An independent Scotland: what it could mean for Justice Innovation

I am Scottish. Although born in England, from the ages of 7 to 26 I lived in Scotland, and I identify myself as Scottish (as well as British and European). It will be no surprise then that the referendum being held on Scottish Independence on the 18th of September is of huge importance to me.

I should be clear at this point: despite an intention to move back to Scotland in the near future, I have no vote. Having been resident in the Netherlands for the last five years, I am not eligible. Although this is frustrating, given the impact this vote will have on my life, it is a practical and understandable decision. Here, I would like to talk briefly about the reasons for my hypothetical voting intentions, and also the challenges a Yes vote would bring.

I am pro-independence, and given the chance would vote Yes in the referendum. This is not blind nationalism. Although proud of being Scottish, I do not think that there is a priori need for Scotland to be self-governing. The union has brought much of value, including the NHS, the welfare state, world-leading standards of education, and a fantastic legal system (although this varies in some respects between Scotland and the rest of the UK). My hypothetical vote for independence would be precisely because of, rather than despite, these institutions and qualities. I believe that these institutions are being taken in a direction that is both to their detriment, and contrary to the will of Scottish people. Without these two factors, I would likely be pro-union. The Scottish people, as many will know, regularly return 40 Labour MPs, to less than 2 or 3 Conservative MPs, and many (by no means all) wish for policies which are systemically different from those that are on offer from the main, England-based, parties. This is reflected in the different voting patterns in Holyrood, where there have been three hung parliaments and one Scottish National Party (SNP) majority (the current government), compared to Westminster where recent history has given outright majorities to the two major English parties, up to the 2010 election which resulted in a hung parliament.

A vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP. Far from it. I am no fan of Alec Salmond, or many of the policies of the SNP. This referendum goes far beyond individuals or parties, to the core ideals of how we want our country to operate, how we want our state to interact with people, and the broader ‘direction of travel’ of our government and society. I hope, and it can only be a hope, there are no guarantees in this referendum, that a vote for independence will enable the election of a series of governments who realize the promise of Scotland to be a country that places the benefit of society above that of individuals, addresses in a meaningful way the challenge of renewable energy, and looks to cooperatively work with Europe and the rest of the world. These are issues on which Scotland can, and I believe should, dramatically differ from the current course of the UK, and the options that the main parties are offering.

Of course, it is not as simple as a Yes vote on Thursday, and the country starting on a fresh course on Friday morning. Even in the best-case scenario of negotiations with the remainder of the UK, Scotland will become a small country with significant national debt, to which will be added the costs associated with setting up independent systems. There will be tough choices from the very start, and if we are to make the potential a reality we will need to work within tight financial constraints, for at least the immediate future, and likely in the longer term. To meet the challenges of providing health, education, legal assistance and social insurance to all of Scottish society, we will need to embrace innovation in a manner which has not yet been seen.

Scotland, like the UK as a whole, has an aging population. Providing healthcare and pensions to this population is a challenge that most western countries are being forced to face up to. Education is just as expensive to provide north of Hadrian’s Wall as it is in the south, and finding funding models that provide equality of access to education to all sectors of society is another not insignificant challenge.

What would that mean for justice innovation? One challenge is of direct relevance to HiiL: how we can create innovation in the legal system to serve the needs of the Scottish people? Scotland has a rural population spread across a huge area. Providing legal assistance to such a physically and socially disparate population is a challenge that will need to be addressed, and only through innovation is it likely that the challenge will be met. Can increased online legal services, perhaps modeled on the Rechtwijzer, reduce the costs of legal proceedings? Perhaps mobile courts are a more effective way of providing dispute resolution in far-flung communities? How can we help individuals solve their problems fairly between themselves, without recourse to expensive courts, or even lawyers? Can we increase the legal empowerment of those living in Glasgow, as much as those living in Wick, or Shetland?

There are no certain answers to these challenges, but I believe that an independent Scotland will be better equipped to provide answers that meet the needs of Scottish society, and reflect the views and attitudes of Scottish people, in a way that is not done presently, and that will not (and perhaps cannot) be done as a part of the UK. I’d vote Yes to independence, because I believe that this is a chance for Scotland to build a country that reflects the values of its people in a way that is not currently possible. However, to make the most of this historic opportunity we will need to be flexible and adopt an innovative approach in relation to many issues, not least how we operate and deliver legal services.