Posts Tagged ‘independence referendum’
UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has gone on the offensive today about armed forces capabilities in an independent Scotland.
Expressing, as many others have done, a variety of concerns about how defence would work under independence, he is quoted as asking a number of questions:
“It is not whether an independent Scotland could go it alone and develop its own defence forces – of course it could – but what sort of forces would they be? What would they look like? What level of security would they deliver? Who would join them? And would they in any way even begin to match the level of security from which Scotland benefits as part of the United Kingdom today?”
It’s rather an astonishing tirade. Not because these are not valid questions to ask – on the contrary, they are very good ones. But they are strange questions to ask specifically of an independent Scotland because they’re the sorts of questions any government and people of any independent country anywhere in the world should be asking themselves.
Indeed, such questions are being asked of the United Kingdom itself at the moment, given the issues facing the Ministry of Defence at present on everything from what planes to have, where bases will be located, and whether and how to replace the nuclear deterrent. These debates and questions do not undermine the case for a United Kingdom nor its ability to defend itself. Instead, such military and political choices are quite simply par for the course, business as usual: precisely what governments are elected to actually deal with.
And we can guess a lot of the likely answers to Philip Hammond’s questions: Scotland’s defences forces would be based in various places throughout Scotland, they would be non-nuclear and peace-orientated, they would consist (like armed forces all over the world) of citizens who have volunteered to join, and they would provide security to Scotland’s domestic territorial integrity, its economic infrastructure, its overseas interests, its allies, and above all its people.
As for the details? Well, just like in the UK, that depends on the governments we elect and the choices they make. But it’s safe to assume that a Scottish armed forces, like that of most European countries, would be one that is professional, attractive to the right kind of person, and would offer a range of domestic and overseas opportunities. Just like now. After all, if Denmark can commit troops to overseas action, so can Scotland.
Of course, some would argue that an independent Scotland would not be able to sustain levels of expenditure on defence: a standpoint people are perfectly entitled to adopt.
However, there have already been many years of cuts to the UK’s defence capability, with reductions in expenditure and troop numbers leading to concerning damage to resources, a threat to the so-called “special relationship” with the USA, and accusations of “serious holes” in the UK’s future defence capabilities.
So an independent Scotland is hardly unique in being accused of unsustainable defence cost reductions – nor, as an aside, unique in saving millions on defence expenditure by not having nuclear weapons.
And this idea of criticising independence for potential risks that are already being realised in the Union is a recurring theme of the referendum debate across a range of issues. Unionists have made a number of warnings about spending in an independent Scotland, when exactly the same problems are already happening in the UK.
For instance, on pensions, people have asked how on earth we would be able to manage a pensions system in an independent Scotland – when others have warned that the UK itself is in danger of not managing.
On the management of the economy, some have argued that an independent Scotland would not be able to maintain a AAA credit rating… when the UK itself is not capable of holding on to it.
There’s also welfare. An independent Scotland would not be able to pay for its welfare bill, argues the UK Work and Pensions Secretary. Meanwhile, the UK’s welfare system, currently being overhauled by the UK Government, is not working and is “promoting destructive behaviour”, argues… er… the UK Work and Pensions Secretary.
The national debt is an example, too. Scotland’s share of the UK’s national debt is described as “terrifying”. Meanwhile, the UK’s national debt last year was just over a trillion pounds and described by the UK Government as “unsustainable”.
And we hear that Scotland might not be a member of various international organisations. Yet we also hear that the political choices of the current UK Government could see the UK’s membership of both the UN and EU cast into doubt.
How about embassies? Well, an independent Scotland would face “enormous” costs paying for its embassy network. Mind you, so does the UK, which has had to cut costs by £100 million to make its own network sustainable (and let’s not forget the UK’s embassy sharing deal with Canada that I blogged about a while back).
I could go on. But you get the point – it’s a poor show to be criticising the idea of an independent Scotland as an economically unviable prospect that cannot meet its public spending obligations, when the UK itself is currently demonstrating precisely those failures.
