The UK versus an independent Scotland - which would be better governed?

Scotland will soon be considering independence again, and how well an independent Scotland would be governed is a topical issue for undecided voters.  It is important to note that the governance of a nation is not about specific political parties or politicians, it is about the structure and systems of government that deliver for the people and the trust that those people have in their Government in all its forms.

There are many competing measures of good national governance. However, the most widely accepted one is produced by World Bank and is called the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) report which aggregates six individual governance indicators for over 200 countries. We will use this as our definition.

The top ten in terms of good governance, based on the WGI report, includes:

  1. New Zealand
  2. Norway
  3. Finland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Sweden
  6. The Netherlands
  7. Canada
  8. Luxembourg
  9. Denmark
  10. Liechtenstein

Nine of the top ten are small to medium sized nations, eight are Northern or Western European nations and the largest nation, in population terms, Canada only became fully independent from the UK in 1931.   

The UK was in 19th place in the last report as its political stability score has been decimated by Westminster's handling of Brexit.  However that 19th place was before the last two Brexit extensions, the change of UK Prime Minister to Boris Johnson and the announcement of the third General Election in four years.  So 19th place is clearly flattering to the UK.

Scotland is not ranked separately from the UK in the report but by assessing World Bank factors and Scottish attitudes towards governance from the latest social attitudes survey (pre-Brexit chaos), we can see that Scotland’s governance would most likely be more highly rated than the UK’s. Let us take a look at the good governance indicators:

Voice and Accountability - The extent to which a country's citizens are able to participate in selecting their government. Scotland uses a proportional electoral system which means that an independent Scotland would have an inbuilt advantage over the UK in terms of voice and accountability. For example,  47% of people said the Scottish Government was ‘very good’ or ‘quite good’ at listening to people’s views before taking decisions in 2017, whereas only 16% said the same for the UK Government.

Political Stability - Perceptions of the likelihood of political instability and/or politically-motivated violence, including terrorism. The current political turmoil of Westminster with newly formed parties, (Brexit Party and Change UK) and the deadlock on Brexit has been hugely disruptive.  The World Bank has reduced the UK’s score to 57/100 in terms of political stability, there is no explanation given but the assumption must be that this result is as a result of the Westminster Government’s mismanagement of Brexit.  If Brexit goes ahead, then an independent Scotland within the Common Market and Customs Union via EU or EFTA membership would be far more politically stable than the UK.

This is especially true if there is a No Deal Brexit, leaving the UK with no trade deals in place, or one where Brexit is cancelled and the Brexit Party challenges to form a government.

Trust in the Scottish Government is also extremely high:

  • 61% of people in Scotland said they trusted the Scottish Government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ to work in Scotland’s best interests, whereas only 20% said the same for the UK Government.
  • 37% of people trusted the Scottish Government ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ to make fair decisions, whereas only 16% said the same for the UK Government.

Government Effectiveness - This includes perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of policy formulation and implementation and the credibility of the government's commitment to such policies. For example, the Scottish NHS - which has operated independently from the English and Welsh NHS from inception - is viewed as a barometer of government effectiveness. The Scottish NHS consistently outperforms other UK health services:

  • The percentage of patients seen within four hours at A&E in Scotland in 2017/18 was 91%, England 82.4%, Wales 77% and Northern Ireland 68.7%.
  • Healthcare spending in 2017/18 in Scotland was £2,368 per person, England £2,182, Wales £2,324, and Northern Ireland £2,320.
  • In 2015, Scotland had 4.2 hospital beds per 1,000 of the population, while NHS England had 2.5, Wales 3.5 and Northern Ireland 3.1.
  • There are 76 GPs per 100,000 people, compared to a national UK average of 60.

The Scottish NHS is not perfect but it is comparatively better and more highly funded, reflecting the different spending priorities of the Scottish Parliament. There is, therefore, no evidence that government effectiveness in an independent Scotland would be an issue. In fact, the evidence suggests that it is more likely to improve in terms of WGI score and to be more aligned to the values and priorities of the Scottish people.

The other three WGI include:

  • Regulatory Quality, which by adopting EU standards Scotland would already meet all of the requirements, although some new regulatory bodies would have to be established.
  • Rule of Law, which includes people’s confidence in the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police, the courts for which Scotland and UK are roughly similar.
  • Control of Corruption, once again public power is not widely exercised for private gain in the UK (compared to other developed nations) and again it is an improbable suggestion that won’t be the same or even better in an independent Scotland.

Trust in the Scottish Parliament

Voters in Scotland want the Scottish Parliament to do more, looking at the 2016 social attitudes survey around the question of whether major powers should be taken from Westminster and devolved to Scotland. For example, “should the Scottish Parliament have control over”:

  • Health and safety regulations? 64% Yes
  • VAT? 69% Yes
  • Corporation tax? 75% Yes
  • Oil and gas tax revenues generated in Scottish waters? 73.5% Yes
  • The welfare and benefits system? 74.5% Yes
  • How elections are run? 91% Yes.

Conclusions on Scottish Governance

The governance of a nation is not about specific political parties or politicians, it is about the structure and systems of government that deliver for the people and the trust that those people have in their Government in all its forms.

The UK is highly rated in terms of governance and Scotland’s governance contributes to/enhances that reputation.  In three of the World Bank's six good governance criteria, an independent Scotland would have a significant advantage over Scotland in the UK. In the other three criteria, there is nothing to suggest that anything is likely to change for the worse with independence.

Nearly three times as many Scottish voters think that the Scottish Government is better at listening before acting than the UK Parliament. The vast majority also believe that the Scottish Parliament can be trusted with greater powers such as taxation and benefits. Those figures predate the Brexit chaos that has engulfed Westminster and so in all probability understate trust in the Scottish Government and distrust in Westminster significantly.

Following the Brexit vote it has become clear that the UK lacks the manpower, software and political ability to administer its own borders, customs processing and even to comprehend the issues at the Northern Irish border. This is a far bigger governance issue for the UK than the transition to independence would be for Scotland.  In the event of a No Deal Brexit, the UK would also require hundreds of trained trade negotiators to do the trade deals required in a timely manner, which they do not have.

It is not that the UK has become totally ungovernable or that leaving the EU is a hard thing to do, it is just that when leaving a trading and customs union a nation can’t expect to maintain the benefits of the membership of the club that they no longer want to be members of.   If you accept that and don't expect the benefits of EU membership to continue then leaving the EU would be easy. The problem in Brexit lies in the fact that the UK system of government is broken and unaware of its true status in the world.

Sovereignty is a good thing but sovereignty’s greatest gift in an interconnected and interdependent world is that offers a nation the power to voluntarily share decisions over areas such as trade, common safety and working standards etc to facilitate increased economic wellbeing of the people of the nation.  Accepting that modern definition of independence is the deference between Brexit led British nationalism and independence led Scottish inter-nationalism and explains why UK Governance is failing in the modern context.