I. Is Scottish Secession Inherently Objectionable?
The first question is relatively easy. In general, secession is defensible if a regional majority (or perhaps a supermajority) supports it, their new government respects basic human rights (or, in extreme cases, at least violates them less than the previous rulers), and the new regime is no worse than the old central government it is escaping. Unlike the recent Russian-sponsored secession movements in eastern Ukraine and Crimea or the secession of the American south in 1861, Scottish secession easily meets these standards.
The Scots would likely form a government that respects basic human rights about as much as the current UK government does. An independent Scotland would have a large English minority. But few expect that the Scots intend to oppress that minority in any significant way. Ethnic hostility between the two groups is very modest, and an independent Scotland would have strong incentives to treat its English citizens well in order to stimulate continued trade and investment from the rump UK. In sharp contrast to the fraudulent and coercive independence referendum in Crimea, the Scottish referendum is likely to be free and honest. If the “yes” side wins, it is highly likely that it really does enjoy majority support.
Many Scottish nationalists, of course, justify independence not on grounds of individual choice, but on ethnic solidarity and cultural self-determination. I am highly skeptical of nationalism generally, so this argument does not much move me. In addition, it does not seem like (at least in recent decades), Scottish culture and ethnic self-expression has somehow been repressed within the UK. Unlike the Tibetans, for example, it is hard to argue that the Scots are victims of cultural suppression by their larger neighbors. Be that as it may, the Scots should be allowed to choose independence even if they are not victims of severe oppression or discrimination within the UK. The UK government itself concedes that much, as shown by its willingness to hold the referendum and commit to accepting the result.
II. Is it Actually a Good Idea?
The more difficult question is whether Scottish independence, though not inherently objectionable, is actually a good idea. Much depends on what policies an independent Scottish state is likely to adopt. Many Scottish nationalists want to adopt more left-wing welfare state policies than those of the current British government. But it’s far from clear whether an independent Scotland will actually be able to follow such a path. Currently, Scotland receives significant net subsidies from the UK government (unless one attributes all North Sea oil revenue to Scotland alone, and the UK is unlikely to let Scotland keep all the North Sea oil for itself if the two nations separate). An independent Scotland would lose those subsidies, and might have to increase taxes significantly to maintain the welfare state at its current size, much less expand it. Such large tax increases might not be viable, since they would cause investors, businesses, and others to flee south of the border.
One relevant precedent is the experience of the “Velvet Divorce” between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose success is sometimes cited by Scottish independence advocates as a possible model for their own breakup with Britain. Like many Scottish nationalists, advocates of Slovak independence wanted to break away from their larger, richer, partner, in part so they could pursue more interventionist economic policies. But, with the loss of Czech subsidies, independent Slovakia ended up having to pursue much more free market-oriented policies than before, which led to impressive growth. The Czech Republic, freed from having to pay the subsidies, also pursued relatively free market policies, and both nations are among the great success stories of Eastern Europe.
Like Slovakia, an independent Scotland might adopt more free market policies out of necessity. And the rump UK (like the Czechs before it), might move in the same direction. The secession of Scotland would deprive the more interventionist Labor Party of 41 seats in the House of Commons, while costing the Conservatives only one. The center of gravity of British politics would, at least to some extent, move in a more pro-market direction, just as the Czech Republic’s did relative to those of united Czechoslovakia.
If the breakup of the UK is likely to resemble that of Czechoslovakia, this suggests that free market advocates should welcome it, while social democrats should be opposed. Obviously, other scenarios are possible. For example, famed economist Paul Krugman claims that Scottish independence is likely to result in an economic disaster, because a small country without a currency of its own cannot deal with dangerous macroeconomic crises. I lack the expertise to judge whether Krugman’s prediction is sound. But it does seem like there are obvious counterexamples of small countries that have done well without having their own currencies; Slovakia is a good example. Moreover, although Scottish independence advocates today claim that they will stick to the pound, they could reverse that decision in the future.
All of the above assumes that an independent Scotland will be able to stay in the European Union, and that there would be free trade and freedom of movement between it and the remaining United Kingdom. If the Scots get locked out of the EU or prevented from interacting freely with the UK (perhaps as a result of backlash by angry English public opinion), Scottish independence becomes a lot less viable and a lot more likely to cause serious harm on both sides of the new border.
I am skeptical that either exclusion from the EU or a tightly restricted border with the UK is likely to happen. The EU has an interest in accepting Scotland (though it might require it to accept the Euro), and the UK would have a strong interest in good relations with its newly independent neighbor. But those predictions could be overoptimistic. Ignorant and irrational public opinion sometimes leads governments to adopt self-destructive policies, especially where nationalist sentiment comes into play.
Overall, I think it’s clear that Scottish independence isn’t inherently objectionable. Whether it is actually a good idea is a much tougher call. Much depends what policies an independent Scotland would adopt, whether the Velvet Divorce really is a good predictor of what will happen in this case, and how Britain and the EU are likely to react to Scottish independence. Weighing these types of considerations will not be an easy task for Scottish voters. Because the issues are complex and there is so much at stake, voters will have an even stronger obligation to become informed about than in a normal election. Of course, they could instead just ask what Harry Potter or James Bond would do.