For every story of doom and gloom about how something wouldn’t be manageable in an independent Scotland, you can find a corresponding argument about how that same thing is not manageable right now in the United Kingdom. And indeed, there will also be evidence to show that countries around the world, often smaller and poorer than Scotland, somehow manage quite fine with managing these challenges.
Therefore, these questions about how Scotland would cope as an independent country are not concerns that are unique to Scotland: they are shared by all governments around the world. Every government has difficult questions to face about how to deal with the problems of the day – be that an ageing population, public sector cuts, or poor infrastructure.
Such challenges don’t make those countries unsustainable in themselves – they are nothing more and nothing less than the bread and butter, everyday political issues that governments wrestle with.
So let’s accept that an independent Scotland would face precisely the same range of problems the UK faces at the moment.
It would be nice (though probably, sadly, unrealistic) to imagine that the “No” camp in the independence referendum could ask itself the following question before raising concerns about costs in an independent Scotland: “do those same equivalent concerns also exist right now in the UK?”
To put it another way, rather than inviting us to fear a possible future, why not dwell for a moment on the same fears being realised right now, in the present?
The real question is whether we want Scotland’s problems tackled by a UK Government that we might not have voted for, or by the fully accountable government of an independent Scotland that would be £824 a head richer than now?
The Scottish Government recently published their suggested outline of what will happen after a Yes vote in 2014′s referendum on Scottish independence.
The paper envisages that the Scottish and the UK Governments would, following a Yes vote, negotiate in a cordial and constructive manner. Given, after all, that Scotland and the remnant UK are going to be neighbours and should try to get on with each other, it’s a reasonable expectation that independence negotiations gets things off on the right tone.
It’s strange, disappointing and not a little hurtful, therefore, to hear a few hints from what would be the other side of the table that suggest there is no intention to make things pleasant.
This article in the Scottish Review by a former civil servant suggests that Scotland could go into those negotiations at a significant disadvantage thanks to:
- UK Government spies within the Scottish Government – who may be in place already.
- Intelligence collusion between the UK and US governments to ensure a strong hand for the rUK
- A serious perceived lack of negotiating expertise within the Scottish Government
- The Scottish Government’s inability to access information it is entitled to within currently shared ministries, such as defence and the Treasury
Added to this, are reports that the UK Home Secretary Theresa May has said that Scotland cannot make assumptions about access to UK intelligence post-independence.
Now, we can rule out one or two of these points as fantasist scaremongering – for instance, the idea that the USA would weigh in on the UK’s side in the negotiations is bizarre give it would have to be a friend and ally to both successor states. However, some points may technically be true: for instance, there is probably already much going on within the Scottish Government that the UK Government is aware of. Mind you, that’s going to be more due to publicly available documentation and ongoing, regular communication between the two governments on a range of things, rather than anything as conspiratorial as cloak and dagger stuff.
But the idea that Scotland needs to be told it will not be able to access UK intelligence post-independence is indicative of a hostile, aggressive tone that is unbecoming the dignity of the UK Government, and is unrepresentative of the mood of the people of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s almost like Scotland is being made out to be an enemy in waiting, when actually it will be a close ally of the rUK and there will be the same close cultural and economic ties that there is at present. Is the UK Government betraying the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (never mind the people of Scotland) by trying to warn them that the Scots are some sort of bad guy not to be trusted diplomatically, politically or militarily?
Nobody is suggesting that an independent Scotland would or should have access to all the information produced by the rUK’s intelligence services. But if we dig just a little into the intelligence question, we can see there are at least four precedents that suggest that actually intelligence cooperation between the two countries would be very strong indeed.
First, the UK engages in a great deal of intelligence sharing with its friends and allies in the European Union. Whether on people trafficking or cross-border crime, the EU’s freedom of movement for goods, services and labour means that there is quite rightly plenty cooperation on intelligence about the abuses of those freedoms.
Secondly, the UK very closely cooperates with the Republic of Ireland on intelligence matters, not least relating to the movements and activities of some of Northern Ireland’s dodgier criminal and terrorist organisations. With a shared land border and busy shipping and air connections, it’s only logical. We can make the same assumptions about Scotland and the rUK.
