Saturday 23 February 2013

The implications of independence


Supporters of Scottish independence have relied on the strategy of portraying secession as something wholly advantageous and with no negative consequences. Nationalists know that there are lots of things that the Scottish people like about being in the UK. They attempt to argue therefore, that these things would continue after separation. They even try to prevent opponents using words like “secession” and “separation”, because such words are negative. In arguing against independence unionists naturally try to point out the positive benefits of Scotland being a part of the UK. But when we attempt to point out that some of these benefits might cease if Scotland became independent, we are accused of “scaremongering”. Nationalists thus try to shut down debate, by making any criticism of their position somehow illegitimate. We are accused of being negative about Scotland and unpatriotic, because we disagree about the desirability of independence. In fact, the reverse is the case. If the unionist position is true that independence would be damaging to Scotland, the patriotic thing to do is to point out this truth to the Scottish people. It is therefore very welcome that the UK Government is putting forward its view on the consequences of independence so that Scots may have a better idea of the choice which faces us.

The paper “Scotland analysis: devolution and the implications of independence” should be read in full by everyone who is concerned about the independence debate. It must be taken seriously by all Scots, whether supporters or opponents of independence. It is based on the opinion of two leading academics, but more importantly, it expresses the view of the UK Government. In the event of a vote for independence, it would therefore form the basis of the UK Government’s negotiating position, both in relation to the prospective new Scottish state and in relation to the international world. 

Of course, it is possible to take a different view of what would happen in the event of independence. Law is complex and eminent professors could, no doubt, be found who would put forward a different view. But this is actually, rather beside the point. If the UK Government states that this is its view, the likelihood is that it would prevail. This is so for a number of reasons. International law is partly a matter of argument and learned debate, but it is also a matter of power and influence. In the event of independence, the UK Government would have full diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, while Scotland would have none. More importantly, perhaps, the UK Government’s view would gain a sympathetic hearing from allies with whom it would have influence based on a long history of friendly relations. Even those countries who are less friendly to the UK would be liable to support the UK’s position as it tends to discourage secession. 

Each of the other permanent members of the Security Council has a history of opposing secession as indeed do most countries. Many countries indeed are willing to fight to maintain the territorial integrity of their state. China would under no circumstances allow Taiwan or Tibet to declare formal independence, whatever the wishes of the people in those places. Likewise, Russia fought a war to prevent the secession of Chechnya. The United States fought a war to prevent the secession of the Confederacy. France fought to prevent the secession of Algeria and would not allow Corsican independence no matter how many Corsicans wanted it. The UK is unusual therefore, in expressing the view that any part of the UK can secede if the majority living there vote for it. This of course does not mean that the UK Government wants to see the breakup of Britain. Nor indeed would other states who would see Scottish independence as encouraging their own secession movements. This means that when the UK expresses a view on the consequences of Scottish independence, which would tend to discourage secession elsewhere, the likelihood is that this view would have a sympathetic hearing internationally and therefore would prevail. 

The opinion put forward by the UK Government about the prospects of independence, need not discourage those who are committed to independence come what may. Scottish independence is clearly possible and the UK Government is committed to facilitating the creation of a new Scottish state if most Scots wish this. To facilitate however, does not mean giving in, nor does it mean giving the SNP everything that they want. The strategy of the nationalists, who would like to convince the Scottish people that life would go on much the same after independence, must now be seen as wishful thinking. 

The essence of the paper is that in the event of independence, Scotland would be a brand new state, while the rest of the UK (rUK), would continue. What this means in practice is that Scotland would have to seek membership of every international body which it wanted to join, such as the EU, NATO and the UN. Some of these could be joined without difficulty. Joining the EU however, would be much more complex. It  would depend on negotiations and the unanimous support of those countries who were already in the EU. One of those would be rUK. Another would be Spain fighting against secession in Catalonia.

The consequences of Scotland being a new state would have the most profound consequences with regard to our relations with rUK. There would be an international border between Scotland and England and there is no guarantee that the Common Travel Area would continue. Shared UK facilities such as the Bank of England would belong to rUK and Scotland could not maintain monetary union with rUK unless rUK considered it to be in its own interest. While negotiating the divorce settlement with Scotland, rUK would no doubt try to negotiate as a friendly neighbour, but both sides would clearly try to get the best deal possible for their own people. Neither side would be committed to doing anything contrary to its own self-interest. Some nationalists have attempted to argue that something that they want, such as retaining the pound, would be in rUK’s interest. It may turn out that this is so. But these would be matters for negotiation and the SNP can not expect to be allowed to determine what is in the interest of rUK. That would be a matter for rUK to determine. 

