I wrote this in Summer 2014 before the referendum on Scottish Independence that was held on 18th September that year. While it refers to Scotland leaving the UK, many of the arguments are the same for why the UK should stay part of the EU. I have not published it before, but given the parallels with Brexit I thought the time was right.
I am British and have lived in Dundee, Scotland for the last 13 years. Previously I worked in London, Oxford and Cambridge. On the 18th September 2014 I will get to vote on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom (UK) and go it alone as an independent country. Here are some of the reasons why I will be voting NO to breaking up the United Kingdom.
Philosophically I believe we should be drawing countries together, not splitting them up. There are enough problems generated in the world by nationalist groups or groups that only care about a subset of the population divided on historical or religious grounds. We need to learn to work together with people of all beliefs and origins. The UK has done this successfully for 300 years and is rich and successful because of it. Why change now?
Being a Scientist
I am a research scientist and I moved with my young family to Dundee in 2001 because of the excellence in Life Sciences and Medical Research at the University of Dundee. As such, you could say I am a part of the “Brain Gain” that has made Life Sciences at Dundee the top Life Sciences research department in Scotland and one of the top 5 in Europe. I have seen the department I work in grow over the last 13 years to around 900 people with annual income last year of £90 million. This funding has nearly all come from UK Government and charity sources. I have seen two fantastic new research buildings open in this time thanks to generous funding from charities and UK Government. My own team moved into the latest building, the Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (CTIR) in July. Establishing such a success story in science takes decades, but as I will show below, this is all under threat if Scotland votes YES to independence.
Like all research, mine is international in scope and I rely on winning research grants from government agencies and charities in competition against scientists across the UK and Europe. The research grants pay the salaries of the highly skilled staff in my research team and so support the shops, taxis, restaurants and other services in Dundee.
Science funding in the Life Sciences is dominated by UK-Government funding agencies and UK-based charities such as the Wellcome Trust. However, there is no clear message about what would happen under independence. The Wellcome Trust who fund 60% of my team’s work might impose the same model as they do in Ireland and only fund 50% of project costs, or they might choose to fund nothing in Scotland. Unfortunately, these possibilities have not been considered by the Scottish Nationalists so there is huge uncertainty about what would happen to our funding. Perhaps some deal would be worked out with the rest of the UK after independence, but this will take time. Science moves very fast and we cannot afford to tread water and wait years for politicians to negotiate such a deal when we are in competition with scientists across the world. In any case, science funding is likely to be low on the list of priorities for an independent Scotland. Sorting out the currency, major industries, banking and pensions will likely absorb all the time first.
Although my own job will probably be secure, my ability to do my job will be made very difficult by a YES vote. My job is already more difficult because of the referendum. Since the referendum was announced, I have had problems with recruiting the skilled people I need to do my research. Previously, if I advertised a job I would have 60 or 70 applicants, many of whom would be from Cambridge, Oxford or London Universities or other top centres in England and around the world. Now I see hardly any applicants from these institutions. People tell me this is because of the uncertainty about what might happen after 18th September if there is a YES vote.
Science does not stand still, it is international and we are losing out because of this uncertainty. If there is a YES vote, not only will recruitment become even more difficult but worse, many of my highly skilled and successful colleagues say they will look to leave Scotland due to the huge uncertainties about science funding and the wider implications for their pensions and savings. People with these high skills always have other options for jobs so this Brain Drain would seriously damage and possibly destroy the international reputation of the institute I work in that has been built up in Dundee over decades.
Where will the people come from?
The Brain Drain raises a further question. Where will the skilled people come from who will be needed to run an independent Scotland? How will an independent Scottish Government attract the very best and brightest people from the world to run the country and its major industries when there will be enormous economic uncertainty in a newly independent country?
Will Scotland be better off?
Nobody really knows whether Scotland would eventually be better off independent of the rest of the United Kingdom. However, what I can say with certainty is that, if independence is chosen by the residents of Scotland on 18th September, the transition will be very long, disruptive, and painful to many people. Think of any major change such as a marriage breakup or the breakup of a large company. With divorce, the transition away from a partnership is very difficult for both partners. Even if one partner is initially pleased with a new relationship, there is no guarantee that relationship will be as happy as the old one in a few years time. Likewise, with a company breakup, it may make sense to shareholders or others that this is the best course, but many people lose out in the process. A YES vote would tear apart a relationship that has lasted for 300 years and made the UK one of the most successful nations on earth. What can we possibly gain from such a break up?