Thirdly, the UK is a part of the UKUSA Agreement (or Five Eyes), which is a security and intelligence cooperation agreement involving the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If the UK Government is willing to exchange intelligence on a certain level with little New Zealand on the other side of the world, it’s bizarre to think that it wouldn’t also want to do so with an independent Scotland. After all, that new Scotland will share a land border with the remnant UK and will possess a huge part of its former coastline and nautical territory. The rUK will want to, and frankly need to, cooperate on security and intelligence with Scotland – and vice versa.
Fourthly, there is already security cooperation between the UK and Scottish Governments. With crime and justice being a devolved matter, many elements of anti-terrorism and intelligence work already necessitate the sharing of information between different police forces, judicial systems and civil services. Adding two foreign offices, security services and armed forces into the mix doesn’t change the basic picture: jurisdictions exchanging information, according to domestic and international law, as and when needed and helpful.
Nobody in their right mind envisages that Scotland and the remnant UK will be anything other than really good friends, with cooperation at the diplomatic and political level adding to that already taking place in the social, economic and cultural spheres.
Yet the UK Government presently wants to ride roughshod over that, giving the impression that Scotland will be like a Cuba to the UK’s United States, or a West Berlin to the UK’s East Germany: a nasty, irritating thorn in the side, with whom friendly, cordial, normal relations are unthinkable.
Obviously members of the UK Government are entitled to raise concerns about independence, and obviously the negotiations should not be one-sided with Scotland getting all the assets and none of the liabilities. However, some of these concerns are based on lies and scare stories (as I’ve just demonstrated, it only takes someone who studied politics at undergraduate level over a decade ago to unpick them). Instead, the concerns should be based on constructive arguments about why Scotland is “better together” with the rest of the UK. As it is, people are left wondering just where those constructive arguments are.
The scare stories about intelligence and security tell us more about the UK Government’s paranoia, and nothing about the Scottish Government’s attitude, and indeed they misrepresent the attitude of the people on both sides of the Scottish border – all of whom will seek the very best of relations post-independence.
So two questions occur in conclusion:
1. Do “No” campaigners in Scotland really envisage that these arguments about Scotland somehow being “cut off” from intelligence cooperation are realistic, and that relations between the two countries in the realms of defence, foreign affairs and security will be poor? And what is the basis for that assumption?
2. What do people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland make of this portrayal of Scotland as some sort of “enemy at the gates”?
As ever, I’m open to constructive and thoughtful contributions.
As I mentioned on my blog a few weeks ago, I did a recent spell as the tweeter on the ScotVoices account. That is, of course, one of many “national” Twitter accounts where someone from the country tweets about their life, their country, and indeed anything (within reason) they fancy.
I’ve now had a couple of weeks or so to mull over my experience, and feel I should blog a wee report on how it went.
Before I do, though, I had every intention – thanks to a suggestion from my opposite number on the Pakistan account – to “storify” my week’s conversations. Storify is a handy little tool that searches, records and presents tweets (or indeed emanations on other social media platforms) in the form of a conversation that you can later easily read through and present to others. To do a whole week of tweets was admittedly a little vain, but I felt it would be a nice way to remember the week as well as pick out highlights when it came to writing it up.
It was also, however, an enormously fiddly process to transfer several thousand tweets at once, and – long story short – she couldn’t handle it, Captain. I emailed Storify and – to my enormous surprise – a friendly, fluent English-speaking human being wrote back to apologise. Basically, he explained, the system is not designed for the capturing of many hundreds of tweets at once, but saw that there was great potential in it being used by “national” accounts like ScotVoices, and he said he would pass the idea on to colleagues.
So that aside, you’ll have to cope with my memory.
And in a nutshell, being ScotVoices was a blast.
The first thing I noticed was that the experience was very different from my own Twitter account. I was tweeting more often than I would for my personal account, and there was a huge level of interaction, with anything I tweeted rendering a number of replies or retweets and indeed often generating long conversations between various users.
