Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Why nationalist accusations of scaremongering are illogical

Until the debate on independence began some time ago I rarely came across the word “Scaremongering.” I knew what it meant, but it was the sort of word that I read once or twice a year usually in some work of history. I doubt that I had ever actually used the word myself. But now this word seems in vogue once more. Nearly every time people, who are opposed to Scottish independence, put forward arguments for why we think it is not a good idea we are accused of scaremongering. Every time we suggest that Scotland’s future as an independent state might not be quite as the SNP suggest we are again described as scaremongers. But how is someone who supports the UK supposed to argue? To believe that Scotland is better off remaining in the UK is to suppose that there are advantages to the Union. But if there are advantages to remaining within the UK, then consequently there are disadvantages to leaving. But if pointing out the disadvantages to leaving the UK amounts to scaremongering, then supporting the UK amounts to being a scaremonger. Q.E.D. I am a scaremonger. But is this really what our friends and neighbours in the SNP believe? Do they really want to shut down debate in this way?

One of the interesting things about political debate is the way in which we argue. We like to give the impression that we believe X for Y and Z reasons. This makes us all appear very rational and disinterested. But let’s look at some of these reasons. Imagine if Scotland were to be very slightly worse off economically if we achieved independence. If an SNP supporter knew this to be so, or if having achieved independence he realised that it was so, would this make him change his mind about independence? Not at all. People who support independence, who have supported independence for years and years do so because this desire for independence is fundamental to them. But they have to try to persuade the rest of us and therefore they come up with all sorts of reasons why independence will lead to this or that desirable outcome. But it is vital to remember that they are not voting for independence in order to achieve this or that, but because they desire it as an end in itself. It is for this reason that the desirable outcomes sometimes change. For instance, at one point Mr Salmond said that he desired independence in order that Scotland could join the Euro. At another point he said that he wanted independence in order to leave NATO. Now he no longer wants these things, but still wants independence. Really the only thing he wants is independence and he will find whatever reasons he can to persuade the rest of us. Mr Salmond therefore puts forward whatever optimistic scenario he can come up with for the future of Scotland in order to persuade those Scots who do not fundamentally believe in independence in the way that he does. He then accuses his opponents of scaremongering when they question this excess of optimism. But what is excess of optimism but the mirror image of scaremongering? What he is doing is exactly the same as he accuses his opponents of doing only from the opposite perspective.

Let’s look at the definition of what it is to be a scaremonger: According to the Oxford English Dictionary a scaremonger is:

One who occupies himself in spreading alarming reports; an alarmist. Hence as v. intr., to spread alarming reports;   scaremongering n. the action of a scaremonger; the spreading of alarming reports; also as adj.

But in order to be a scaremonger it clearly isn’t enough that someone should be simply spreading alarming reports. Let’s say that I notice a fire in a building and I run around telling everyone that there is a fire and that they should leave. Would I be a scaremonger in this context? No of course not, because although my report might be alarming it would also be true. The fire would really be dangerous and therefore people would need to leave. What would make me a scaremonger in this context? I would be a scaremonger only if I had not noticed a fire, but told everyone that the building was about to burn down. Being a scaremonger then depends crucially on truth.

Now let’s look at an argument between an SNP supporter and someone who believes in the UK. The independence supporter might say that if Scotland becomes independent we will keep the pound, while the UK supporter might say if Scotland becomes independent we will lose the pound. The SNP supporter immediately says that you are scaremongering. But logically the UK supporter can only be scaremongering if what he says is false. But then we immediately see that the SNP supporter’s argument is circular. He is assuming what he is trying to prove. For how else can he immediately assert that his opponent's position is false? The point of course does not depend on an argument about currency. Whenever the SNP accuse us of scaremongering they are assuming that their argument is true and our argument is false. But to assume in this way is self evidently a logical fallacy. Presenting circular arguments is not to debate, but to attempt to shut off debate.

Let’s look at some more of the SNP accusations of scaremongering. Frequently in the independence debate there have been two opposing arguments. After a while it becomes very difficult to determine the truth of the matter. Take the debate about whether Scotland would remain a member of the EU after independence. I have heard arguments put forward by the SNP for why we would remain in the EU. I have also heard arguments put forward by the European Commission, the European President and the President of Spain for why we would have to apply from scratch from the point at which we become independent. I have read people who I respect say one thing, I have read people who I respect say the opposite. To be honest, I don’t know what would happen in the event of a vote for independence. Now if I point out to an SNP supporter the possible negative consequences of Scotland not being in the EU, I have frequently been accused of scaremongering. But as we have seen from the above, this is to assume that Scotland will remain part of the EU. But the fact is that this is something that we just don’t know. Only the future will tell us. But to assume as true something that we can’t possibly know is an equally fallacious form of reasoning. It’s like assuming that on September 18th 2014 it will be a sunny day. To accuse someone else of scaremongering for saying that it might rain is to suffer from the delusion that we can control the weather and that it wouldn’t dare rain on our parade.

