', and reflects divisions among the unionists.

The other three arguments are more straightforward in making a case for staying in the Union. The UK is the longest surviving single-market in the world and benefits Scottish firms by providing access to 61 million English-speaking consumers, with no border controls on the movement of people as well as goods. While the EU has removed tariffs and a large number of controls on the movement of goods and capital, borders do remain as well as language barriers. The UK also provides Scots with a seat on the G8, G20, and UN Security Councils, something not afforded to the Polish or Danish.

However, perhaps the strongest case by the pro-union campaign is made in terms of social stability with regards to cultural and community interdependence. This relates back to the points made by Galloway in the video in the article A complex and evolving debate. People across the UK currently share trade unions, sports associations, churches, pension and insurance funds, and probably most importantly, relatives. The UK in this sense should not be seen as a formal, legal institution (although it is clearly that) but as an interwoven piece of social fabric which has developed at an informal level – people identify with one another through historic and cultural events such as union struggles, wars against a common enemy or sporting events (the London Olympics of August 2012, for example). The struggle for 'unionists' like George Galloway (and he rejected this term) is convincing the Scottish public that this communion is what the 'real' Union is about as opposed to the political incorporation of elites that it started out as in 1707. The use of 'ordinary Scots' by Better Together typically emphasises this types of 'community' feeling.

In comparing the two campaigns, it is definitely the independence one that has more internal coherence. That is, its supporters know what they want as a single permanent constitutional settlement. Meanwhile, even UK government ministers have struggled to define exactly what is meant by the Union and what it means to be British in contemporary times. When pushed to define typical British institutions, the New Labour Home Secretary David Blunket cited the NHS, BBC and The Open University – and avoided the monarchy, Palace of Westminster, the single UK market (and industrial history), the military, and even sporting teams as he knew these could be divisive. Hence, there are several competing unionist options for how the UK constitutional issue can be settled (devo-max, Devo Plus and even Devo Minus). This does not mean that the independence campaign cannot be defeated, but simply that what a unionist victory means is continually open to question and requestion.

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