That was nothing to do with the quality or nature of anything I said, but simply to do with the numbers of people following the account. I think my personal account had, at the start of my ScotVoices week, around 400 followers (though its grown since as a result). ScotVoices, however, had something like 2,500, and I was totally unused to this level of interest and interaction. Trying to be polite and engaged as possible, I replied to as much as I could. While it was all fascinating, it was at times exhausting in a way to keep up with everything.
It was fun, though, and that was because I tried as much as possible to ask questions and generate discussion. The account after all is about reflecting the country, and life is as much about questions as pronouncements. In any case, asking a question then sitting back is sometimes easier than trying to spout forth on something in a balanced way.
So I posed a number of questions over the week: about the nature of Scotland, the relationship between the cities and the rest of the country, or (and this was a popular one) people’s best photos of Scotland.
My favourite discussion, though, was when I turned the independence referendum debate on its head. Rather than asking people’s views (which had been done by previous custodians of the account), I instead asked people who subscribed strongly to either yes or no to share what they thought the opposite side’s strongest argument was. There’s too much polarisation in politics, not least these days in Scotland, and so it was fun to get everyone thinking as objectively as they could about the views of the “other side”.
I wasn’t passive in all the discussions, however, and did “lead” at other points. I went on an admittedly predictable evangelical rant about the merits of Esperanto, and to be fair did get a lot of positive interest from it. I also, on a day off, went on a couple of hours’ “photo walk” around Inverness, tweeting photographs of various parts of the city, going into bits of local history where I knew it, and generally sharing a flavour the city I live in. Judging by the responses, this was probably one of the best received parts of my week on the account, and was certainly one of my favourites to do.
When I visited Edinburgh for work at the start of my week, I even attempted to convene a face to face gathering in a pub for whoever was in the area. After 30 minutes of waiting, nobody had turned up so I headed to my hotel… only to receive a tweet a wee while later asking where I was. It was from none other than an MSP who was an old comrade in arms from our days in the SNP Students at Aberdeen University. I set followers on a fun guessing game as to which MSP it was that I’d inadvertently stood up, and the first correct guess won a copy of my book (as did the MSP himself for his trouble).
I learned a lot, too, over the course of the week. I learned, for instance, that there’s a huge amount of international interest in Scotland. Many of the account’s followers, judging by those who interacted with me, are from European and North American countries. While awareness of the independence referendum was surprisingly low (it was a question I specifically asked), there was a huge general interest in and love of Scottish people, culture, scenery and history.
I also learned a lot from other countries – not only those people who replied who were following the account, but also the the many other foreign accounts that ScotVoices was already following. I had good chats with my equivalent tweeters on the Pakistan, Egypt, Sweden and Netherlands accounts, and it was nice to have a brief crossing of paths with people from so many different countries – like a sort of “citizen’s United Nations”.
Finally, from a discussion I sparked about Scottish food, I learned that porridge made with banana-flavoured Yazoo is something I really must try some time.
My experience on ScotVoices convinced me that social media really does have a place. It doesn’t have to be all about trolls, abuse, mudslinging and endless pictures of cats. It can be a place where windows are opened to other parts of the world, jokes and ideas can cross cultural boundaries, and we can give real voices to real people.
It was an exciting week. Though I’m rather glad to be back to just the one Twitter account.
It’s widely argued (by people like me) that being in the United Kingdom is harmful to Scotland’s interests. However, it’s a lesser-voiced, though no less valid, argument that Scotland being in the UK is actually harmful to the other nations of the UK as well.
One of the more obvious examples of this is how England (outside London) is often neglected in the political and economic decisions at UK level, with the lack of significant autonomy within England allowing the economic and political might of the private sector-obsessed London to dictate the show. Of course, the first moves towards regional assemblies in England were defeated, but I am sure that many in England would argue that the issue is worth revisiting these years later; if not in the same form then some other, perhaps involving stronger local government.
