A not very dynamic argument

The independence referendum is scheduled, according to the Scottish Government, for the second half of the current parliamentary term. This will mean it will probably be in 2014 or 2015. It sounds like a long way away, but we can expect its influence to beat regularly throughout politics between now and then, and I daresay it will get an increasingly frequent mention on this blog. You’ve been warned!

Questions are already being asked about how the two campaigns will be run, and what level of cooperation there will be among the unionist parties, especially the mortal foes (yet ideological bedfellows) Labour and Conservative. One answer has potentially emerged to this in the form of Our Dynamic Nation, a cross-party coalition of individuals hoping to set out a clear case for maintaining the union. On first glance, it’s an admirable effort – the website is crisp, clear, easy to read and the tone is unusually positive.

However, scratch the surface just a little and its case for the union is weakly stated – a reflection, it must be said, of the case more generally. For a start, the title “One Dynamic Nation” makes the mistake of referring to the United Kingdom as a “nation”, when it is in fact nothing of the sort – the fact it is composed of England, Wales, Scotland (all nations) and Northern Ireland (arguably either a nation or a part of one) demonstrates that it is not.

But let’s not linger on terminology – instead, and excuse the slightly long post, here’s a brief deconstruction of the arguments the group make on their Benefits of the Union page.

History

  • The Union has been one of the greatest political success stories of modern European history. It has helped to provide us with a degree of political stability in the United Kingdom that is virtually unparalleled anywhere else in Europe over the past 300 years.
  • Thanks to the Union the English language is possibly the greatest export that Britain has ever produced.
  • In the 18th century, the Union helped create the sense of possibility that inspired the Scottish Enlightenment. In the 19th century, the Union brought unparalleled prosperity to both our countries in what was Europe’s first common market between Scotland and England. In the 20th century, we confronted side by side totalitarian regimes that were the scourge of mainland Europe.

Why is history a factor? Even if a case could be made that the union benefitted Scotland in history – and admittedly there is evidence it’s done better out of the union economically than, say, Ireland prior to its independence – how is that relevant to today? At best the argument of history portrays the union as a relic that has served its purpose, but at worst it misses the point that we do not know how successful Scotland might have been had it never been a part of the union.

The first point, for instance, say that the UK gave us stability. Well, I doubt the UK was especially stable during the Jacobite uprisings, for instance, or the various wars and civil disturbances it has experienced over the past three centuries. But even then, stability in itself is not a good thing – the Soviet Union was entirely stable for many years. Communist China arguably is today. Does that in itself legitimise the model of government? Of course not. And who is to say that an independent Scotland might not have been stable for the past three centuries?

The site also argues, in the second point, that the English language is Britain’s (note, not the UK – they don’t even know what the country they are defending is called) greatest export. Well who is to say that the English language could not have been a success without the union? It was arguably on the ascendency anyway prior to 1707 and England’s early colonial exploits. And why is it automatically assumed that the English language is a morally good thing? It’s the tool of international trade and business, but that’s at the cost of countless indigenous languages and cultures throughout Africa, Asia, North America, Australia and – let’s not forget – the British Isles. And much of English’s success is down to the USA’s economic strength anyway.

Economy

  • The Union allows Scotland to be part of a larger, more powerful economy and within the Union, Scotland enjoys the four freedoms – movement of goods, services, people and capital.

No it doesn’t – the European Union does. Or if it does, then the EU allows us to be a part of an even larger and more powerful economy. And the UK economy, geared towards and sensitive to the economy of southeast England is often accused of not serving the needs of the north of England let alone Scotland.

  • By remaining part of the Union, Britain has the fourth largest economy in the world. Edinburgh’s role as a major financial centre is built on the expertise of its workforce and underpinned by its position in the UK.

Excusing the misuse of “Britain”, this point ignores that according to the OECD some years back, Scotland would be the eighth richest country in the world by GDP, rather than the UK’s 14th.

  • Being in the Union allows us to pool resources and risk. The fact that Scotland receives more from the UK Treasury than she contributes does allow the disproportionate remoteness of some regions and the disproportionate economic disadvantages of others to be catered for.

What really annoys me are arguments for the union that are based on loose principle that actually undermine the idea of independent countries at all. If the union does allow us to pool resources and risk then the logical extension of this is that we should merge the UK with other countries. And the claim that Scotland receives more from the UK Treasury than “she” contributes is not only incorrect, but even if it was true it would demonstrate that the union has failed to improve the Scottish economy and is thus not worth maintaining. And spare a thought, under this myth, for England, having to tolerate a subsidy junkie – why on this basis would the union be in England’s interests?

  • Most of the Scottish budget comes from a block grant from the UK Parliament, paid for out of taxes collected from across the UK.

