GB, UK, what’s the difference?
Firstly, a spot of geography (and history): Great Britain (GB) consists of England (population: 53.5 million),[i] Scotland (5.3) and Wales (3.1). The United Kingdom (UK) consists of Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales) plus Northern Ireland (population: 1.8 million). Details of UK history can be found elsewhere (many sites, including the BBC’s,[ii] cover this very accessibly). Suffice to say that England and Scotland were joined over three centuries ago via the Acts of Union 1707.[iii]
How is the UK run?
Historically, the whole UK was governed highly centrally from a single parliament in London (Westminster). This arrangement was not universally popular as UK politics became increasingly polarised, especially from the 1970s onwards. In simple terms, the north-south split between the Labour and Conservative parties (the two dominant left-right forces in UK politics)[iv] was becoming greater (and continues to do so).[v] Meanwhile, the discovery of North Sea oil led to the growing popularity of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).[vi]
In response to such concerns in Scotland, following a referendum,[vii] Tony Blair’s Labour government created a new Scottish parliament in Edinburgh (Holyrood) in 1999. Holyrood was granted certain devolved powers (e.g. health, education)[viii] although various matters (including oil & gas) remain reserved to Westminster. A key proponent (Labour’s George Robertson MP) considered such devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead” i.e. put an end to Scottish independence demands. As we’re about to see, things didn’t quite work out that way.[ix]
Holyrood was set up with 129 Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs); 73 are directly-elected constituency MSPs with the remaining 56 taken proportionately from regional lists.[x] This complex system was said to have been deliberately engineered to ensure that no party could win an outright majority. Initially, all went according to plan; the 1999[xi] and 2003[xii] elections produced Labour–Liberal Democrat coalitions which were largely ‘in sync’ with Tony Blair’s UK Labour government at Westminster. The 2007 election[xiii] was won by the (SNP) but as a minority government was unable to take plans for an independence referendum any further.
How did the referendum come about?
In the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election,[xiv] the SNP scored a surprise outright victory (opinion polls revealed a late surge away from Labour).[xv] The SNP Scottish Government was now free to pursue its aims of independence. Coupled with a 2010 UK general election victory by a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition (which gained little support from Scotland),[xvi] the fault lines between UK and Scottish politics are now as wide as ever. (Note that Scotland continues to send MPs to the Westminster; Scottish voters enjoy dual representation).
Following negotiations between Alex Salmond (SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland) and David Cameron (Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister), the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement[xvii] was struck allowing an independence referendum to be held. (For reference, compare this co-operative approach with that witnessed in Spain regarding Catalonia’s proposed independence referendum).[xviii] On 18 September 2014, therefore, the Scottish electorate (not the whole of the UK’s) will be asked to vote on the single question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”[xix]
A ‘yes’ vote would lead to the formation of an independent Scotland for the first time in over 300 years. Within the 18 months between the referendum and the Scottish Government’s proposed independence day of 24 March 2016,[xx] numerous critical issues must be addressed regarding the split from the UK, including those relating to oil & gas.
UPDATE (December 2014): Ahead of the referendum, the three main UK parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats) issued a pledge promising further devolution should Scotland vote to remain within the UK.[xxi] Following the ‘no’ result, the nature of this devolution was debated by the Smith Commission (involving the abovementioned three parties plus the SNP and Scottish Greens). This resulted in an agreement to transfer further powers and taxation to Holyrood; oil and gas remained largely reserved to Westminster, however.[xxii]
Some terms of reference
For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll describe what remains after Scotland’s departure as the ‘rest of UK’ (rUK) i.e. England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s worth remembering the referendum refers to Scotland leaving the UK, not the full break-up of the UK.