Another argument – perhaps less well-founded factually, but still often heard – is that of the UK’s supposed subsidy of Scotland. Why, some in England argue, should we continue to subsidise Scotland’s high public spending? Surely, they continue, Scotland cannot keep going down the road of having its cake and eating it? Now, this argument is flawed because of course Scotland more than pays its way in the UK and therefore instead the subsidy flows the other direction. But the assumption is clear for many who do not accept that fact. And so they ask why England should suffer because of Scotland’s place within the UK.
Two further examples of how Scotland harms the other parts of the UK emerged in recent weeks, and politically they are more real and more damaging than the ones I cited above.
Corporation tax in Northern Ireland
The first is the reluctance of the UK Government to give Northern Ireland the corporation tax powers it has long demanded. This issue strikes me as remarkable because it is one of the few areas that has widespread endorsement across Northern Ireland’s fractured political landscape, and is an example of how devolution can be a success in creating “normal” political discourse.
Neighbouring the Republic of Ireland as they do, Northern Irish politicians and businessmen see the effect of lower corporation tax across the border, with business being more attracted to the Republic than to the North. If only we could have corporation tax powers devolved to the Northern Irish administration, advocates argue, we could level the playing field and start taking more responsibility for attracting business.
No, says the UK Government. Not for any cogent economic arguments, but for reasons of brazen political desperation. Read this recent article in the Belfast Telegraph. It describes a debate about the Northern Irish economy at the recent Conservative Party conference, and contains an interview with Mike Penning, a UK Government minister in the Northern Ireland Office. He says:
“This is not just about Northern Ireland, it’s about the Union, and the tax system inside the UK.”
“Scotland is going for a referendum on the break-up of the Union.
“As a unionist, I will do everything in my power to make sure we do not just win the referendum, we smash it for the next generation of people.
“I fully accept that corporation tax is of massive importance to the people of Northern Ireland, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are myriad ways in which Alex Salmond would be able to utilise the argument. What we do not want to do is to help give momentum.”
It’s a surprisingly honest and frank appraisal of the role that cynical politics is playing in the work of the UK Government. In effect, the minister is saying “you can’t have this power, because it could fuel the independence lobby in Scotland.”
To put it even more simply, Northern Ireland’s economic development should be sacrificed in the fight to beat Scotland’s independence movement.
The second example of Scotland harming the other nations is on the issue of defence cuts. Scotland has had more than its fair share of defence cuts under the UK Government, with wave after wave of cuts to its regiments, air bases and so on. There has been widespread condemnation of these moves, and there is a perception that such cuts are seriously undermining the argument that an independent Scotland could not defend itself, or that Scotland benefits from UK defence expenditure.
However, there are cuts in England too, and according to this BBC News article it is causing resentment. The article refers to plans to abolish the Second Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) – an English regiment. The article says that 57 MPs backed a motion (fruitlessly) to stop it happening. The article reports:
MPs accused the government of cutting 2RRF, an English battalion, as a “political fix” to avoid scrapping Scottish battalions ahead of the Scottish referendum.
Conservative MP John Baron, who served in the regiment and who proposed the motion, is quoted as saying
“The government is wrong. Military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts.
“I’m a firm believer in the Union but this is not the way to achieve it. In my view, the government’s culpability is demonstrated by its reluctance to justify its decision.”
And he had apparently earlier said
“Government interference to save poorly recruited Scottish battalions smacks of a political fix in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.”
Now, I’ve no idea about the facts of this, and whether this English regiment really is better recruited than Scottish ones, or whether it is better militarily to cut a Scottish or an English regiment.
Either way, though, John Baron is right in principle to say that “military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts”. The problem is, however, that Scotland being a part of the UK makes the political calculation unavoidable for the UK Government. Why cut a Scottish regiment if it fuels the argument that Scotland’s defence needs are poorly served by being in the UK? Surely it’s better to upset England, which is securely within the Union, than another part which is considering leaving?
The UK Government’s view, then, is clear. English army regiments and Northern Irish business growth are both to be sacrificed in an attempt to stop Scotland becoming independent.
Are English soldiers and Northern Irish businesses really more important than Scotland’s place in the Union?