Much about the future is uncertain. What would happen if Scotland voted for independence is largely unknown. It would depend on the actions of both Scotland, the rest of the UK and others in the wider international community. Neither excessive optimism, nor excessive fear is warranted by the facts. But neither is pointing out possible disadvantages scaremongering. To accuse me of scaremongering when we disagree about how things might turn out is to assume that you alone are in possession of the truth. But this is not to debate in an open and friendly way with your fellow Scot. It is to assume that you are in truth and I am in error. It is to say that I’m running round a building shouting fire when I’ve seen no such thing. It is to question my sincerity. We disagree, but let us at least assume that each of us have honourable intentions.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

You don't know what you've got til it's gone

There’s a Joni Mitchell song from the early 70s that I remember rather liking. It has a refrain that goes:

            Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got
            til it’s gone

There are various things that she regrets losing. The song starts off with examples of environmental destruction, but finally we arrive at a devastating personal loss.

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man

She’s regretting the loss of a husband or a boyfriend. She’s regretting that she took him for granted and that she only became aware of what she had lost when he had gone for good.

Now naturally this is not the only experience of divorce. Some women know full well that their husband was a brute and don’t regret the loss at all. But I imagine there are also a lot of people following a divorce who reflect on their loss and wish that things had turned out differently.

In Scotland we are also at the moment concerned with a matter of divorce. The important thing for all of us is that we don’t sing the refrain from Big Yellow Taxi.

I don’t know what the proportions are but I have the impression that while there are a good few people who have already decided that they want independence and a good few who have already decided that they want Scotland to remain in the UK, a large number of people are either undecided or indifferent. It’s for this reason that the result could still go either way, no matter what the polls say. 

One of the things that it is vital to remember is that the SNP only need 50% plus 1 vote in order to win. We know from experience that they are well organized. They are good campaigners. Their supporters care very deeply about their cause and are willing to work very hard for the result they want. This could well mean that a disproportionate number of independence supporters actually vote on the day. Imagine if the turnout for the referendum were relatively low. Under these circumstances the Yes camp could win even if the majority of the Scottish population were against independence. They could win because they got their supporters to vote while the majority of Scots, uninterested in politics and taking the UK for granted, stayed at home. That’s the nature of politics and the result would be perfectly fair. But imagine if those Scots complacently thinking that the UK would continue, though too indifferent to vote for it, suddenly woke up on the morning of 19th September to find that the Big Yellow Taxi had already departed. There would be lots of nationalists celebrating, but what if you didn’t really feel like taking part. What if you began to feel regrets and loss? What could be done? The answer is nothing.

Let’s imagine that the SNP had won the referendum, but that in the weeks and months after the result it became clear from polls that the majority of Scots wanted to remain in the UK. What could these people do? What good would this majority be after the result? It would be no good whatsoever. The ballots would already have been counted. It would be anti-democratic not to support the result. Let’s imagine that the divorce negotiations didn’t go as well as the SNP had hoped. Imagine if we began negotiating and that it turned out that we were not going to be able to keep the pound, that entry into the EU was not going to be as easy as the SNP had supposed. Let’s imagine that during this period of negotiating, support for independence were to drop sharply. Would this change the result? No. The Big Yellow Taxi would have already gone. Imagine if we were to go to the rest of the UK (rUK) with the message that actually we had changed our minds. It’s not clear under these circumstances that they would even have us back, wanting nothing to do with such fickleness. But anyway which Scottish politician would be so undemocratic as to go against the result of the referendum? Imagine how nasty things would get in Scotland if there were a campaign to reverse the result of the referendum. There would be cries of betrayal. There would be demonstrations. For the good of order and the future of Scotland, people who voted No would have to accept the result and make the best of it, even if we knew that most people in Scotland were against independence, even if we knew that the result of the referendum had been a fluke.

It is for this reason that it must be made clear that for us the referendum is decisive. People who support the continuance of the UK will only have one chance. If the Big Yellow Taxi departs there will be no bringing it back, no matter how much we regret, no matter how great our sense of loss. But isn’t the result going to be decisive for both sides? Let’s look at the matter from the other side of the fence. Will supporters of independence accept the result? If a very large majority of Scots vote No, we may be able to put them off for 10 or 20 years, but what if the result were close? Would the SNP campaign for another referendum in their next election manifesto? It’s hard to imagine that they would not. So supporters of Britain will have to accept the result come what may, while SNP supporters already know that they will continue until they win. This is like the EU attitude to referendums. They keep asking the question until they get the right result. 

The biggest danger to the UK is complacency and indifference. Most Scots are in the same position as the song. We don’t know what we’ve got til its gone. Most of us like certain things that have developed in Britain over the centuries. Even the nationalists want to keep nearly all of the shared UK institutions, pretty much except the shared parliament in Westminster. Many people in Scotland seem to think that these things will continue as a matter of course no matter what the result. The SNP message is don’t worry. Nothing much will change. All those things that we’ve developed over the course of our 300 year old marriage will survive the divorce. But there’s a perversity in this.  Millions of people the world over see Britain as a place which is free, which has a good standard of living, which has free and fair elections and which has the rule of law largely without corruption. Britain is such an attractive place that thousands of people both from Europe and elsewhere want to come and live here. They must find it rather baffling that a proportion of Scots are so desperate to leave. They must find it still more baffling that those same Scots want to leave the marriage, but keep all the fringe benefits. It’s as if after waving goodbye to the Big Yellow Taxi I expected my husband to still love me and provide me with emotional support. There may be some divorces like that, but they are not, I suspect, the common experience.

