A Strategy to Retain Scotland
San Francisco / December 23, 2019
Nicola Sturgeon formally asked the United Kingdom to allow a referendum on Scottish independence (link). Sturgeon's Scottish National Party won 48 of 59 seats in the general election. She claims this creates a mandate for a referendum. She is mistaken.
Boris Johnson must be given time to execute on the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. There are still significant open details. It is vital that Whitehall be allowed on focus on delivering Brexit and not get preoccupied with a Scottish independence referendum. In due time, the United Kingdom probably should give Scotland a referendum. The appropriate timing is after Scottish elections in May 2021. If parties that support independence win a majority, then the UK probably should grant a referendum.
From now until mid-2021, Johnson has a window of opportunity to show the Scottish people that they will do better in the United Kingdom. We should start by re-visiting the case for Brexit. The structure of the British Parliament is better than the European Union. Parliament is based on simple rules, elections, and the common law. Over centuries, this structure has allowed the UK to adapt to uncertainty. The European Union has not learned error correction.
During the 1960s, the notion of "technocratic expertise" became very fashionable among serious intellectuals. They believed it was possible to plan, predict, and control policy outcomes in a wide range of areas. There is a deep flaw in technocratic expertise. Disciplines like economics, political science, and history gather evidence, identify trends, and make predictions. But the predictive power of these disciplines is not that good. True expertise is possible in science. People who have actually internalized the scientific method know there is endless uncertainty. The EU developed an elaborate, sophisticated, and even beautiful system for developing rules, regulations, and policies. But that institution is trapped by the understanding of policymakers at the time the policies are initially developed. The EU has not demonstrated it can change its core strategies. We're still waiting for the areas that are struggling under the euro to receive the necessary financial assistance from the wealthier regions.
In addition to re-stating the case for Brexit, Johnson should be practical as his government repatriates power from Brussels. The UK will re-gain control over significant policy areas. The Conservative Party should go on a listening tour of Scotland to better understand which specific policy areas the Scottish people want to control in the Scottish Parliament. This should be intuitive for Johnson. British Conservatives have a preference for de-centralizing control over policy. Margaret Thatcher made this argument very clearly. For example, Johnson should be willing to give the Scottish Parliament control over farming and fisheries. This will complicate the UK's ability to sign trade deals, and the sacrifice will show that the UK is committed to Scotland.
Also, the economy of an independent Scotland would be closely tied to the price of oil. Johnson should borrow from portfolio theory and emphasize the upside to maintaining a diversified portfolio.
Johnson should also encourage the Scottish people to step back and re-visit the history of the union between Scotland and England. This is one of the most successful political alliances over the past three centuries. Both communities will benefit by staying together.