How would Scotland fare as an independent country? This question is not only the unavoidable issue in Scottish politics today, but the answer is intertwined with the broader question of the place of the United Kingdom within Europe—and the world as a whole—in a post-Brexit era. As former member of parliament and Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesman Stephen Gethins writes in his book Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World, “With another independence referendum likely, and the legacy of the UK’s decision to leave the EU set to dominate politics for years to come, how we see ourselves in the world is at the heart of policy discourse.”[1] Indeed, the Scottish National Party capitalized on the fervent anti-Brexit, pro EU attitudes of the Scottish electorate to win their fourth election in a row to maintain control over Scotland’s devolved government on May 6th of this year.

The SNP, led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has presented itself as a socially and economically progressive movement that embraces internationalism and emphases the need to integrate with a European Union that shares these values. Contrast this, they argue, with the nativist, isolationist Conservative party that dominates England, and with it the levers of the UK government, and you have two nations that are moving in diametrically opposed directions politically.

Debates of the merits and drawbacks of Scottish independence abound, though they often lack any conceptual grounding or cultivated set of issues around which to debate facts. For this, we turn to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index (FSI) to provide this necessary scaffolding. Often used as a tool by conflict researchers, the FSI is far from a simple metric of which states are most susceptible to a collapse into warlordism, but a much broader analysis of the social, economic, political, and security health of a country.

Applying the FSI framework and methodology to such a short piece is impossible and won’t be attempted here. The FSI is a product of nearly a year’s worth of deep research using sophisticated qualitative and quantitative methodologies. This article merely intends to identify what factors make the Nordic countries (which pro-independence Scottish movements hold up as their aspiring ideal) score so well, why the UK scores worse, and speculate where an independent Scotland could score in relation to these two points.

Of course, there are elements of this future reality that are impossible to predict. Should Scotland hold an independence referendum and vote “yes”, there will be a long, complicated, and arduous divorce process with the Westminster government. As will be noted below, the outcomes of these debates will be highly salient to the viability of the Scottish state and life under its umbrella. This is not to mention the issues of trade and currency. However, there are elements of state health that appear to be structural and thus predicted to prevail beyond Scotland’s separation with the United Kingdom.

Let’s begin with the economy. The Nordic countries score better than the UK on all economic indicators, primarily driven by lower levels of poverty and inequality. Scotland has consistently enjoyed lower levels of poverty than England, driven primarily by lower housing costs.[2] Would this reality persist post-Independence? Can we know this? There is good reason to confidently answer yes, as this is largely derived from Scotland’s lower population density and hence less scarcity of land. As this is a matter of demographics and geography, it is a structural trait of Scotland that is un-tethered to its relations with the rest of the UK.

The second factor driving this housing cost divergence is policy based. Since devolution, the Scottish parliament has been led by center left parties who have prioritized social housing. This is contrasted with more conservative governments in Westminster and led to a significant variance in investment and relative availability of social housing across the two nations.[3] As a devolved power, social housing has been completely within the purview of the Scottish government for two decades and is thus also unaffected by its relationship with the UK government. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that these policy priorities would cease post-independence barring a tectonic shift to the right in the Scottish political landscape. However, it must be noted that there are certain investments in Scotland emanating from Westminster that would cease in the event of independence, particularly the submarine fleet based in Faslane, which accounts for over £270 million in annual spending and 11,000 jobs.[4] These jobs will likely be re-couped in the long run, though the defense transition will likely cause short term displacements in several local areas reliant on UK military spending.

Finally, the most precarious element of potential Scottish independence is the issue of trade. As pro-Union voices rightly point out, 60% of Scotland’s trade is carried out with the rest of the UK, with the remaining 21 and 19 percent conducted with the rest of the world and the EU, respectively.[5] Should an independent Scotland re-join the EU, which seems likely, it would be difficult to imagine a scenario where some sort of customs border would not be necessary between Scotland and other areas of the UK in order to demarcate the border of the EU common market. This will undoubtedly create trade friction between Scotland and its largest trading partner: England. Replacing these losses with increased exports to the EU is the likely strategy, but it will take time and short-term economic losses will be difficult to avoid in the immediate period following independence. Indeed, this is precisely the situation the wider UK finds themselves in now as they transition from the EU common market to searching for new trade partners.[6]

