So, the “no” campaign has finally launched for the Scottish independence referendum. Of course, they’re not calling themselves the “no” campaign, or indeed anything to do with the word “no”. Partly they’re trying to avoid anything negative, but partly of course it’s reflecting that, at the time of the launch, the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum had not yet reported so the question itself was still unknown. As such, they’re going with the title “Better Together“.
Safe to assume, though, that the question and the debate in the coming two years will be about independence for Scotland, so Better Together won’t be able avoid the “no” word for too much longer.
I could do this blog post the quick way, pointing you towards Newsnet Scotland’s excellent response to the Better Together launch’s keynote speech from Alistair Darling. Especially, I could draw you to the important point made in that article that this debate isn’t about making Scotland a “separate” country, because it already is a separate country. It’s independence that is the issue, not separation.
But I do have some further thoughts to add. And I want to make them by reflecting on some of the different generations of arguments against independence, and setting that as the context for today’s “no” arguments.
The intellect argument
Years ago, people would argue that Scotland could not manage as an independent country because we had second-rate politicians who just were not of the calibre required for the job of running a country. This was always insulting to hear – doubly so, and equally disappointing, to hear from Scots – because any country is capable of making the best decisions it can. Scots are an intelligent bunch of folk, responsible for the Enlightenment, disproportionately influential in the creation of the British Empire, and heavily present in UK Governments.
All the main UK parties have had hugely intelligent, heavyweight politicians from Scotland among their front benches, and to say that Scotland couldn’t draw on the finest minds from across the political spectrum in shaping its own discourse is bizarre.
Which reminds me of one of the strangest arguments against independence that you hear – criticisms of Alex Salmond and the SNP. So, you don’t like Salmond or the SNP? Fine. Make sure you never vote for them. It’s quite feasible that in an independent Scotland the SNP never gets a sniff of power. You never hear Unionist politicians asked to describe how good an independent Scotland might be if their party ran it. I’d love to hear their answers – do they trust their own talent?
The size argument
Believe it or not, some people think that Scotland is too small to be independent. Yet about a third of the world’s independent countries are smaller than Scotland, and with the exception of France the UK is surrounded by small countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. Size is no guarantor of viability, and in the list of richest countries by GDP only the USA stands out as a big country in the top ten, and there are barely a handful you could describe as such in the top twenty.
Many small countries are key actors on the world stage, including in the European Union and NATO. By saying that a small country is not a basis for independence, Unionists are actually insulting some of the UK’s closest allies and many of our former colonies.
Yes the UK is one of the world’s largest – though not richest – economies, and has a large voting weight in the EU and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But what good is that, if the foreign policy of that UK is marred by scars such as the Iraq war? Many small countries are much better advocates for international peace and security than the UK. And in any case, an independent Scotland and remnant UK working together would pack a bigger punch in the EU and on the diplomatic stage on the occasions they agree on things (which, I reckon, will be the majority of the time).
The principle argument
This argument is quite a theoretical one. Many argue that in an era of increased cooperation and interdependence, countries should be working together not coming apart. This contains both capitalist arguments (it is bad for business for countries to be kept apart and for boundaries to be erected) and socialist arguments (in the face of globalisation, there should be no new barriers to solidarity between working people).
The problem here, though, is that it is an argument against independent countries all over the place. It’s an argument against having a distinct United Kingdom and in favour of something like a European superstate or a world government. Now those are perfectly intellectually sustainable arguments, and from the point of view of a strong internationalist or a classical anarchist, removing the concept of independent countries and governments is one to consider. But you cannot argue that while at the same time advocating the continuation of a United Kingdom. If you believe that independent countries are the main currency of global cooperation, then the question is simply whether Scotland or the UK as currently constituted should be one of them.
The economic argument
This is probably the most frequently heard one: that Scotland simply couldn’t manage economically. Well, if that is the case then it’s a damning indictment of the UK’s economic policy that its northern corner remains so economically backward and undeveloped that it couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Surely it should be the job of the UK economy to generate prosperity for all its parts, not leave one part as a helpless backwater whose constant subsidy by richer parts is morally and economically unsustainable.
Of course, we all know that’s not the case, and even Unionists broadly agree that Scotland would survive economically, and indeed do quite well, if it was independent – they just question whether that’s the best way forward.
The facts are even clearer than this. Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world if it was independent, and that is based on independent figures. Read this article for a bit of background.
The bureaucratic argument
This is the argument that, separate from questions about its viability once it is independent, the mere process of creating an independent Scotland is too costly. There would need to be a new BBC set up, a new armed forces, a new DVLA, a new welfare state, and so on.
There are three ways to look at this. Firstly, how can it be justified that there are already distinct bureaucracies in Scotland, for instance relating to health or education? If we should avoid unnecessary duplication then we should abolish political and administrative devolution in Scotland. Taken to its logical next step, it’s an argument against local government having any sort of power, if decisions are best taken in a centralised way and resources are best used in a pooled way.
The second approach is to consider that much of the infrastructure already exists for Scottish services. There are already facilities for running a welfare system in Scotland; it’s just a case of doing so in a way that suits Scotland. There are already Scottish parts of the armed forces: it’s just a case of ensuring they are run from Scotland.
The third approach is, of course, to consider that you do not need an independent Scotland to end up with sub-standard public services and bureaucracy. Just look at how the United Kingdom has served Scotland, with a disgusting welfare policy introduced by a government in London with little mandate in Scotland, and with cut after cut to our armed forces. The UK, it seems, is a terrible threat to our public services, and with Scotland’s increased wealth independence is likely to address this.
The historical and cultural argument
This came through strongly in the Better Together launch, and there is a lot about it on the Better Together website. In their “positive case“, you can read a lot of odd statements. There is the implication, for instance, that Scotland would somehow be less multicultural – and to bring demographics into this is dangerous territory.
There is the argument that we have come through so much historically, such as the World Wars. As if independence would erase that history. And is that not insulting to the countries we fought alongside, who we were not in political union with? Unless Alistair Darling would have preferred that we fought WW2 as a 51st US state or as a republic of the Soviet Union.
Scotland will be as close socially and culturally as ever to the other nations of the British Isles, if not closer. It is a rather totalitarian and isolationist argument to suggest that countries require to be politically united in order to have good social and cultural links. It’s also, incidentally, jingoistic and big-headed for Better Together to claim that “As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better”. This is the sort of chip-on-shoulder, “wha’s like us?” attitude that holds Scotland back. The idea of independence is not that we are better than anyone, but that we are good enough to do a good job for ourselves and our international allies.
Think of the connections we have with English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand, and Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland. We get on brilliantly with these close allies, and the fact that we are not in political union with them bears no relevance upon that.
So, what now?
I am keenly open to good arguments in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom. But if the above is the sort of standard we should expect, then slowly but surely people will be persuaded.
If there are good “no” arguments I’ve missed, then I’d love to hear them and will of course treat all comments respectfully.