The fact that Scotland would be a brand new state has been taken by some nationalists to mean that we would have no debts. This just shows that they have not read the paper very carefully, which clearly states “there would be an expectation that an independent Scottish state would take on an equitable share of the UK’s national debt.” (p. 57) But let’s imagine what would happen if the Scottish Government decided to dispute this matter. Imagine if the First minister went into negotiations saying  “I want to retain the pound, I want to use the facilities of the Bank of England, I want your help in joining the EU and other international bodies, I want an open border and the right of Scots to live and work in rUK, but I’m not taking any share of the debt that we jointly incurred.” The rUK negotiators could simply reply “then you’re not getting any of the things you want”.

What the paper shows is that the things that the SNP have been putting forward as certain to continue post independence are all subject to negotiation. It may well be the case that we would retain the pound, that the border would remain open, that we would have the same rights in rUK as we do now, but none of these things is certain. We have to wait for the divorce settlement and that can only occur after the referendum when we will decide whether we want to divorce. This settlement would largely be determined by rUK, because as the state which would remain and having centuries of diplomatic influence, it would be able to present its wishes on the world stage, while Scotland could not. Scotland would be the supplicant in negotiations with a list of wishes, while rUK would have little that it wanted from newly independent Scotland. It’s obvious whose position would be stronger. None of this, of course, makes independence impossible or even undesirable to those who will always be deeply committed to separation, but everyone else in Scotland should read the paper and be at least aware of the implications of independence.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Should England have its own parliament?

The issue of whether England should have its own parliament is mainly a matter for English people. But a Scottish unionist can, of course, be interested in political developments in the rest of Britain. Being both Scottish and British, whatever happens in England is a matter also for me. England, after all,  is a part of my country, the UK. Moreover, whatever happens in a part of the UK tends to influence everyone else no matter where we live.


Take the issue of devolution. I can remember a time when it would have been hard to find an English person who was interested in setting up an English parliament. English identity as something separate from British identity is a relatively modern phenomenon. Most English people, who I met years ago, primarily thought of themselves as a British. For this reason the English flag was rarely seen, only ever really flying over medieval churches in small villages. Thus, English people tended to conflate Britain with England in the same way that we all used to conflate Russia with the Soviet Union. They meant no offence and were baffled by our chippiness over this matter. Having a separate identity within the UK is something, that until recently, was only really felt by the Scots and the Welsh. The English did not dwell on their Englishness, while Northern Irish unionists would maintain that they were British and nationalists that they were Irish.

The thing that changed all this was Scottish devolution. The Scottish Labour Party in the late 1980s, sick of Tory rule, began to think that a Scottish parliament would mean that even if a general election gave rise to a Tory government, they could still rule in Scotland. What began as a heads I win, tails you lose kind of ruse only affecting Scotland, soon influenced others who wanted the same. Scotland gained a parliament. So too did Wales and Northern Ireland. Naturally, England began to feel left out and with some justification especially as there was a perception in England that English taxes were funding largesse in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Obviously, this led to resentment as English people saw that Scots were getting things for free, which the English had to pay for, even though the tax rate in Scotland was the same as in England. English people began to count up how money was distributed within the UK and began to think that they were getting a raw deal. They thought the situation was unfair. It was unfair.  

Some unionists in Scotland realised that devolution would weaken the bonds of the Union and therefore opposed it. Some years later it is clear that we were right. The unfair devolution settlement is directly responsible for the rise of nationalism in Scotland, but perhaps more importantly it is responsible for the rise of something previously unknown. Resentment against the unfairness of devolution, where everyone had their own parliament except England has provided the perfect breeding ground for nationalism there. English people began to think less in terms of their Britishness and began to carve up a British identity, which previously had made no distinctions. English nationalism was a response to devolution and to the growth of nationalism in other parts of the UK. Now the English have rediscovered their flag and their resentment especially against Scotland is obvious. There are, without doubt, more people in England who favour Scottish independence than in Scotland. Something unimaginable a generation ago is commonplace today. The response of many English people to the debate about Scottish independence is to say “good riddance”.

A Scottish unionist can no more be expected to be sympathetic towards English nationalism than to Scottish nationalism. It is in this context therefore, that I look at the issue of an English parliament. By setting up the Scottish parliament it seems clear that Labour opened the Pandora’s box called “nationalism” and it is this parliament which is directly responsible for the recent rise in popularity of the SNP leading to the independence referendum. Hardly anyone in Scotland, twenty or thirty years ago, considered that the breakup of Britain was even remotely possible. But now, one bad polling day for unionists could see a 300 year marriage end in divorce. The question has to be asked therefore as to whether setting up an English parliament would see nationalism increase still further in England, with perhaps a demand for English independence some years from now. If an English parliament would inevitably lead to demands for English independence, then unionists can not be expected to support the creation of such a parliament. This is so even if we recognise the unfairness of the present unequal situation. I may wish that the devolved parliaments, which created the unfairness had never happened, but I must recognise that they are not going to go away. The unfairness therefore  cannot realistically be addressed by abolishing the presently existing devolved parliaments. But clearly the present situation is untenable. How then can the unfairness to England be addressed?