Well, that’s probably an unfair question to have to answer, and that’s precisely my point. Scotland being in the Union is creating unfair and impossible dilemmas, where the risk of staying in is not just felt by Scotland but also extends to other parts of the UK.
Why shouldn’t English regiments be kept if there is military logic behind it, and why shouldn’t Northern Irish businesses be given a competitive edge if that’s what they and their politicians want?
Why should the aggrieved parties in both examples be forced to be pawns in wider political considerations that are not their concern?
It’s a potentially ugly scenario that the nations of the UK could be set against each other like ferrets in a sack. So why, in short, can’t Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and of course Wales not each make reasonable decisions locally without being held back by the others?
This is the difference between a claustrophobic and imbalanced United Kingdom, and a community of independent nations cooperating with each other as equals. With the former, each administration within the UK is constrained politically or constitutionally by external factors that are none of its business. With the latter, Northern Ireland could raise or lower its corporation taxes to its heart’s content, facing up to the consequences of that power and responsibility, while England could cut or create army regiments according to its own military needs and make judgements on this without recourse to other powers.
These are just the normal powers of normal independent countries. This is not to say, of course, that independence means a blatant disregard for the well-being of neighbouring countries, and that defence or tax levels should not be changed without an awareness of regional and global repercussions. But that’s precisely where friendly partnership and cooperation comes in. Why can’t the independent nations of the former UK work together where they choose to rather than where a unifying authority dictates they must?
The longer Scotland stays in the UK, the more often these problems will arise. The UK’s claustrophobic constitutional arrangements has created constraints. These constraints in turn lead to competition, resentment and hostility.
If it’s a choice between the nations of the UK being in competition or partnership, and between them resenting each other or respecting each other, then the answer should be clear for all four nations.
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.
One of the most frequent observations made about Scottish independence is the claim that it would be the end of British identity.
I’ve had more than a few discussions with people from across Britain who say they feel British and therefore oppose independence for Scotland because it would end Britain and end Britishness, forcing people to choose between the nations it comprises.
My response to this is always the same – the name of the country on your passport is nothing to do with your nationality. If you feel a certain nationality, no political decision can ever change that.
Having reflected on the matter a bit more in recent weeks as the long road to the referendum is now opened up, not only do I remain convinced that independence will not harm British identity, but I also believe that it could potentially strengthen it greatly.
Britishness – not just unharmed…
Firstly, let’s look at that difference between legal citizenship and nationality in a bit more depth. I find it absurd that people wouldn’t be able to feel British if Scotland became independent. Britishness is a multi-national identity, reaching across Scotland, England and Wales and is more of a regional identity akin to being Scandinavian, Baltic or Iberian.
Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a persistent minority of inhabitants of some of its successor states have continued to describe themselves in censuses as “Yugoslav” rather than as, say, Serbian. There’s all sorts of arguments to be had about the political, ethnic and historic reasons as to why that might be, but the point is as long as there remain people who identify with that old country and want to call themselves “Yugoslav” then the concept as an identity will always exist. The word means, after all, “southern Slav”, and southern Slavs didn’t just disappear when Yugoslavia ceased to be a country.
Similarly, Britishness will continue as long as there is someone out there who calls themselves “British”. Even if Scotland, England and Wales were not just wrought from each other constitutionally but literally removed from the face of the earth, a visit to Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands would assure you that the idea of being British lives strongly on.
And it’s not just Britishness that will live on, but Britain itself. People talk melodramatically about the independence movement wanting to “break up Britain”. But Britain is a geographical and cultural concept that has already transcended borders. As a collection of islands – including one large one – off the coast of mainland Europe, Britain has existed for millennia before the Unions of the Crowns and Parliaments, so if either of those unions are dissolved it will continue to exist as a group of islands that contain Scotland, England and Wales.
On the point of Britishness, take another illustration, Scotland. Most people here call themselves Scottish – often in addition to other nationalities, such as British, but most are Scottish all the same. If Scottishness can exist (and very healthily and vibrantly, too) without a corresponding Scottish state, why on earth can’t Britishness survive without a British state?
