Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Back on the agenda: Scottish Independence

After a few years of turmoil and worse-than-expected electoral performances from the Nationalists, the issue of Scottish independence seems to be firmly back on the agenda, with a recent Scotsman/ICM poll putting support for separation from the UK at some 51% - its highest level since before devolution. Doubtless this is in large part the Scottish manifestation of the UK-wide disillusionment with Labour in general and Blair in particular, with the increasing support for the Tories that is evident in other areas of the United Kingdom not really a serious option in its northernmost nation. This has been further bolstered by the release of previously secret government documents from the 1970s, in which the then Labour Government was advised by a leading economist that oil revenue would give an independent Scotland one of the strongest currencies in Europe and an "embarassingly" large tax surplus. The report was supressed by the Government of the day, fearing the almost inevitable surge in support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, and was only made public a few months ago under freedom of information legislation. Many are likely to feel, not without significant justification, that the decision to do so was as cynical as it was fundamentally undemocratic, particularly as the first devolution referendum, held at the end of the decade, failed to achieve the qualified majority required by legislation.

Leaving aside the democratic significance of the fact that the recent poll suggests that 51% of Scots now favour independence, it is worth having a brief look at the contours of the current debate, with potentially crucial Scottish Parliament elections approaching next year. As Simon jenkins has noted in the Guardian, some fairly big guns from the UK Labour Party, including Blair, Brown and Reid, have been in Scotland recently to make the case against independence. I'm far from convinced, however, that Blair's chosen line of attack will be effective:

What I think it's about is the attempt by the SNP and others to say you're only truly Scottish if you're making the case for independence, but that's rubbish... You can be Scottish and British.

We share a currency, we share armed forces, we share social security systems - you rip Scotland out of the UK and you lose those benefits, and you will end up with an uncertain economic future with less power for people in Scotland to effect the big changes in the world.

the trouble with these is that, while the first just doesn't ring true, the second is likely to be counter-productive in the prevailing Scottish climate. The claim that "real" Scots support independence and reject "Britishness" altogether is an attempt to win support by making the position of the enemy extreme and unpalatable to most; it is not, to my knowledge, one that finds much support in the official rhetoric of the Nationalists, or, indeed, of the other pro-independence parties represented in the Parliament, namely the Socialists and the Greens. As argumentative strategies go, it is fairly transparent, and unlikely to be successful as such.

In terms of the second part of his argument, Blair would do well to remember that Scotland overwhelmingly voted "old" Labour throughout the Thatcher years - it always was, and remains, a considerably more left-wing nation than its southern neighbour, and the directions taken by New Labour in pursuit of the middle-English vote have not always been welcomed in the North, with the Scottish Labour Party being tainted by association if not by actual complicity. Nowhere is this clearer than, for example, the controversy over the war in Iraq; unpopular enough in England, but even more so in Scotland. Long used to the risk of having their voices lost in Westminster, many the Scottish electorate may well decide that having less power internationally is infinitely preferrable to having "big changes" effected in the world, of the type seen most dramatically in Iraq but readily evident elsewhere, in their name but without their consent.

Blair is correct that it is "up to them to make the argument" about the positive benefits of the UK; however, the current strategy seems to be a decidedly risky one. Of course, no decision about whether to remain within or dissolve the Union is without risks, both economic and political; but, as the impressive weight of expert opinion on both sides of the question suggests, these can only really be assessed in hindsight. In any event, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the simple act of secession would itself determine the future prosperity of either Scotland or England, in the manner that some on both sides of the debate seem to suggest; rather, such would depend in very large degree on the choices made subsequently. In terms of the current debate, in the light of forthcoming elections, we can but hope that, this time around, the Scottish people will be entrusted with all of the facts available in order to make a properly informed choice on this issue of central importance.


Una Ann Hardester said...

The idea of an independent Scotland, while obviously a real possibility, boggles my mind. I'm torn between not liking the concept of nation-states splitting up (peacefully or not)along ethnic or linguistic lines, and liking the idea of a pro-European Scotland with a written constitution and a more left-leaning political culture divorced from its conservative, Euroskeptic southern neighbor.

I wonder what the Welsh are saying about this, or the Northern Irish for that matter...

Lorenzo Zucca said...

Thanks Una, this is an interesting comment.

As far as my experience is concerned, Aberdeen (where I live) is propably the most euro-sceptic place I've ever seen. It comes down to one issue: european fishing policies.

I would not be very torn, if Scotland could realistically be the second option you suggest. But I have my doubts...

Euan MacDonald said...

Thanks for the comments! I see little reason to doubt that an independent Soctland would be both significantly left-leaning and pro-European; a quick look at the current balance of power in Holyrood shood be sufficient to support that claim. In that regard, Aberdeen may well be an exception; but even the SNP, popular in the north east, are generally very pro-Europe.

The issue of states splitting up along ethnic or linguistic lines is certainly a thorny one, and cause for concern; it is also important to note, however, that these are important factors in the creation of political community. Indeed, arguments for retaining the Union, which present themselves as inclusive, are necessarily equally exclusive along ethnic lines; it is simply that the "ethnos" has been expanded a little in the second case.

Anonymous said...

The splitting up of the United Kingdom would be bad for Scotland. The SNP keeps reminding us of these huge oil reserves under the North Sea but with production declining between 8 and 10% a year and a possible deficit they would need to attract business ready to invest in Scotland fast.

Its also interesting to here the SNP talking about Scotland on the European stage, do they really believe that a country of 5 million will have any real power influence or impact in the EU against countries with nearly 60 million and possibly in the future Turkey with 100 million. This is simply unrealistic and also there is no guarantee they would be accepted in the EU immediately, it would take time for them to be welcomed in.