Uncertainties of transition to an independent Scotland.
(a) Even if one were to accept that Scotland could be better off as an independent country, the transition would take decades to complete and consume vast resources. It is pure fantasy to suggest it can all be done in 18 months. Just about everything would have to be negotiated, from currency, nationality, transport, BBC, etc etc etc etc. In science funding if as the SNP would like, we keep a science funding area and keep the BBSRC, MRC etc with money provided by Scottish Govt to Westminster, then the level of this funding would have to be negotiated, probably every year. At the moment, Scotland does better per-capita than the rest of the UK out of science funding, but this does not seem to be factored into any of the SNP budget plans.
(b) Disruption to recruitment etc. We have already seen problems with recruitment due to the uncertainty introduced by the referendum. People from the rest of the UK are applying to us in smaller numbers and if from outside Scotland, when invited to interview, always ask “what will happen if Scotland goes independent?”. We have to put a positive spin on this, but no one knows the answer. One colleague told me that a very talented Chinese student he offered a highly prestigious and fully-funded Ph.D. to turned it down because he had seen the news about “political unrest” in Scotland and did not want to risk coming to a country like that!
(c) By going independent, Scotland would be breaking new ground. The UK would be the first prosperous nation to break up without violent conflict. Every institution that we currently take for granted would have to have its terms renegotiated with what was left of the UK. For those organisations that the YES campaign would like to keep sharing with the rest of the UK (e.g. science funding) the details of the funding model would have to be negotiated. This will take years, not months to achieve and all for what?
We already have a devolved government
In Scotland we already have control over major parts of what matters to people. For healthcare, the NHS in Scotland is separate from the NHS in England and so less vulnerable to the creeping privatisation that the current conservative government is introducing in England. The Scottish education and examination systems are also under control of the Scottish Parliament, so allowing for free tuition at university. The legal system is independent and has allowed Scotland to lead on many issues.
The SNP want to keep the pound in a currency union. They want to keep other UK-based institutions such as the Research Councils that fund scientific research. There are probably other UK institutions they would like to keep. In Scotland we already have control over health, schools, universities and law. Under the SNP plans for independence we would also keep the same currency and other UK organisations so why introduce all the complications and expense of splitting up the UK?
There is no clear message on whether an independent Scotland would be able to remain a member of the EU. If Scotland does remain in the EU then there will be big implications for any company or public sector pension schemes that are UK wide. Such cross-border schemes would have to be in credit. Few if any are at the moment. What would that mean for all those with such pensions?
If Scotland were to go independent, we would have the option of a Scottish Passport. However, it is not at all clear whether all current British Citizens living in Scotland would also still be eligible for a British Passport. Would children born in Scotland after independence automatically have the right to British Citizenship? Would those who only had Scottish Citizenship receive the support of British Embassies and Consuls overseas or have to rely on completely new Scottish Embassies that currently don’t exist and would have to be set up at huge expense?
Representation in Westminster
In the televised debate with Alistair Darling on 5th August, Alex Salmond (leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party) repeatedly said that for more than half his life, Scotland had not got the UK government it voted for. One could make the same argument for many other parts of the UK, indeed most individuals, but they are not asking for independence! In the 2010 elections even London elected more Labour MPs (38) than Conservative (28)!
Who stands to gain most from a YES vote?
I think this is just the politicians who are clamouring for more power. All we hear from the SNP politicians is their thirst for power. The significant powers they already have in the devolved government are not enough for them, they want more. They are not really thinking about the consequences for the rest of the people in the country, just their own selfish gain, their moment of glory as they celebrate leading Scotland away from its partners in the UK.
There is no strong economic or social case for splitting up the successful UK. A strong Scottish Government within the UK is the best option for Scotland. It gives the ability to make decisions locally while having the security of being part of one of the strongest economies in the world and avoids the huge risks and uncertainties of breaking up the UK.
Epilogue – written on 24th March 2019
Well, Scotland voted to stay part of the UK and people like me breathed a big sigh of relief and got on with life. Unfortunately, the UK Government then took us into yet another referendum, this time on membership of the European Union. As we know, they did not get the result they expected, nor did they get the result that the majority in Scotland voted for or the majority in many other parts of the UK such as London. This leads some in Scotland to argue more stridently for another independence referendum. While I am very unhappy about the way we have been ‘led’ since 2010 by Westmister, I stick by my view that whatever happens with Brexit, people in Scotland will still be better off over the coming years as part of the larger United Kingdom.