Saturday 6 October 2012

What Scots could lose with independence

Being a citizen of a state provides that person with certain rights and responsibilities. The rights may involve, for example, the right to live and work anywhere in that country, to receive certain benefits such as diplomatic representation and protection, or on a more everyday level, social security and healthcare benefits. A person does not automatically have these rights unless he is a citizen. Thus as a British citizen, I do not have the right to live and work in the United States or in Australia, nor can I expect to obtain many of the benefits, which are given to citizens of those countries.
Of course, reciprocal arrangements can be made by which I may receive certain rights in a foreign country. A good example of this is the European Union. As Britain is a member of the EU, a British citizen has many of the rights given to citizens of other member countries. In principle, I can live and work anywhere in the EU and receive whatever benefits a citizen of that country receives. When Poland  joined the EU in 2004, I gained a right which up until then I did not have. I could now live and work in Poland and Poles could live and work in the UK. We each could receive benefits in each other’s country. My rights in Britain and Poland, however stem from different sources. I have the right to live and work in London, or Cardiff by virtue of the fact that I am a British citizen. I have the right to live and work in Warsaw, by virtue of the fact that Britain and Poland are members of the EU. My rights in Poland are contingent on both Poland and Britain retaining that membership.
It is not necessary to be a member of an organisation such as the EU, or EFTA in order to have rights in another country. Citizens of New Zealand and Australia have the right to live and work in each other’s country, simply because these countries came to that agreement. In a similar way, there was a reciprocal arrangement between Britain and Ireland prior to both countries joining the EU. It is important to realise however, that such reciprocal arrangements are contingent. They depend on both sides of the bargain continuing to agree that the arrangement is in their interest. New Zealand could decide to require Australians to have a visa in order to live and work there and vice versa. A country has the right to do so, because it is sovereign and independent. Treaties and acts of parliament can be amended and changed or revoked. Thus the right of a Scot to live and work in Dublin is contingent in a way that his right to live and work in London is not. Either Ireland or the UK could leave the EU or the parliament of one or other of these countries could decide to revoke any reciprocal arrangement. A sovereign independent country has the right to do this. That is what being sovereign and independent means.
This has important consequences for Scotland if it became independent. At present a Scot has the rights of a British citizen inalienably, so long as the British state continues. If Scotland became independent however, these inalienable rights would be lost and would be replaced by contingent rights. The rights which a Scottish citizen would have would depend on both Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) remaining in the EU and on any reciprocal arrangements which the rUK and Scottish parliaments decided to make.
The EU at present has entered into a very uncertain and unpredictable period. Its future development may reach a point where countries have to give up so much sovereignty that a number of them will choose to leave. It is highly likely that there will be a referendum on UK membership at some point in the near future. The demand for this is becoming so great that a politician eventually will realise that it is politically expedient to offer the British people the chance to settle this matter once and for all. Would the UK leave the EU? Polls at present suggest that it would. Where would this leave an independent Scotland? Whatever rights Scots had to live and work and receive benefits in rUK, by virtue of both countries being members of the EU would be lost. It is possible, indeed likely, that a reciprocal arrangement would be agreed between rUK and Scotland,  but it is important to realise that these rights would be contingent and could be changed at any time if it was the wish of either country’s parliament. No independent country has to give such rights to another independent country. That’s what being independent means.
If divorce occurs between Scotland and rUK, it may go well and be entirely amicable. But divorce is not always friendly and whatever reciprocal arrangements could be obtained would depend on negotiations between the two sides. It is for this reason that SNP claims that the decision with regard to independence is a matter for Scotland alone, that it has nothing to do with Westminster, is potentially very short-sighted. For example, the Scottish Parliament could decide, on its own, that it had competence with regard to a constitutional matter, which the UK government considered was reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Parliament could arrange a   referendum, which Westminster considered to be unauthorised and Scotland could gain independence on that basis. But under these circumstances rUK would be perfectly within its rights to treat this as a case of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and simply refuse to cooperate with the newly formed state. There would thus be no negotiations and no reciprocal arrangements for the citizens of the two states. The SNP have to accept that obtaining the relationship they would like between an independent Scotland and rUK requires consent and agreement and is not simply a matter for Scotland alone. Beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism can invite the same response.
No doubt, this is all highly unlikely. It is hard to imagine that if Scotland became independent, that Scots would lose their right to live and work in England and receive free healthcare and other benefits there.  But then, no one living in the Soviet Union thought that they would lose the right to live and work in Moscow, but many did. When Russia became independent, owing to the breakup of the Soviet Union, it decided to use that independence in ways which had unfortunate consequences for its neighbours. Thus it chose to erect borders and impose trade tariffs on former members of the USSR. Ukrainians suddenly found that gas cost a great deal more than it did previously. It is highly unlikely that an independent rUK would act like this. Free trade is in everyone’s best interest. But independent countries do sometimes act out of spite and do act contrary to their own best interests, especially in the case of a bitter divorce. Such independent countries have the right to act as they please. That’s what independence means.
The SNP would like Scots to believe that nothing would change post independence. They would like us to believe that we would have exactly the same rights as we do at present by virtue of being British citizens. What they fail to explain is that these rights would then become contingent rather than inalienable. It is in no way scaremongering to point this out. Whereas at present every Scot has the inalienable right to live, work and receive social benefits in England, a citizen of an independent Scotland would have those rights contingently only on the basis of both countries remaining in the EU or of their developing reciprocal arrangements. It is highly likely, in the event of Scottish independence, that Scots would continue to be able to live and work in England, but it is vital to realise that the SNP want us to give up something. They want us to exchange an inalienable right for a contingent one. When a sovereign, independent country grants a right to the citizens of another sovereign, independent country it can equally take it away. If it could not, it would be neither sovereign nor independent.