This point is absurd, not because it is not true but because it is a simple statement of the current funding methodology. Why should the way things work now be a reason in themselves for them not to work a different way? In any case, there is an increasing consensus amongst even unionist parties that Scotland should be moving towards some form of fiscal autonomy whereby it raises more revenue itself and pays something to the UK treasury.

  • Being part of the Union and the current funding setup means that public services are less exposed to sudden fluctuations in revenue with a tax base as wide as the UK’s

Again, this is an argument for full EU economic integration, or, stretching the point just a little, some form of world government. In the global sense, the UK’s tax base is tiny and surely at risk as an isolated independent country.

  • Social security payments are available and are paid on the same basis to people across the country, according to their needs. This principle of fairness should not be undermined.

We have different welfare systems from people in Norway, Ireland, Belgium and France. This grossly undermines the principle of fairness, no?

  • Being part of the UK allows the costs of say bank rescue plans to be more easily absorbed and spread out across a far larger tax base and therefore makes the costs less acute on the individual.

See above. Honestly, you’d think from reading this that the One Dynamic Nation people must abhor the terrible risks the poor little UK faces every day in its tragic isolation.

Political

  • Being part of the UK, Scotland is able to wield meaningful influence for good around the world. Scotland is in the privileged position of being amongst the five permanent members of the Security Council, is in the G8 group of the most prosperous nations, is one of the three big nations at the centre of the EU and leads the Commonwealth. Scotland’s interests are therefore represented in the most influential and important international organisations in the world by virtue of the Union.

This is mildly laughable: Scotland is not on the UN Security Council, in the G8 or a member of the EU or Commonwealth – the UK is. Not only is Scotland absent from all of these organisation’s membership lists (with the exception of our appearances as a separate Commonwealth Games participant), the actions of the UK Government within these forums is often against the interests or opinions of Scotland: take the Iraq war as an obvious example of the costs of being beholden to UK foreign policy.

  • It goes without saying that Scotland is physically safer with the pooled resources of the UK military and counter-terrorist services at our disposal.

It most certainly does not go without saying. As one example, if we ever experienced a nuclear war, then Faslane, on the shore of the Clyde, would, as the home to the UK’s Trident nuclear submarines, be among the very first sites to be taken out. Moreover, being a part of the UK’s hypocritical and imperialist foreign policy has increased our exposure to the risk of terrorism. And even if I’m wrong, the point being made is logically indistinguishable from the argument that the EU should have a combined military and counter-terrorist infrastructure.

  • Over the centuries, Scots have made an outstanding contribution to the UK’s military successes. Scotland punches above its weight in Britain’s Armed Forces and Britain punches above its weight in the world because of the expertise and bravery of those Armed Forces.

Precisely why a Scottish armed forces would punch above its weight if independent. Many small countries play valuable and unaggressive roles militarily throughout the world, and there’s nothing to stop Scotland’s forces being major contributors to peacekeeping, rather than warmongering.

Social Benefits

  • The Union allows individual Scots to continue to play a major part in the social fabric of the UK.

Scots play a major part in the social fabric of many countries throughout the world, like the USA or Australia. Do we need to be the same country as them for this to happen? No. Scots will continue to play a major role in the rest of the UK upon independence, and English, Welsh and Northern Irish folk will do likewise in an independent Scotland.

  • Many of us will have family in other parts of the UK.

I have family in Spain. Your point, caller?

  • Sports stars like the Scottish Olympic Gold Medallist cyclist Chris Hoy trained in England and competed at international level for Britain.

Chris Hoy could technically train in Ireland, Mongolia or Australia if he wanted. If he really wanted to train in or even compete for the remnant UK he’d still have the right to.

  • A common bond we have is the Royal Family.

It’s a bond we also share with Jamaica, New Zealand, Bermuda, Canada and a dozen or so other realms throughout the world. Last I checked, we didn’t all need to be a part of the same country for this to happen.

  • Within the Union there are aspects of Scotland’s national life which are different from the rest of the UK. The distinctive Scottish legal system and the Scottish education system are good examples.

Ah, so it’s viable for Scotland to have distinct ways of doing things from the rest of the UK. That’s nice. I wonder if we could extend this principle to broadcasting, social security policy, foreign affairs and economic planning for instance? Just a thought.

Honestly, is this the best the unionist camp can come up with? I’m not saying that intellectually there is no case to be made for the Union. But if the “no” camp can only make arguments which actually undermine the whole concept of independent countries, including the UK, they’re unlikely to persuade many of the undecideds who are going to be so crucial in deciding Scotland’s future.

If there are any arguments in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom that are not, by logical extension, arguments for big countries or world government, then I’d love to hear them. Post your comments below.

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