It is the fact that so many Scots are indifferent to Britain which allows the nationalists to gain a foothold. Nationalism is always a heady brew. It appeals to the emotions, to the sense of patriotism and group loyalty. Imagine next summer how many Scots will go to the pub to cheer on Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, hoping desperately that they will beat England. Some of those people will take that attitude to the ballot box as they vote for divorce. Some of them hopefully will have calmed down as the heady brew wears off. And then there will be the anniversary of Bannockburn. We’re brought up with the idea that our fellow countrymen are the “Old enemy”. No wonder that eventually some of us contemplate divorce. This heady brew of football, ancient history, lies and nonsense means that many of us have little sense of Britishness. It means that our marriage with rUK is treated with complacency and indifference. We take them for granted. We want what they can give us. We want all those nice things that both sides of the independence debate want to continue. But we are ready in an instant to remember old wrongs, ready to blame them both for the present and the past. Many of us, even those who will vote No, are rarely ready to display any real love or affection for our partner of 300 years. It is for this reason above all others that there is a chance that we could see the Big Yellow Taxi depart next September. 

I don’t know for sure what an independent Scotland would be like. No one does. There would, no doubt, be some advantages and there would, no doubt, be some disadvantages. No doubt, the woman looking at her husband departing in the taxi will be able to think of some of the advantages. Just think I get to start looking for a new man! But she also will have regrets and a sense of loss. Much of what the SNP promises about an independent Scotland could come to pass. Then again much of what they promise depends on other people and events that are outwith their control. There are best case scenarios and worse case scenarios. Voters should neither listen to excessive scaremongering nor excessive optimism. Let’s always remember that we are dealing with politicians. Not everything that politicians promise comes true.

If the SNP wins we’ll all find that something that we took for granted will have gone and there will be no getting it back again. What’s more we would deserve this result. We would have been gulled by the politics of football and ancient history. The nationalists would have made us drunk with their heady brew.  The result of every snide remark we’d ever made about the English, every time we’d denied our Britishness, everything that all of had done to damage the marriage would be there for all of us to see. While some of us would be dancing in the street and getting drunk, some others of us would be sitting watching that Big Yellow Taxi depart for ever. Some of us would be reflecting that we didn’t know what we’d got til it had gone. And there would be nothing that we could do. It would already have gone.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

An appeal to our fellow Brits

Quebec had a referendum on secession from the rest of Canada in 1995. Fortunately thousands and thousands of Canadians from the rest of the country demonstrated. They had a simple message.  One hundred thousand people attended a “Unity rally” making a plea to the Québécois. It amounted to the following: “Please don’t go. We want you to stay.” The result of the referendum was close. 50.58% voted no to secession while 49.42% voted yes for independence. One of the reasons that the result was so close was because the yes campaign had promised things that were not in their gift such as the retention of the the Canadian Dollar and the maintenance of an economic and political partnership with the other Canadian provinces. Even though the rest of Canada had made it clear that they were unlikely to agree to Quebec’s wish list, a significant number of Québécois believed that they could have their secessionist cake and eat it no matter what their fellow Canadians thought. The secessionists nearly won. What prevented their victory may well have been the response of their fellow Canadians. The support for unity may well have made the difference. The mood in the rest of Canada was decisive. 

Imagine if there were a lunch club. Four people meet once a month to chat and share a meal together. Imagine if one member of the club was getting tired of it all, perhaps concerned at the expense and thought she would be better off eating alone. What would happen if the other three said something like “Good riddance, we didn’t much like you anyway”? Would this make it more or less likely that the person thinking of leaving would go? On the other hand, what if the others all presented a united view saying “Please don’t go, we would miss you so”?

Up until now the English, Welsh and Northern Irish haven’t played much of a role in the debate about Scottish independence. But we in Scotland who support the UK really need the support of our fellow citizens. Just like in Canada it could make the difference.

Of course, politicians in the other parts of the UK have generally shown that they are in favour of the Union. But it’s not so much the support of politicians that we need as the support of ordinary people. Unfortunately some of our fellow countrymen appear to welcome the secession of Scotland. I don’t know how representative they are, but I do know that they harm the case for the UK. Naturally, it’s an understandable reaction to the threat of divorce. When a husband says he wants a divorce it hurts and the natural response is to say “Good riddance, I never much loved you anyway”. But what if the wife were to say “Please don’t go I would miss you so.”? Would such a response make it more or less likely that the husband would stay?

But how can we in Scotland persuade the other parts of the UK that divorce is not the answer? One way might be to appeal not only to their patriotism as our fellow Brits, but also to their reason in terms of what is best for Britain including what is best for themselves..

We’re just beginning to come out of the worst recession since the 1930s. The UK has a single market, which is the result of our being in a union for hundreds of years. Gradually the fact that we have all lived in the same state has brought about harmonization. More or less the same laws apply to all of us. Business practices are similar. The experience of living in one part of the UK is not that different from living in another, which means that people move about freely and easily. Having a single market is of enormous economic benefit. It is one reason why the United States is so successful economically. Scottish independence is bound to have a disruptive effect on the UK single market and gradually as Scottish laws and practices diverged from the rest of the UK (rUK) the disruption would increase. The one argument that convinces me that it may be in our interest to remain in the EU is the existence of the EU single market. If the UK were to leave we would not have all of the benefits of membership of that market. But even those benefits are not nearly as great as the benefits of a single country’s single market. The single market within Germany is much closer and more harmonious than the single market between Germany and France. So while an independent Scotland would no doubt maintain a close economic relationship with rUK, it would not be as close as at present. It would be more like the relationship between Germany and France than the relationship between Bavaria and Saxony.