And if I was to quibble, I’d say there isn’t a British state anyway. We live in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a union composed therefore of British people on the one hand and Northern Irish people (it was the Irish as a whole prior to the republic’s independence) on the other. The whole is not in itself British, but a combination of British and Northern Irish. Sure, most Northern Irish people would claim a British identity on all sorts of strong cultural and historical foundations, but as a matter of geographical fact they are not British. The fact, therefore, that we are able to muddle the UK and call the whole thing “British” demonstrates the strength of British identity in the absence of a strictly corresponding state.
Looking further afield, there are plenty other stateless nations for whose people the identity remains strong. Just look at the Kurds, Afrikaaners, Uighurs or Chechens – nations of people who exist, and have existed for centuries, as a people without a state. Their lack of state does nothing to stop their identity existing, and the oppression those nations have arguably been subjected to over the centuries has done nothing to remove that identity from the people.
The same is the case with Scotland, and the same has been and will be the case with Britain and Britishness. If anyone fears for their Britishness with an independent Scotland, it suggests that their Britishness is not a very strong one, rooted only in the constitutional status quo rather than something more heartfelt and meaningful.
That’s not to say that issues of identity have no place in the pros or cons of Scottish independence, or that there will be no impact on identity if Scotland does become independent. Indeed, as I said above, I think it’s perfectly possible that independence could enhance Britishness. Here’s my thinking.
Britishness has – rightly or wrongly – been tied up with various connotations, such as colonialism and imperialism, a mistrust of foreigners, and violence such as that of the far right or loyalist terrorists in Ireland. Of course, there are many more good facets to Britishness than the bad, and I’m not one of those Scottish nationalists who regards Britishness as a myth.
There is much that makes us British beyond the existence of the United Kingdom: there’s our shared love of curry, beer, football and talking about the weather; our stoic and dry sense of humour; our healthy cynicism towards attempts at authority; and of course our shared languages. Using these and other positives, it’s time to shed the negative aspects of the image and redefine Britishness as something more about a broad basis of cooperation between good neighbours, rather than something imposed upon grumpy, claustrophic housemates.
Britishness could be defined in a post-independence world as a basis for cooperation between two sovereign countries (or three, if England and Wales ever part company), with scope for joint work on culture, environment or any number of other shared concerns. A model of this lies in the British-Irish Council, an institution borne of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland but an idea that had for years been SNP policy for a post-independence Britain.
The Nordic Council (see the photo on the left) is another example. Through it, Nordic nations cooperate on matters of mutual concern but without attempting to rule each other.
Britishness could be something we share and shape equally, respectfully and voluntarily. It could be a Britishness that we could soon come to be very proud of. A Britishness very different to today’s.
Since publishing, this post has been reproduced here on National Collective, which describes itself as “an open and non-party political collaboration of talent focused on driving social and political change in Scotland through a variety of the arts.”
So, Salmond’s “brung it on“, to coin a phrase: the independence referendum for Scotland will take place in “autumn 2014″. Whether or not PM David Cameron’s interference has played a role in chivvying the First Minister along, it’s good that we now know when it will take place.
Debate will now ensue about the perceived benefits or otherwise for Scotland. I daresay I will say more than a little on the topic in this blog in the two and a half years between now and autumn 2014. And what a long referendum campaign it’s going to be!
However, less focus will be put on the implications beyond Scotland of it becoming indepdendent. Of course, it’s nobody else’s decision to take but Scotland (that’s self-determination for you), but apropos of nothing, I was thinking the other day about this dimension.
For starters, and bear in mind I am no more than an amateur commentator, I can think of five things that will happen outside Scotland if it’s a “yes” vote in 2014.
1. Constitutional reform in the remnant United Kingdom
If Scotland becomes independent, there will need to be some changes in the United Kingdom. At the very least, it would call for a tidying up exercise, because the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will, now minus part of Great Britain, need to think about changing its name. How should that name reflect the country, and what will be the relationship between England, Wales and Northern Ireland? The changes may or may not be radical, but even if there is little substantial change, there will have to be some tinkering around the edges to ensure that the name, governance and legal foundation of the UK reflects its new purpose.