The question of what would happen if Scotland voted to remain in the Union is being debated at present. Some politicians favour still more devolution as a reward for Scots voting to stay. But this would simply increase the unfairness of the asymmetrical devolution settlement. Scotland would get more and more devolved power, while England would get none. Given that it is this devolution of power that has given rise to Scottish nationalism, devolving still more power must inevitably give rise to another independence referendum sometime in the future. The SNP takes a long view and would embrace any step, however gradual, which led to eventual independence.

Scots must accept that if we we vote “no” to independence, we are voting “yes” to the Union. We will be renewing our marriage vows and therefore, in choosing to remain in Britain, we must logically choose whatever is in the interest of Britain as a whole. Thus demanding something that would be inconsistent with the Union continuing, i.e. ever more power for the Scottish parliament, would be to contradict our choice of remaining in the Union. Scotland should therefore not demand any more power until the devolution settlement is made fairer to England.

There are a number of ways of devolving power to England. A separate parliament could be set up, perhaps in a northern city like Manchester or York. Alternatively, Westminster could be run such that on certain days only English MPs sat. The key issue is how would all of this affect the UK government? Imagine if the UK government was run by Labour, but the English parliament was run by the Conservatives. Would this not be a recipe for gridlock? On the other hand,  if both parliaments were run by one party, there would be the danger that what was now done by one parliament, would subsequently require two. This would be grossly inefficient and expensive in a time when we are all in the greatest of economic difficulties.

They key to the whole problem is that the issue of devolution must be addressed in a UK context. The federal model of devolved power, which exists in a country like Germany is both fair to everyone and consistent with maintaining the union of the various Länder. It does not give rise to nationalism or separatism, which is practically unknown in Germany. Something along these lines could be tried in the UK. The biggest problem is that the size and population of England would tend to dominate both the other parts of the UK and the national or federal government. An alternative form of devolution, whereby the devolving of power went still further to a much more local level might be both more democratic and less likely to give rise to nationalistic rivalry or dominance. If Aberdeenshire,  Armagh, Clwyd and Buckinghamshire and every other region each had the same degree of real local power, then devolution would be equal throughout the UK, even if England did not have its own parliament. Such a parliament would be unnecessary as power would have already largely bypassed the devolved parliaments in the other parts of the UK.

England should have its own parliament if the people of England want one. No Scot should try to deny to a fellow countryman what he has himself been given. This is a matter for the English to decide. But practically speaking, an English parliament is only going to happen if the setting up of such a parliament becomes the policy of one of the major parties and that party wins a general election and introduces a bill to create a parliament for England. The reality, with a referendum on the EU likely to dominate the next few years, is that it is highly unlikely that such a parliament will happen any time soon. However, real power could still be devolved if Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont and the Welsh Assembly were willing to give up some of their power and devolve it still further to the people living in the various counties of the UK. This would not satisfy nationalists, but it would increase the fairness of the devolution settlement, which is vital if we are to remain a United Kingdom.

Saturday 2 February 2013

A tale of two referendums

The news that the UK might finally get an in/out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017 will clearly have some influence on Scotland’s referendum on membership of the UK. The debate about what would happen to Scotland’s EU membership if we became independent has become a tangled web of claim and counterclaim with an added pinch of deception. David Cameron’s announcement just adds another tangle. The whole issue is surrounded by uncertainty, but it is still possible to reach a degree of clarity regarding the fundamentals of the issues involved. 

The first thing to realise is that we don’t really know whether the EU referendum in 2017 will happen. At the moment it depends on a Conservative victory in the 2015 election. But if it turns out over the next year or two that holding a referendum is a genuinely popular policy in the UK, it is hard to imagine that Labour will enter the election with the policy of denying the people of the UK a choice on this matter. The likelihood then is that at some point in the relatively near future the electorate will have a vote on EU membership. Whether the people of Scotland take part however, depends on the outcome of the independence referendum in 2014. 

If Scotland voted for independence in 2014, then according to the timetable suggested by the SNP, we would be an independent sovereign state by 2016. Scotland would remain a part of the UK until 2016 and would therefore remain a part of the EU. We don’t really know what would happen then. The SNP thinks that it would be possible to negotiate EU membership terms immediately after winning the independence referendum. The European Commission however, suggest that the negotiations could only begin when Scotland had achieved its status of being a sovereign state. But here’s another issue of uncertainty. Scotland will take part in the 2015 general election, whether we vote for independence or not. But one of the major themes of this election is clearly going to be a vote on membership of the EU. Would Scotland be denied a vote on this issue, if we voted for independence from the UK? We certainly wouldn’t be taking part in the 2017 referendum as we would already have left the UK by then. 