Does this matter? Well actually it does. The UK’s economic recovery is fragile. There is a lot to do before the economy will be on a really firm footing. The one thing none of us need is disruption to the UK single market, even if that disruption were to be relatively slight. Markets hate uncertainty. Businesses like to be able to plan. But what would divorce proceedings bring if not uncertainty. Suddenly a three hundred year old marriage that everyone the world over took for granted would be about to end. Other separatist movements in Spain or Belgium would take heart. Perhaps the Québécois would try again. Would these divorce proceedings make the recovery in Britain, more or less likely to continue? Would the world economy be grateful to the Scottish nationalists for their contribution to stability and confidence? It seems unlikely.

Because we have lived in one country for so many years, we’re all rather mixed up together. So are our businesses and services. What’s more there are three hundred years of law and practice to disentangle. What do you think our politicians would be doing in the event of Scottish independence? On both sides of the border they would be spending nearly all of their time on the divorce proceedings. Think about how difficult it has been for successive Governments to change longstanding institutions like the House of Lords or to bring improvement or reform to public services. Sometimes successive Governments of different parties have tried, often in vain, to make, for instance, the Civil service more efficient. We know that it is difficult and time consuming to bring about change. Does anyone then think that dissolving a three hundred year relationship will be straightforward?

The reason why this is important is that what we really need is for our politicians to be focussing on bringing growth to our country. Instead they would be involved in arcane constitutional matters concerning Scottish independence, the division of assets and liabilities and trying to find a way to disentangle three hundred years of living together like a family. Does anyone think that if our politicians focus on these matters rather than the economy, this will be of benefit to any of us in terms of prosperity? No one knows how the independence negotiations would go.  No one knows whether they will be easy and harmonious or hard and acrimonious. But everyone can agree that to some extent at least they will be disruptive and this will have an effect on all of us wherever we live in the UK at present. They are just what none of us need while our fragile economic recovery is beginning.

I would ask my friends in the other parts of the UK the following question. Do you think we will be more or less secure if our armed forces and security services are divided? The Royal Navy would no longer be patrolling our northern shores. So your northern flank would depend on armed forces which you no longer controlled. MI5 and MI6 would no longer be responsible for security in Scotland. Would this make it more or less likely that terrorists might find a way past our defences? Even if the rUK and Scottish armed forces and security services were to get on especially well, and it would clearly be in their interest to do so, we know from history that the weakest point is always where two allied armies meet.

I would also like to ask my friends in the other parts of the UK. Do you really want to lose what must be about a third of your territory? In addition you would lose who knows what fraction of your coastline. Most British people feel strongly about our fellow Brits even if they live overseas. We’d fight for Gibraltar. We fought for the Falklands. Yet while you care about a far away place in the South Atlantic of which you know nothing, many of you could not care less about the loss of a part of your own country to which you are joined both physically and with shared ties that stretch back centuries. Anti-Scottish banter is all very well, but you do realise that you would be losing a part of Britain forever? Would you be equally happy to lose Cornwall?

What it amounts to is this. Do you really want a foreign power north of the border? This foreign power could immediately act in ways which would be contrary to rUK’s interest. That means contrary to your interest. This foreign power would be a competitor. It would try to attract business away from rUK, perhaps by setting rates of corporation tax in such a way as to attract business away from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, perhaps by making alliances and deals with other foreign powers. Do you really think that this is in your own interest?

The nationalists want your hostility. Do you really want to play into their hands by saying good riddance to your fellow countrymen, your fellow Brits? They want a disunited UK. That’s why they sow discord with university tuition fees that only your kids pay. That’s why they try to treat people from different parts of the UK differently. They want you to resent any special treatment that is given to us Scots. But most Scots are not nationalists. We don’t see any real difference between us and our friends, neighbours and relations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, beyond a slight difference in accent. Most of can find an ancestor born where you come from, even if our surname begins with Mac. The English speaking peoples of this island are as mixed up as the Italian speaking people of that peninsula. It makes as much sense to divide us as it would be to divide them.

In the long run we would all lose out by this division. Who knows when, but there will come a time when we will really need each other. Wellington famously said that Waterloo was a close run thing. The battle may have been lost without the Highland divisions standing firm without the Scots Greys charging shouting “Scotland forever”. Our common purpose made the difference when it looked for a moment as if the Germans would win in 1918. Thank God that Scotland was not a foreign power in 1940 as that would have made the few still fewer. There will come a time no doubt when you will need us again as we will need you. History has a way of repeating itself. This is why it is in your interest too that we all follow the lead of that great man who said “Let us go forward together.”

Saturday, 30 November 2013

These people could win

When the independence campaign started some time ago, I must admit I was full of enthusiasm. I started a blog, joined a facebook group, tweeted on twitter. I thought hard about the issues, debated with nationalists, sometimes acrimoniously, sometimes as friends. I learned something too. I gained a degree of respect for the nationalist argument. I heard some good arguments from sincere people. Many of these people were really good at politics. These people could win.

But after a year of blogging I became sick to death of the whole thing. All of the arguments had been said. No one was really changing their mind. The result anyway does not depend on people who write or read blogs, but on those millions who do not follow politics. I had other subjects that I had been neglecting, other topics to study.  So I’ve been silent for some time. But I doubt that the nationalists have been silent. They don’t seem so sick of the campaign. As I said these people are good at politics. These people could win. 

