(Photo courtesy of Charles King) In light of the results of last month’s Scottish independence referendum and recent developments surrounding the secessionist movement in Catalonia, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Georgetown University Professor Charles King to discuss the implications of the referendum for the future of the United Kingdom and its political dynamics, as well as its effect on future nationalist movements in Catalonia and across the globe.

GJIA: What are both the immediate and long-term implications of the results of Scottish independence movement for the British political system? Is it far-fetched to think that there could be major political reforms in store for the Westminster system?

CK: The answer to the second question is certainly yes. In the run up to the Scottish referendum, one of the things that London promised was something approaching what used to be commonly referred to as “devo-max,” or maximum devolution of powers to Scotland. This would have empowered the Scottish government and the Scottish parliament even further, and there are now bills afoot to make it happen. Westminster has promised that by the end of the year there will be concrete proposals on the table and that these proposals, if passed, will be put in place next year.

It is also the case, however, that the results of the referendum are going to have long-term implications for the overarching structure of the entire United Kingdom. While there will be a relatively minor demonstration effect on Northern Ireland and Wales, the big demonstration effect is going to be on England itself, the core of the United Kingdom. For an extended period of time there has existed an odd anomaly that is sometimes called the West Lothian question. Under this regime, Scots get to vote on matters that affect only the English while, increasingly, English parliamentarians do not vote on matters that affect only Scotland. This is especially the case in the current context of increased devolution given the referendum, and it is an issue that will have to be addressed further. One could imagine in the future the creation of an English parliament, or something close to an English parliament, that would mirror the Scottish one. The problem with this is that Britain is moving down the road of federalism. This is of itself not a bad thing—Germany, the United States, and Canada are all democratic and stable federations. In the English case, however, there is no effort on the part of central political institutions to account for this move towards federalism. These efforts do not entail simply devolving further power out to Scotland, but rather truly reforming the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make them authentic federal institutions.

GJIA: Even though Scotland rejected the independence referendum, did the Scottish National Party achieve any lasting victories? What does the future hold for the SNP?

CK: The biggest victory for the SNP to come from the referendum is that they have made the end of the United Kingdom a thinkable proposition. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has claimed that the results of the referendum have put to rest the concept of Scottish independence for a generation. I don’t think that is accurate. The SNP has, in fact, been empowered by this movement, and they will be empowered further by greater devolution of powers to Scotland. Moreover, they have successfully drawn a clear dividing line in Scottish political life that was not there before. On the one side is the SNP, which favors Scottish independence and sovereignty, and on the other are all the other parties that can now be labeled as unionists. Whereas before the movement there existed a variegated political landscape in which it was the left and the right that really mattered, it’s now the sovereigntists and the anti-sovereigntists that matter in Scotland. This is going to continue to be the principle dividing line moving forward.

GJIA: In comparison to other movements in recent memory, what role did Scottish nationalism play in the independence movement? What implications will the movement have for future secessionist movements and, in particular, for the situation in Catalonia?  

Children demonstrate in favor of Catalonian independence on September 11, 2014, seven days before Scotland voted against independence in a regional referendum (User Eric Burniche, Flickr Commons)

CK: If you had to have some form of nationalism, you would want the Scottish one. It’s the most civilized version of nationalism imaginable. It’s neither ethnic nor linguistic, but instead based on a common set of values. An individual could be Pakistani-Scottish or Bangladeshi-Scottish and still be a “Scot” in the political sense defined and targeted by the SNP’s message about Scottish sovereignty and independence. In some ways, this broad, values-based version of nationalism is preferable to fictive kinship-, ethnicity-, or religion-based forms of the same. Moreover, even though it failed, the Scottish referendum is likely to have a demonstration effect not only around Europe but also around the world. Countries can now look at Britain—one of the world’s oldest democracies and most successful militaries and economies—and say that, even in that context, breaking up the state has become thinkable. For this reason, secessionist groups and independence movements across the globe will look to Scotland for inspiration. In a place like Catalonia, we even saw, of course, a watching of the results in Scotland. Although the Catalans have now called off their own referendum on independence, the Scottish example’s demonstration effect remains whether it’s Catalonia in Europe or Quebec in a major western democracy. Even in places that have very little in common with Scotland, such as Ukraine, Russia, or elsewhere, the Scottish example—if not the Scottish model—is going to be one that secessionist movements use.

GJIA: Artur Mas, First Minister of Catalonia, has cited similar rationales for independence as Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond, including cultural differences and inherent democratic rights. How do the specifics of the Catalan movement compare to those of the Scottish movement?

CK: The Catalan and the Scottish movements are rather different in that, in the Catalan case, language, culture, and history take front and center. Catalans certainly have a very open sense of what Catalonia as an independent country would be; they don’t have a particularly open sense of Catalan nationalism, however, because it is principally an ethno-linguistic identity that has roots in a storied past. In the Scottish case, there was very little of that nationalistic exclusivity. The ‘bagpipe definition’ of what it means to be Scottish never took hold because First Minister Salmond realized that, apart from a very thin thread within the SNP, that type of codification was not going to go over well. Instead, Salmond sought to capture people who saw the Scottish future as a truly European, multicultural future. Indeed, multiculturalism was more fundamental to Scottish identity than it was to the identities of the rest of the populations that comprise the U.K.

The two movements are similar, however, in that they are both led by political parties—a critical and perhaps obvious feature that is nevertheless often overlooked. Whereas national movements seek to create their own countries, nationalist parties seek to appeal to voters in countries that will keep electing them. It is impossible to understand how both the SNP and the Catalans have gotten to where they have gotten without understanding party dynamics. This phenomenon is very different from a secessionist movement that involves an armed guerrilla group fighting for independence or, to use an example from the past, a state president in the Soviet Union suddenly proclaiming himself a nationalist and declaring independence from the greater USSR. This entire form of nationalist dynamic is wrapped up in the politics of the larger states of which these parties are a part.


Dr. Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University. He lectures widely on international affairs, social violence, and ethnic politics, and has appeared as a commentator on CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC, the History Channel, and MTV. Previously, he served as chairman of the faculty of Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Charles King was interviewed by Nicholas Sardi on 14 October 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.