Saturday 6 October 2012

Self-determination and the Union

Scottish nationalists may have hoped that Scotland would be the next independent country in Europe, but another independence movement has recently come to prominence, threatening to beat them to it. While in Edinburgh five thousand people turned out for a march for independence, reports suggest that one and half million Catalans marched in Barcelona seeking secession from Spain. It may surprise nationalists, but this unionist has a certain amount of sympathy with the Catalans, for the simple reason that I have always believed in the right to self-determination.

Throughout history there have been places where groups of people have struggled for independence. The American colonists fought a war of independence in order to become the United States. I don’t believe that Britain had any right to hold onto a country, which no longer desired British rule. Still less did Britain have the right to try to force the Americans to remain under that rule by force of arms. But then again when the United States faced its own secession crisis in 1861, the North had no right to force an unwilling South to remain in the union. If a group of people, any people, wish to leave a state, they have the right to do so.

But having the right to do something does not mean that I ought to do it. In a marriage between two people, it is no doubt a good thing for both the man and the woman that each has the right to divorce the other, but this does not mean that they ought to divorce, or that it would be a good thing if they did divorce. The reason that I sympathise with the Catalans is that the government in Madrid is saying that Catalonia does not have the right to secede from Spain, that any referendum on independence would be illegitimate. There is even some loose and senseless talk that Spain would fight to prevent the secession of Catalonia. This really is an example of an abusive marriage. 

Compare and contrast the situation in Scotland. For as long as I can remember the UK government has held the view that if a majority of Scots wish Scotland to leave the UK, then they have the right to do so. No one wishes to hold Scotland and the Scots against our will. This is right and proper. I too have always supported the right of Scotland to secede, for I support the right to self-determination. But I do not wish to exercise that right by leaving, rather I wish to exercise the right to self-determination by electing to stay.

I regret that Ireland chose to secede from the UK. I think it was historically a disastrous decision. But I fully accept that they had a right to leave, if the majority of the people living in Ireland considered that leaving was what they ought to do. However, I also think that the people of Northern Ireland, were within their rights, to exercise their right to self-determination in choosing to remain with the UK. So long as the majority of the population in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK, they ought to be allowed to do so. For this reason the IRA were always guilty of self-contradiction. They objected to the British trying to prevent Ireland seceding from the UK, but were willing to use force of arms to try to make Northern Ireland secede from the UK. The reason for this is that they saw the nation of Ireland as something that overrode the rights of its constituent parts. Irish nationalism therefore trumped the rights of a group within Ireland to exercise its right to self-determination. Nationalists, who frequently see preserving the unity of the nation as being more important than the rights of secession, often turn out to be the real opponents of the the right to self-determination.

Just as Spain is unwilling to take into account the rights of Gibraltarians, just as Argentina is unwilling to take into account the rights of Falkland Islanders, so Catalans are finding that they don’t have the right to determine how they are ruled. It would seem that the Spanish speaking form of nationalism is such that there is not much choice as to whether someone will be Spanish or not. No wonder a million and a half Catalans were on the streets of Barcelona. No wonder likewise that only five thousand were on the streets of Edinburgh. The fact that Scots have the right to leave the UK if we wish, means that there are no bonds holding us. We simply have to show that we wish to leave and we will be free to go. But the fact that we are free to go, that we have the right to determine our future, means that we have no need to go. The bonds that join us in the UK are gentle bonds, there is therefore no need to struggle against them.

While I sympathise with the Catalans and absolutely think that they have the right to determine their own future, in the end I think their secession from Spain would be a mistake of the same order as Ireland’s secession from the UK. The main reason why Catalan nationalism has sprung into life recently is the economic catastrophe, which at present engulfs Spain. The reason for this crisis however, can be put simply and the solution is equally simple. Spain made a huge mistake when it chose to join the Eurozone. Membership of the Eurozone is the fundamental cause of the meltdown of the Spanish economy and the potential loss of Spanish sovereignty, which would be required if it were to receive a full bailout. Catalan independence, within the Eurozone would be no independence at all. The Catalans would exchange rule from Madrid, for rule from Brussels. What Catalonia needs is not so much Catalan independence as Spanish independence.

The same can equally well be said of Scotland. Thankfully we are not in the Eurozone, but anyone who follows EU affairs, knows that our sovereignty is constrained by Brussels. The Scottish parliament just as much as the parliament in Westminster frequently can not follow the democratic wishes of the electorate, because EU law overrides all.  We have to a great extent lost our right to self-determination. Scottish independence would not change this, we would still be part of that ever closer union,  the EU, which makes laws we cannot change, no matter the will of the people. Scotland does not need Scottish independence. We don’t need to be independent from the parliament in Westminster, we need to be independent from the rulers in Brussels. What we need is a truly independent Great Britain, offering even to welcome back our cousins in Ireland, giving them a route out of Eurozone servility, so that the English speaking people of the British Isles could be united once more.