Where are we now? There’s less that a year to go and what we have is simply claim and counterclaim. The nationalist case for independence can be summed up as the claim that we would retain nearly all of the benefits of remaining in the UK. Moreover we would retain all of the benefits of being part of the EU. The process of achieving independence would make Scotland a part of the EU on the same terms as we have at present. The negotiations by which we achieved these positions with regard to the EU and the rest of the UK (rUK), would be straightforward and  would be finished in 18 months. There would be no difficulties whatsoever. After independence, we’d keep the pound. The Bank of England would bail out the Scottish banks in the event that  that should become again necessary. All of the things we like and nearly all of the rights that we have now by virtue of being citizens of the UK, we’d retain. On top of that Scotland would be better off economically and fairer too. What’s not to like? I told you these people were clever and were putting forward some good arguments. Most people get bored with political debate. One person says one thing, someone else says something different. It all becomes very tiresome, very quickly. In the end you give up on the arguments and focus on what each side is promising. 

All these nice things could happen to me if only I just put a little cross in the yes box. And if that nice Mr Salmond keeps promising and promising and repeating and repeating over and over again that these things really will take place, then surely it must be true. You see these people really are good. No one wants to listen to the negativity of counterarguments. Those awful people who talk Scotland down. Indeed these people are good. Really good. These people could win. 

Shall I add to the pointless counterarguments? Why bother? Each of the points in the SNP wishlist has been questioned, but a proportion of the Scottish population will keep the faith anyway. It’s just a question of what proportion it turns out to be. But let’s try to look outside Scotland. After all what would happen after a vote for independence would depend quite a lot on those living south of the border. What strikes me is that the mood there has changed. I haven’t spent much time in England recently, but I read comments on the newspaper comment pages and it seems to me that a fair proportion of the English have begun to loathe us. The attitude of many of the English is good riddance. They think that English taxpayers subsidise us. They think that we get our free prescriptions and free tuition on the backs of them. They long for Mr Salmond to win. Well if they hate us so much, wouldn’t it be better if we were independent? Do you see once more how clever the SNP have been? The English used to think of themselves as British and there was hardly any antipathy towards Scotland. But somehow that mood has changed. Its almost as if that nice anglophile Mr Salmond set out with a master plan to make the English feel more English and to hate us in the same way that we hate them. The politics of nationalism in Scotland has contributed to the politics of nationalism in England and by doing so has set one part of Britain against another. Now the English would cheer as we left, while before they would have felt a sense of  loss like bereavement. They really have been clever haven’t they? These people could win. If not now, then the next time.

Personally I think the English are foolish to regard the loss of Scotland with such enthusiasm. But that’s what devolution and nationalism in Scotland has achieved. It’s divided us in a way that would hardly have seemed possible some years ago, when people could still remember how once we fought together alone against what seemed like the whole world. The foolishness of this rancour is that it fails to see the long term strategic value of keeping a territory intact. Why would Japan and China be arguing so vigorously over some uninhabited rocks if maintaining territorial integrity were not vital matter of national interest. Britain would lose a good chunk of territory if Scotland became independent, yet this is treated with delight. Why then are the Spanish so keen to get back tiny Gibraltar? It seems perverse for the Spanish to want so much to gain a tiny bit of territory, what the English treat the loss of perhaps a third of the territory of the UK with something approaching delight.  But that’s the measure of the SNP’s achievement. As I keep repeating, rather like Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId: “Who are those guys?” Those guys are good. They keep on chasing. They’re relentless. Those guys are the SNP. Those guys could win. 

But here’s the difficulty. England is now full of little Englanders who vote for that nasty Nigel Farage and UKIP. They don’t seem to be in any mood to cooperate with Mr Salmond’s independence wish list. As they cheer us to the door on leaving the UK, they also have a mood of asking “Well let’s see how they do on their own.” They would prefer to see an independent Scotland struggle even if that meant that England were worse off too. The mood in England is not to let Scotland keep the pound, nor to allow the Bank of England to act as our lender of last resort. The mood in England sometimes seems so bad that they would like to rebuild Hadrian’s wall and put barbed wire on the top. The English don’t want to help us. If we become independent they’d rather see us fail.      

Could Scotland force them to let us keep the pound and the Bank of England? We can threaten to not take our share of the national debt, we can say that their nuclear submarines have to leave right now. We could use whatever leverage we have to get what we want. But what do you think? Would this increase or decrease their hostility?

The trouble with the SNP’s wishlist is that it really does depend on the cooperation and goodwill of others. The difficulty is that England could get on very well without us, but we might find it rather difficult if we were to lose their goodwill. Take an example. When a large country withdraws cooperation from a smaller one things can rapidly get rather ugly. Take the example of Ukraine and Russia. The relationship between these places, which had been together for centuries has deteriorated to the extent that Russians often feel uncomfortable visiting Ukraine and vice versa. The Russians set out to make life as economically difficult as possible for their former fellow countrymen. They’ve turned off the gas supplies. They’ve put restrictions on trade and applied silly, spurious rules to make life harder for their neighbours. They’ve  sabotaged the recent Ukrainian trade deal with the EU by threatening dire economic consequences. You can do quite a lot with soft power and a bad attitude especially if the relationship is between one big powerful country and its smaller neighbour. Of course we’re lucky that it is unlikely that Mr Putin will become prime minister in Westminster, but the mood in England is such while the rUK Government would no doubt fulfil its promise to cooperate with an independent Scotland, while relations would no doubt remain civil, it seems unlikely that the English would be overly anxious to be generous.

