Blog post

The trade inclusivity of new borders and old borders: the case of Scotland

Published 17 May 2022

Trade has played a major role in shaping the history of the UK and it was one of the motivating factors for the Act of Union in 1707. It was also a primary driver for the decision of the UK to join the European Economic Community and then agree to its deepening into the EU. Fundamentally, trade allowed regions to loosen their borders and diversify their policy preferences, in a sense acting as a promoter for geographical inclusivity.

The decision of the UK to leave the EU in 2016, which followed the strong vote in favour of remain in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, has re-ignited the debate around independence.  Indeed, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Government (2019) argues that the outcome of the 2016 referendum constitutes a ‘material change in circumstance’ that justifies an early second referendum on Scottish independence.

In 2014, the ‘Yes’ campaign could count on the argument that independence would change little for Scotland’s trading relationships, as the existence of the EU would provide access to a unified EU market that included the UK (Scotland’s major trading partner); now the existence of a ‘hard border’ between the UK the EU has radically changed the terms of the debate. In other words, ‘borders’ did not matter much for Scotland in 2014. However, should Scotland vote for independence it will face a choice of where to erect its border with the EU and the rest of the UK.

Figure 1: Impact of counterfactual scenarios on GDP and trade in Scotland

What do we learn from this?

Whilst the results are illustrative and limited by the availability of new estimates of trade costs and of reliable trade data for Scotland (this is extensively discussed in the full paper) it nonetheless allows us to draw a number of conclusions. Firstly, Brexit has complicated the case for independence.  All else remaining equal, seeking to re-join the EU would signify significant additional costs in trade with Scotland’s main trading partner, the rest of the UK. Domestic policies – and/or other macroeconomic factors outside of this modelling – would have to lead to a significant uplift in Scottish economic activity to offset such costs. Secondly, borders do really matter for the future of the Scottish economy and of other UK regions.2

Finally, more research is needed to understand the impacts that UK nations’ decisions have on the other nations. This work, for example, is unable to shed any light on the impact that Scottish independence may have on England or Wales. In principle, we know that the nations are connected via supply chains, but data limitations have prevented us from developing economic models that capture the interconnections between industries in the four nations. In the future, the Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy aims to fill this important gap and develop economic models that can capture key characteristics of all four nations and assess how geographically inclusive future UK trade policies will be.

  • 1 This is a 2 regions Computable General Equilibrium model of Scotland and the rest of the UK. Further details can be found here.
  • 2 In another paper, we have made some initial considerations about Northern Ireland.

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