In September 2014, the whole world was focusing on the independence referendum in Scotland, in which the fate of more than 5 million Scots was decided. Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that the vote will have significant repercussions for the United Kingdom and the European Union and that it could have ripple effects further afield.

A large number of people—3.62 million voters—took part in the referendum on September 18. The electorate consisted of 4.28 million people, and the turnout rate was over 84 percent. Notably, in this referendum, London only recognized Scottish residents (including British and EU citizens living in Scotland) as qualified voters, not the entire population of the United Kingdom, which is over 60 million. Voters were asked, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” In the end, 44.7 percent of voters (1.62 million people) said “yes” to independence, and 55.3 percent (2.00 million) said “no.” Clearly, the population favoring a sovereign Scottish state is not just a fringe group of separatists. 

Shi Zhiqin
An expert on European issues, Shi Zhiqin runs a program on China-EU Relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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A geographical split can also be observed. On close examination, a majority of voters sided with the “yes” campaign in only four voting districts: Dundee, Glasgow (Scotland’s largest overall), West Dunbartonshire, and North Lanarkshire. Out of the 32 total voting districts, 28 went to the “no” side.

These numbers reflect not just the fact that a significant portion of Scotland’s population does not want to stay in the United Kingdom but also that there is a rift running through Scottish society. Different political stances create divisions between families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, which in turn cause emotions to rise and create social instability. 

Although the referendum failed, the long-term Scottish independence movement has deepened divisions between England and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to get in line to demand more power, just as Scotland is doing.

London and Edinburgh have entered into a lengthy fight over another round of devolution. In addition, the three main parties in the parliament in London are arguing over how much authority should be decentralized to Edinburgh, especially over the degree of fiscal authority that should be transferred and how to implement such a power transfer. For the Scottish parliament, obtaining more autonomy from London would be a step in the right direction. In particular, Scotland has long desired greater control over tax collection and its social welfare system.

Meanwhile, the referendum once again raised the question of whether members of parliament from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland should be allowed to vote in the parliament in London on issues that concern the internal affairs of England—the so-called West Lothian question. 

In allowing residents of Scotland to vote in a referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron demonstrated to the world that his government places the values of human rights and freedom above sovereignty, all without losing an inch of land. In the Western world, which promotes freedom and democracy, the British gained a position on the moral high ground.

The referendum will also have economic repercussions. Before the vote, several banks and large enterprises registered in Scotland declared that they would move out of Scotland if the pro-independence voices won. This led to a drop in investor confidence in the UK as a whole, which is especially bad for an economy that is still recovering from the prolonged financial crisis. And the Scottish investment environment could be further affected. It remains uncertain whether the economic and welfare policy put forward by the Scottish Socialist Party (which is strongly pro-independence) will attract investors and foreign enterprises if Scotland gains greater autonomy.

In terms of foreign relations, a United Kingdom that is preoccupied with internal matters has been less capable of playing on the international stage.  

Furthermore, the Scottish vote has had a domino effect on independence movements in other countries. This evoked dissatisfaction with the UK from those countries involved. Catalonia in Spain, for instance, was encouraged by the Scottish referendum to hold its own unofficial vote on November 9 despite significant resistance from the Spanish government; 80 percent of voters backed independence. The domino effect could spread even further, to the separatist forces in the Flemish region of Belgium, Venice in Italy, Bavaria in Germany, and even Okinawa in Japan.

The referendum also brought up questions about the EU’s rules and regulations. Before the referendum, EU leaders such as the European Commission’s president at the time, José Manuel Barroso, stressed that Scotland would not automatically become a member of the EU if voters chose independence. According to the rules, every existing member state has the power to veto the entry of Scotland into the union, even though Scotland would have been a European country that fully met EU standards. This reaction of the EU has jeopardized its reputation as an advocate for freedom, democracy, and the protection of interests of minority groups.

However, accepting Scotland as a member state of the EU would have irritated the UK, which is already contemplating an exit plan from the EU. It could have also provoked further unrest among separatists in other countries, such as Spain and Italy. Moreover, adding another independent country to the union would have certainly made it more difficult for the EU to make joint decisions.

It is clear from Brussels’s response to the Scottish vote that the EU is now a pragmatic actor. That is not a bad thing after all—the union has long been criticized for being too idealistic. It seems that the prolonged sovereign debt crisis and the situation in Ukraine have taught the EU the meaning of unity in diversity.  

On a positive note, the domestic separatist forces in the UK are likely to remain relatively silent in the short term. The United Kingdom is still holding together and remains economically stable. It has retained its international status in a peaceful and legal way. Yet, the Scottish separatist movement has made clear that it will not end the pursuit of independence in the long term. The immediate question for now is how much longer it will be before another UK member demands independence. A more theoretical question is whether a democratic system is beneficial or detrimental to the governance of a country made up of many nations.

Lai Suetyi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of International Relations of Tsinghua University, researching China-EU relations, mutual perceptions between Asia and Europe, interregionalism, and the Asia-Europe Meeting.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.