Mr Salmond’s wishlist might well happen. I have no way of knowing one way or the other. Everything he wants is possible if only the EU and rUK agree. After all Britain let Ireland keep the pound and the Bank of England. Where there is a will there’s a way. The EU make the rules up as they go along. They broke any number of treaties to bale out Greece. They could let Scotland in with a nod. But will they? I don’t know. But I do know that the EU is against secession and that countries like Spain don’t want to encourage secession in their own backyard. If Mr Salmond achieved all of his wishlist, there’s no reason to suppose that Scotland would be worse off than now. Perhaps we would be a little more prosperous, perhaps a little less. I don’t know. The economic advantages and disadvantages of independence are complex. You can make a case either way. I’ve always thought it would come out about even, but that’s just a guess.

But none of this matters. So long as Scots continue to believe the SNP’s promises they have a chance of winning. It doesn’t matter what happens after the event, whether the promises come true, for independence would have already been achieved. The trick is to just keep promising, just keep repeating a simple message of all the good things that independence will bring. A proportion of the Scottish population will believe. It’s just a question of what proportion. And so they will say anything and do anything, promise anything to get that percentage up. It’s politically masterful, for its not as if we will have another chance. It’s not like a normal election where we can hold them to account for their broken promises. There won’t be another go in five years. This is like an election where you elect a Government for ever. The more I’ve been following the SNP tactics the more I admire them. These guys are good. These people could win.

But let’s just imagine. What if it turns out that the SNP’s wishlist does not come to pass? What if we don’t get to keep the pound? What if we need to set up our own central bank? What if we have to apply to join the EU and it takes us a number of years? What if we simply couldn't afford some of the nice things that are promised us, like free child care? There must at least be a possibility that Mr Salmond does not get all that he wants. But then this means that rationally if I were to consider voting for independence, I should do so only if I were willing to accept that some or all of the SNP wishlist would not occur. If I would still vote for independence even if we lost the pound and were not in the EU, then that would show that I am a true supporter of independence come what may. If we were to debate in this way in Scotland this would be to strip the debate down to its essence.  I cannot possibly know whether we will keep the pound or remain in the EU if we become independent, so I cannot reasonably use these as a basis for a rational choice. But no there naturally there is no chance of such a debate. These guys are far too good for that. The SNP know that the vast majority of the population will not choose on the basis of rationality. They will choose because they are promised that everything will stay the same and they will get some more freebies. It’s masterly politics and has been since the Romans were offered “panem et circenses [bread and circuses]” But then the Romans were good politicians too. Bread and circuses is about the best argument in the history of politics. As I keep saying reiterating with regard to the SNP. As I keep watching as their polls seem to rise, I continue to reflect the obvious fact that these people are good. These people could win.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Is Scotland a nation?

I sometimes read Scottish nationalists arguing that it is somehow illegitimate to support the Union, as the UK is an artificial construct and Britain is not a nation. Sometimes they back up this argument with discussion about the the history of the Act of Union of 1707 and what was agreed between Scotland and England all those years ago. It is almost as if they consider that Scotland is just the same as it was prior to 1707 and just as much a nation as it would have been if the Union had never happened.

Historical debate is, of course, fascinating, but it can be incredibly difficult to resolve arguments by appealing to history. This is not least because very eminent historians can have such radically different views on the same events. I’ve read historians who think that Scotland was subsumed by the Union, while others emphasise how we retained our distinct nationhood. No doubt, each side brings its present political views to the investigation of the past and attributes to that past ideas that were not even dreamed of then.  

It is however, possible, I believe, for unionists and nationalists to come to some sort of consensus on this matter by reflecting that whatever disagreement there may be between them  is more a confusion about certain words like “nation” and “country” that can be used in a variety of senses.

Is Scotland a nation? Yes, of course. After all, we talk of the Six Nations Rugby Championship in which Scotland takes part. Moreover, the UK is commonly described as a multinational state, which implies that it is made up of nations. This type of state is not particularly uncommon. India is a multinational state made up of many ethnic groups who speak a variety of languages and follow a variety of religions. Present day Russia likewise has many different ethnic groups, religions and languages and has many constituent Republics. Nearly every European Country is formed from formerly independent countries. Some of these may be referred to as nations. Often this depends on a person’s political viewpoint. Someone who supports independence may describe Catalonia or Flanders as a nation. Someone else may not. There is nothing therefore incorrect or unusual about describing Scotland as a nation. The words may be different in various languages and the useage somewhat varied, but in principle we’re dealing with the same idea. I can ask someone in Germany what “Land” he is from and it would be correct for him to answer Saxony. I can ask someone in the United States what State he is from and it would be correct to for him to answer Texas. If such a person were a nationalist, or if the useage of his language allowed it, he might describe where he comes from as his nation. In all events however, the reality would be the same. A constituent part of a multinational state can be described as a nation, or a country or a state. It amounts to the same thing. However, the word “nation” when it is used in this way is crucially used in a different sense from when it is used as part of the the phrase “nation-state.”