2. Worldwide debate about reforming the United Nations Security Council
One major outcome of World War 2 was that the United Nations was founded according to the views of the five major victors, the USA, UK, France, Soviet Union and China. One feature was that those five have permanent, veto-wielding seats on the Security Council, with the rest of the world left to pin their hopes on one day taking the other rotating, temporary places. Just as Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s permanent seat and veto, so it is likely that the remnant United Kingdom will keep its place.
But even without Scottish independence, there have long been grumbles from new political and economic giants who are excluded unfairly – they include Brazil, Japan, Germany, India, and suggested reforms to the Security Council usually name these countries as possible additions to the permanent membership. More radical ideas – which of course will be vetoed by the self-interested five – suggest major overhaul. With the UK reducing in size and population, questions will be asked even more vigorously as to how an already anachronistic privilege can be maintained.
3. Debate within the remnant United Kingdom about nuclear weapons
To an extent, the nuclear debate might intensify as an adjunct to the UN Security Council issue: both nuclear weapons and the permanent seat at the UN are self-appointed prizes for the 1945 victors. Some might argue that if one status symbol is lost then doubt is cast over the other. There’s a more practical issue, though: the submarine-based nuclear deterrent is based in Scottish waters, and an independent Scottish government is almost certainly going to ask for its removal. The remnant UK will then need to make provisions for it to be hosted somewhere on its reduced coastline.
But where? It’s a brave local MP or council leader who’d gladly step forward in the bidding process, because any likely destination will be the centre of intense discontent and protest. It’s hard to imagine public petitions being formed by enthusiastic populations keen to win for their port town the prize of being first in line for annihilation at the hands of the enemy if nuclear war ever broke out. Whether you like nuclear weapons or not, it’s hard to disagree that the debate over where they move to will be a big one.
4. The retreat then resurgence of the English radical tradition
One often-made observation about Scottish independence is that it would give the Conservatives in the remnant UK a stronger hand. Minus its thirty or so Scottish MPs, including some of its leading lights, Labour will be instantly weakened in parliament. This is an argument against independence that you often hear from England. And yes, there will be dispair in the English left about an in-built, perhaps long-term majority for the centre-right. But realising that it has to stand on its own two feet, rather than relying on the Scottish Labour contingent, could be a great liberation for the English left. It will come back stronger, for sure.
And if you think about it, there is a great English radical tradition, possibly one of the deepest, longest and most effective in the world: from the Suffragettes and Chartists to the Manchester Patriotic Union and Greenham Common women, via the Cromwellians, the early trade unionists and the liberals and later Labour politicians who created the welfare state. England’s left will certainly take a hit in the early years of the newly-reformed United Kingdom, but a period of reflection about its beliefs, purpose and methods will see it become more confident, self-reliant and focussed on English priorities. Whether as part of a more left-leaning Labour Party or a new wave of activism, England’s left will become all the more noticeable in future.
5. Increased UK influence in the European Union
Yes, you read that right. The image of a dynamic, cooperative and engaging Scotland as a member of the EU alongside a curmudgeonly, insular and reactionary remnant UK is only half-right. Sure, Scotland will be welcomed as a constructive EU member in its own right, but the UK too will have to reassess its engagement in the light of this popular new kid on the block. Showing how a small British nation can be a positive team player in the EU will show its southern neighbour how it can be done. And on the doubtless regular occasions where Scotland and the UK agree on issues, their combined weight will pack a bigger punch than the UK as it currently stands. By working together where their interests overlap, Scotland and the UK both stand to gain much.
Those are my five suggestions of what might happen in the rest of the world once Scotland becomes independent. Do you have any other ideas – either positive or negative implications – to add? I am sure I could think of more, but five is a good round number for starters.
And as I said at the beginning of the post, it’s the implications for Scotland that will be the big determinant on how we vote in 2014.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.