This year, the people of Scotland had the unique opportunity to democratically answer the question ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ Two weeks before the referendum, polls started showing majority support for a Yes-vote after the country had seen a vibrant grassroots campaign. At the last minute, the leaders of all three main Westminster Parties made a vow to the Scottish people promising substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament. This dramatic political about turn contributed to a 55 % majority voting against independence. The turnout of 84.6% was extraordinary. But why are the developments in Scotland of interest from an international law and a feminist perspective?
From an international legal perspective, the political developments in the rest of the UK follow a worrying trend. With the exception of Scotland, we can observe the rise of an anti-European agenda in the UK, which could lead to the UK exiting the European Union in 2017. The current UK government promised the electorate a referendum about this question in 2017 – a promise partly in response to the rising popularity of the Eurosceptic and rightwing-populist UK Independence Party. In the area of human rights protection this anti-European agenda could lead on to a path of non-compliance with the European Human Rights Convention (ECHR) and its Court (ECtHR). In case of re-election the Conservatives are planning to scrap the Human Rights Act 2008, which implemented the ECHR into domestic law; in a nutshell, they plan to oppose the extraterritorial application of the ECHR as developed in the case-law of the ECtHR, want to reduce the applicability of human rights to ‘minor cases’, and want to link human rights with responsibilities. These plans would seriously conflict with EU accession to the ECHR. It could even lead to the UK withdrawal from the ECHR altogether. At the same time, a clear majority of people in Scotland is in favor of EU membership, while the Convention rights were given explicit legal force in Scotland through the Scotland Act 1998. Considering that the UK is not designed as a federal state, and its constitutional framework does not provide for a regional veto in major questions like an EU exit, there might be legally contentious issues looming. The people of Scotland might demand to be able to continue to enjoy the protection of the ECHR and their EU citizenship.
Additionally, the question of independence is not permanently settled – Pandora’s box has been opened. Other regions like Catalonia in Spain have been following developments in Scotland closely and, a mere two months after the referendum, the support for another referendum has grown to 66% and some polls suggest that a majority would now vote for independence. Accordingly, those political parties supporting independence have had a tremendous surge and their membership figures at least quadrupled. Currently, the determination of new political strategies to achieve independence seems to be on hold until after the next general elections in 2015. But we might see the UK facing the challenge of Scottish independence far quicker than most people thought. An independent Scotland would leave the UK without a base for its nuclear weapons, without most of the important North Sea oil revenues, and could even question the UK’s powerful position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.