If asked which country I’m from I can answer Scotland or Britain or the UK. Some people prefer to describe themselves as Scottish and not British. This is perfectly legitimate. Here language is determined by identity and the aspiration for Scotland to be independent. No one has to feel British. It should however, be admitted by Scottish independence supporters that many Scots do feel British and that this is likewise legitimate. But if I am asked my nationality on an official form, it is likely that in certain circumstances I will have less leeway. Often it is necessary to reply that I am British. This is because such forms are commonly not asking about my sense of identity but about the nation-state where I am a citizen. If, for example, I filled out a Russian visa form and put that I was Scottish, there would be every chance that the form would be rejected. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the word “nation” can be used fairly loosely and in a variety of senses, but the word “nation-state” cannot.

Many nation-states can be described as more or less artificial constructs. If this means anything, it means that they were constructed from formerly independent constituent parts and that this happened owing to the accidents of history and for a variety of complex reasons. In this sense, the United States is an artificial construct, as is Spain, as is the Netherlands. The history of most nation-states is the history of often arbitrary decisions, of wars won that might have been lost, of conquest and of injustice. All of these things can be described as artificial and they all were necessary to make the present day nation-state. Even Scotland was once a collection of warring kingdoms called unfamiliar names like Fortriu and Dál Riata, speaking a variety of languages and with various cultures and identities. Prior to this, no doubt, we were a collection of warring tribes. If I had a mind to, I could probably go back to a time when Aberdeenshire was independent, ruled by some feudal lord. I could, if I chose, describe this place as my nation. When we delve into history looking for our nation, there is no particular reason to pick the present day boundaries of Scotland. All is arbitrary. All an artificial construct. Scotland is just as much a union as the UK. It’s just that this union occurred some hundreds of years earlier. There’s no rational reason why that should be decisive in determining our present day nation-state.

The question of whether Scotland is a nation can then be answered. Scotland in one sense is a nation and in another it is not. Scotland can be described as a nation in the same sense that Bavaria is described as a “Land”, Texas a “State” or Catalonia a “Nacionalidad” (nationality). This is simply a matter of language usage. Some constituent parts of nation-states are described as nations, others described as countries, others as republics, others still as regions. The reality is the same. Some of these places, like Catalonia or Flanders have significant numbers of people who seek independence, others do not. But there is nothing intrinsic in such places being constituent parts of nation-states, which makes independence either inevitable or desirable. Otherwise, it would follow that every nation-state, which was formed from formerly independent countries should break-up into those parts.

The sense in which Scotland is not a nation is the sense in which we are not a nation-state. It is this, which independence supporters want us to become, for the defining characteristic of a nation-state is that it is independent. Something clearly cannot become what it already is. Therefore, it is uncontroversial and independence supporters must agree that Scotland is not a nation in the sense of being a nation-state. This usage of the word “nation” as short for “nation-state” is the most common usage the world over and what most people mean when they talk of their nation. There are exceptions to this usage when a place or a people can be described as a nation even though they lack a nation-state. In Canada for instance there are “First Nations.” Such “nations” even sometimes have a seat at the United Nations. But the vast majority of UN nations are nation-states.

Is Britain a nation? In the most common usage of the word “nation” clearly it is, for Britain is a nation-state. To attempt to deny that Britain is a nation is therefore to simply misunderstand the the most ordinary usage of the word “nation.” Is Britain a nation in the looser sense that Scotland is a nation? This is more a question of identity. Is there such a thing as a British identity? Clearly there is. Lots of Scots feel it. Some do not. Some independence supporters don’t like the idea of a British identity. But to deny it exists is like trying to deny that Germans have an identity or that Spaniards do. Even if some Bavarians or Catalans want independence and deny their German or Spanish identity, it does not follow that everyone must do the same.

If Scotland were to become a nation-state it would be the goal of the Scottish Government and people to preserve this nation-state. It is in the natural order of things for a nation-state to seek to defend its borders and maintain its territorial integrity. In the event of independence therefore, it would be uncontroversial for Scots to seek to prevent the breakup of this nation-state called Scotland. But by the same token it is natural for British people to seek to prevent the breakup of our nation-state called the United Kingdom. In this we are no different from a German or an Italian striving to maintain the territorial integrity of his nation-state. It is this which Scottish nationalists frequently fail to understand and why there is commonly so little understanding between the opponents in the independence debate. Independence supporters frequently conflate the meanings of the word “nation.” The justification for independence is frequently founded on the implied assumption that Scotland already has or has somehow retained the properties of a nation-state. But this is not only circular, it is also self-defeating. For if Scotland already is a sovereign nation-state, there is no need to seek independence. It’s a simple matter of logic that you cannot become what you already are.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Do Independent countries have the right to their own currency?

One of the things that independence grants a country is choice. For example, an independent Scotland could decide to join the Euro. Alternatively, it could decide to set up a Scottish pound. There would rightly be a great deal of indignation in Scotland, if someone else tried to limit our newly won independence by saying that we did not have a choice in these matters. Being a sovereign nation would mean that we would have the right to have a currency that was different from that in the rest of the UK (rUK). If we did not have that right, we could not properly be called independent at all. Independence is always a relational concept. I am independent as I am independent from something else. But if Scotland became independent from rUK, it follows logically that rUK would become independent from Scotland. They too would gain independence. Not only us. But it would be unjust if we were to deny to newly independent rUK something that we would demand for ourselves. Just as an independent Scotland would have the right to choose a currency different from rUK, such as a new Scottish pound, or the Euro, so newly independent rUK would have the right to have a different currency from Scotland. For either side not to have this right would be to imply that were not properly independent.