In terms of politics, the Nordic countries score significantly higher than the UK on all indicators. Four of the six (factionalized elites, security apparatus, group grievance, and state legitimacy) are clear functions of the UK’s political composition as a union of four nations. In all three non-English nations, there exist significant levels of aggrieved groups who reject the legitimacy of the British state and push for the dissolution of the Union; while in one, Northern Ireland, there is significant paramilitary activity that targets agents of the state. It would be tempting to argue that independence would rid Scotland of this baggage, and hence improve their political scores significantly. However, this is of course reliant on a smooth and amicable breakup with Westminster post referendum and buy-in on the part of pro-Union factions in Scotland to accept the result and rally around making a success of the Scottish state. In contrast to this rosy scenario, there exists a much darker possibility that a contentious independence referendum ends with an extremely close result, leading the losing side to contest the outcome and develop an endemic mistrust of the political process and reject the legitimacy of the fledgling Scottish state.

Finally, the FSI’s social indicator is the most cross-cutting of them all and, again, is an area where the Nordic countries score higher than the UK. This is primarily driven by demographic pressures. The UK’s population density is well above the global average, with England itself standing as one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Scotland, on the other hand, is the least densely populated nation in the UK,[7] broadly in line with the average of Nordic countries. However, demographics are not destiny and metrics of population density (people/sq. km) are extremely crude measures. Nonetheless, England is facing pressures on public services, housing, and the environment­—particularly around the immense gravity well that is London and the Southeast—that are much greater than in Scotland.

So what can we conclude about the prospect of an independent Scotland in the world? Using the Fragile State Index indicators, we can make a number of conclusions with varying levels of confidence. First, it is highly likely an independent Scotland would score closer towards the Nordic countries on the indicators of poverty and equal economic development. The main economic wildcard is economic growth inhibited by trade friction with the rest of the UK, as well as local shocks caused by defense spending transitions, which of course could infect the aforementioned indicators. However, with strong pre-existing ties to the EU, and a demonstrated interest from both pro-Independence and EU leaders to quickly facilitate the ascent of Scotland to the EU,[8] any UK trade losses could perhaps be mitigated—at least to a sufficient degree so as to stave off catastrophic GDP losses.

Secondly, we should also expect an independent Scotland to score higher on the political indicators of factionalized elites, security apparatus, group grievance, and state legitimacy in the long run, as they will be spared the baggage of being a composition of distinct nations. However, the wildcard in this respect is the nature of the referendum and the danger of a contested result which leads pro-Union Scottish voices to question the legitimacy of the Scottish state. While even a worst-case scenario would be extremely unlikely to produce the type of violent tension seen between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for example, this could throw the fledgling independent nation into a state of chaos, factionalism, social decohesion, and political paralysis.

Overall, it seems more likely than not that an independent Scotland would indeed improve its fragility score relative to a United Kingdom shorn of Scotland—a point underscored by the UK’s considerable decline on the FSI since 2016[9]—and hence move towards the Nordic countries on the Fragile State Index. However, to ensure this outcome, independence leaders must build a broad coalition to ensure that a successful independence referendum translates into a mandate. A 50.1-49.9 percent result produces a different political reality than a 55-45 result. This mandate will be vital as they navigate the brave new world of independence and all the economic, political, social, and existential questions that come with it.



Posts on Deconflictions represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of FFP.



[1] Stephen Gethins. Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World. Edinburgh. 2021. Pg. 20.

[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation. UK Poverty 2019/20, pg. 21. file:///Users/user/Downloads/jrf_-_uk_poverty_2019-20_report_4.pdf ; Nick Bailey. “Lower Poverty in Scotland: Pinning Down the Change.” Working Paper. Policy Scotland. April, 2014.

[3] Wilcox, S, Fitzpatrick, S, Stephens, M, Pleace, N, Wallace, A & Rhodes, D. “The Impact of Devolution: Housing and Homelessness.” Joseph Rowntree Foundation. January 2010.

[4] George Allison. “Union warn of job losses if Trident and submarines moved from Scotland.” UK Defense Journal. November 13, 2019.

[5] Scottish Government. “Export Statistics.” January 20, 2020.

[6] Richard Partington. “Exports to EU plunge by 40% in first month since Brexit.” The Guardian. March 12, 2021. ; Office for National Statistics. “UK Trade: January 2021.” March 12, 2021.

[7] Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. “Britain’s Demographic Challenge: The implications of the UK’s rapidly

increasing population.” CIVITAS. September 2017.

[8] BBC News. “’Empathy’ for independent Scotland joining the EU says Tusk.” BBC. February 2, 2020.

[9] The Fund for Peace. “United Kingdom.” Fragile States Index 2021.