Saturday 6 October 2012

Scotland and home rule

It is becoming clearer that the model, which the nationalists favour, is that of the relationship between Eire and the UK. Citizens of the Republic have certain special rights. They can travel to Britain without a passport. They have always been allowed to work here, irrespective of EU membership. They can even vote in UK elections, though most Brits can not vote in their elections. Most importantly, for the SNP, there was a successful currency union between the UK and Ireland, which lasted until 1979. 

This relationship which existed between Eire and the UK is almost exactly the one that the SNP is looking for. There would be an independent Scotland, but it would not be separate. All of the benefits of being in the union would remain, nothing bad would happen, but we’d have our seat at the UN and we’d get to keep all of the lovely oil for ourselves. It looks as if Ireland got to have its cake and eat it too. Why can’t Scotland join the party? 

But it’s worth trying to remember that the relationship between Eire and the UK occurred for very special historical reasons. The creation of the Irish Free State and with it partition, involved negotiation between the UK and Eire. Eire wanted a united Ireland and therefore did not want to treat the people of Northern Ireland as foreigners. For this reason they can still obtain an Irish passport if they want one. But the UK likewise wanted, long term, a restoration of a united British Isles and so treated citizens of Eire as if they were not foreigners. 

Britain has long had semi-independent parts of the realm, like Jersey and the Isle of Man. Scotland, in theory, could obtain a relationship like that, but it is important to realise that such a relationship could only be obtained by means of negotiation and could only happen with the consent of the rest of the UK. Naturally, this means that the rest of the UK would have to recognise that it was in its interest to allow Scotland to maintain an independent, but semi -detached relationship. 

The problem for Scotland is that semi-detached independence basically is not in the interests of the rest of the UK. What we have learned from the Eurozone crisis is that modern monetary unions require fiscal and political union, otherwise damage can be done to everyone involved. Greece has been damaged by monetary union, but so has Germany by being liable to bale out Greece. It is not in the interests of the rest of the UK to replicate this sort of relationship.

The rest of the UK will lose something by not receiving its present share of  the revenue from oil found in Scotland’s territorial waters, but it will gain something by not having to pay out money according to the Barnett formula. This is, of course, assuming that Mr Salmond understands that he really would have to give up that money. Both Scotland and the rest of UK will come out about even economically, although both sides must be aware that Scotland’s oil revenues are declining.
The reason, however, that the rest of the UK would be most opposed to Scottish independence is because of the consequences that it might have for the stability of the rest of the UK. If Scotland were to obtain independence, there is every chance that Welsh nationalism would see a resurgence. There’s every chance furthermore, that English nationalism could grow, with English people wondering, if the Scots can be independent, why should we be lumbered with costly Wales and Northern Ireland? Moreover, with the bonds of the union weakening, there could be further demands for a united Ireland. 

Let’s imagine that Wales became independent. This would leave England and Northern Ireland and this can hardly be described as the UK anymore. Why should Ulster Scots and Irish Catholics be in a union with England? Why would not England seek independence from them? But this is then a potentially very unstable situation. There could be an attempt at reunification in Ireland, but who knows what sort of chaos that could lead to? Alternatively, there could be an attempt by Protestants in Northern Ireland to create a new partition from those areas where they are still in the majority. But this could be equally chaotic. Northern Ireland went through decades of turmoil and thankfully, finally arrived at a sort of peace which is just about holding. But it is holding because it is held together by the union. By breaking the bonds of the union who knows what damage Scotland could do? An independent Scotland could be the catalyst for the complete breakup of the UK and further civil war in Ireland. 

For this reason, Scottish independence is not in the long term interests of the rest of the UK, which will therefore do everything in its power to discourage further independence movements. Negotiations, if and when they occur, will be hard fought and the rest of the UK will do its best not to cooperate with Scotland’s wishes and will try to make any settlement as unattractive as possible. What hope then is there for the gentle independence, with not much changing, the independence without separation,  the social union, that Salmond puts forward as if it were a realistic alternative?
But looking again at history, is it not becoming clearer that one of the greatest tragedies of our history was the failure of Ireland to obtain home rule within the UK. If the British government had given home rule, when they had the chance to do so, Ireland would have gained much of the freedom it desired, the people of Northern Ireland would not have felt the need to split the island of Ireland, the IRA might have remained a fringe body of no consequence. There would have been no civil war, no neutral Eire standing on the sidelines while Britain fought for its life against  evil. There would have been less Irish emigration, no troubles in Northern Ireland  and most importantly, right now, Ireland would have the pound. It  would not be struggling with austerity, with debts that it simply can’t pay, having pawned its hard won sovereignty for rule from Berlin. 

Why should Scotland seek independence when it already has home rule? The only problem with the existing devolution settlement is that it is unfair to England. But if each part of the union were treated fairly and localism brought power to people in each village and town, each part of the UK could have all the political freedom it could desire without the need to become a separate state. Scotland should not make the same historical mistake that Ireland made. Scotland needs the union just as the union most desperately needs Scotland.