The Scottish government has expressed a desire to retain pound sterling after independence. This is a perfectly proper and reasonable aspiration. But no supporter of independence would want to say that Scotland could not at a later date change its mind. Perhaps, in time the Euro would prove to be such a success that we would want to join it, or perhaps we might decide that having our own currency would be better still. No one could force us to retain the pound if we did not want it post independence, and we would resent it deeply if anyone tried. But by the same token we could not force rUK to retain a currency union with us if they did not want to.

At the moment the UK government, in an official paper, is saying that it probably would not be in rUK’s interest to maintain a currency union with Scotland post independence. This has been met with some indignation by the SNP. They have argued that it is in everyone’s best interest that Scotland retains the pound. This is because they think that it would be beneficial economically to rUK to retain Scotland’s economy within a sterling zone, not least because it would help rUK’s balance of payments. They have even gone so far as to suggest that if rUK were unwilling to allow Scotland to remain in a sterling zone, then they would not accept a share of the UK’s national debt. This share could amount to around 125 billion pounds. It’s always tricky to know for sure what’s going on when we get into economics. One side comes up with a set of figures and economic arguments that look very sensible, only for the other side to come up with a set of figures that are equally hard to dispute. In this case, it might be better to look at the psychology of the situation.

The SNP seem pretty keen to keep the pound post independence, even going so far as to make threats if they don’t get their way. The UK government,  on the other hand, does not exactly appear to be begging an independent Scotland to stay in the pound. It may well, of course, be just as the SNP suggest that it would be foolish for rUK not to keep Scotland in the sterling zone, but then if that were the case, it would hardly be necessary to resort to threats. If it were so self-evident that it was in rUK’s interest to keep Scotland in the pound, there would be no need to persuade at all. Naturally, this might all be a bluff in order to discourage Scots from voting for independence and that in the event of independence, everyone would see sense. But again, it would be a fairly feeble bluff if it were so obvious to all concerned that monetary union between rUK and an independent Scotland was so self-evidently desirable.  

The best argument in favour of currency union between rUK and Scotland is the example of the Republic of Ireland, which retained the pound after independence and kept it until the 1970s. Currency unions between independent states are clearly possible. We already have a currency union between the UK and the crown dependencies  (Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man) and the overseas territories (Gibraltar, the Falklands etc). Why couldn’t we have a currency union between an independent Scotland and rUK? There are some limitations and constraints on all sides from being in a currency union and to say the least the crisis in the Eurozone has ably demonstrated that monetary union without political and fiscal union is at best problematic. But if both rUK and Scotland considered a currency union to be in their own economic interest, no doubt it could be made to work.  

But here’s where it looks more difficult for the SNP. If rUK really did not want a currency union with Scotland, then it could not be forced. Scotland could continue to use the pound unilaterally and unofficially, but this would not be a currency union. For a country as developed as Scotland, with a large banking sector, this is hardly a serious option. A Scottish government under these circumstances would have no control whatsoever over monetary policy. To become independent only to have the status of Kosovo, Montenegro or Panama is hardly a pleasing prospect.

The threat of not accepting a share of the national debt, can likewise hardly be considered as serious. Having refused to accept a share of the UK’s national debt, Scotland would not exactly appear to be a trustworthy country to lend money to. Trying to sell bonds on the international market, quite possibly in London would be tricky at best. The credit rating of an independent Scotland would hardly be helped if we had  just shown ourselves willing to renege on our debts. Most importantly however, if relations between rUK and Scotland deteriorated to the extent of Scotland walking away from the debt we had built up together, it would mean that the post independence negotiations had effectively reached deadlock with neither side willing to cooperate with the other. Relations between the two nation states would be characterised by recrimination and hostility. This would be a disaster for everyone no matter on which side of the border we live.

In the end, we in Scotland have to accept that in the event of independence, rUK would have a perfect right to have a different currency from us. We might regret this, we might think it foolish, we might even think that they are acting against their own best interests, but that really is their business. After all, they might think it foolish for Scotland to leave the UK. A supporter of independence would hardly let that influence his judgement. These are matters on which reasonable people can disagree. So if there were to be a difference of opinion about economic self-interest between Scotland and rUK, Scots would have to extend the same right to those south of the border to disagree with us. An independent Scotland could not force them to have us in a currency union, nor should we want to force them.

An independence supporter who is completely unwilling to accept the possibility of losing the pound should seriously consider whether he really understands the concept of independence. It might indeed be possible to remain in a currency union with rUK. No one will know for sure until the negotiations begin after a “yes” vote in the independence referendum. But recognising the fact that the people living in rUK would clearly have the right to judge for themselves and make their decision independently of us as to whether they thought it was in their own economic interest to remain in a currency union with Scotland, means accepting that it must be possible that Scottish independence would lead to us losing the pound. Even if we were to disagree with the rUK position, even if we desperately wanted to retain the pound, we would have to allow them the choice. Otherwise we would not be respecting their independence. Honesty therefore requires supporters of independence to admit that a vote for independence might also be a vote for losing the pound. After all, the UK government has stated its official position that it is unlikely to be in the rUK’s interest to retain a currency union with an independent Scotland. This we must assume would be their negotiating position in the event of Scotland choosing to vote for independence.

This need not discourage independence supporters. There are advantages that come with having an independent currency for which reason most newly independent countries, like Latvia or Ukraine made establishing their own currency one of their top priorities. An independent Scotland, of course, could do likewise. It may be that we would have no alternative but to do so.