Assuming however, that Scotland could quickly and successfully negotiate EU membership, it might be possible that we would be an independent state within the EU sometime around 2016 or soon after. The EU, of course, could be awkward about this, especially as the Spanish and perhaps the Belgians would want to discourage secession, but on the other hand they might try to reward Europhile Scotland in an attempt to discourage Euroscepticism in the rest of the UK (rUK). However much we speculate about this issue, in the end we can not really know what sort of deal an independent Scotland would get from the EU or how quickly it would occur. But during all this time that Scotland would be negotiating the terms of its EU membership, rUK would be trying to renegotiate the terms of its membership. How successful rUK might be in its negotiations is likewise hard to judge. It depends fundamentally on whether the EU wants Britain to remain a member of the EU or not. If David Cameron could renegotiate rUk’s relationship with the EU, such that rUK was part of the single market, but not much else, he would have a good chance of winning a referendum in 2017. If on the other hand the EU decided that such a semi-detached relationship was incompatible with membership of the EU and only offered token changes to membership, it is likely that the Eurosceptic people of rUK would vote to leave.

However it is worth remembering that any deal, which was obtained by rUK would not apply to Scotland. The whole nature of the relationship between Scotland aspiring to join the EU and rUK threatening to leave is quite different. Moreover, rUK would still be one of the big three powers in the EU, while Scotland’s population and economic size, would rank somewhere alongside countries like Denmark or Slovakia. A small supplicant desperate to join the EU is unlikely to get the terms of membership, offered to a large member who is seriously considering leaving. It may be, of course, that the EU would try to be tough with rUK, in which case it seems certain that rUK would leave the EU, seeking either membership of EFTA or simply whatever sort of trade agreement it could get with Europe. The result of all this is that in a few years rUK could be out of the EU, while Scotland remained a member. The terms of Scotland's membership could be similar to those which we have today. On the other hand. the EU could demand that Scotland commit to joining the Euro and become part of the Schengen zone. The boundary between an EU country and a non-EU country could hardly be just a sign saying “FĂ ilte gu Alba”. These sort of things would be determined by negotiations at the time. One thing we do know however, is that Scotland would be joining an ever closer union. We certainly would not obtain a looser relationship to the EU than we have today. Indeed, we would not even be seeking such a relationship. 

What would be the consequences if rUK were out of the EU while Scotland remained a member. Well, we would no longer have the rights we have at present owing to our being citizens of the UK, nor would we have the rights owing to our being members of the EU, as rUK would have left. Unless rUK chose otherwise, or unless it was constrained by whatever negotiations it made while leaving the EU, Scots would have no more rights in rUK than non-EU nationals entering the UK at present. Furthermore, maintaining a Stirling Zone between an independent Scotland and rUK would be already problematic, even if both remained part of the EU. It would be still more problematic if rUK left the EU. The likelihood therefore is that rUK would be unwilling to maintain monetary union with Scotland. Scotland would therefore require our own currency and central bank. Perhaps, more importantly Scotland would be setting out on a very different path to our greatest trading partner. We would be moving towards ever closer union with the EU, while rUK would be moving in the opposite direction. Whatever we think of the merits of these two paths, they would most certainly lead eventually to divergence between our respective economies. This would clearly damage the single market which has existed in the UK for centuries. This single market is even more important to us economically than the single market which exists in the EU. 

Under the circumstances outlined here Scotland would have achieved independence in 2014, but would have immediately set about giving up a large part of its newly won sovereignty. In time as the union of the EU grew ever closer, more and more of this sovereignty would be subsumed. Over the past number of  years voters in the UK have gradually realised that the parliaments they elect whether in London, Edinburgh, Belfast or Cardiff are limited by a mass of EU law and regulation. The politicians we elect are commonly constrained by EU officials who we do not elect. Our parliaments have lost a great deal of their sovereignty. If rUK were to gain a semi-detached relationship to the EU or leave entirely, immediately their parliaments would regain a great deal of this lost sovereignty. This would mean that what voters chose would be more likely to happen. The independent Scottish parliament on the other hand, would in reality be far less independent than the parliament in Westminster. The achievement of Scottish independence, while simultaneously giving up the sovereignty newly won, would turn out to be an illusion. We, the voters would have remained more independent if we had remained in the UK voting for a Westminster parliament, which once more would be fully independent and sovereign.