Sunday 10 March 2013

The difference between a compatriot and a foreigner

In the debate about Scottish independence, there is a great deal of claim and counterclaim. Even those of us who follow the debate closely find it difficult to know for sure what is truth and what is spin. When trying to point out the advantages of independence, nationalists are naturally biased in their arguments by the fact that they want independence to have advantages, because they want independence come what may. Thus they read selectively, pick out facts or interpretations, which are favourable to their theory about independence, and discount or rubbish anything which appears to contradict it. This confirmation bias is not, of course, limited to nationalists. Unionists also start from the point of view that we want the union to continue, look for ways of proving our theory that the union is beneficial, cast doubt on the supposed advantages that the nationalists list and seek error in their reasoning. Even in science there is confirmation bias. A scientist develops a theory. His reputation, funding and status depend upon him arguing his case. He therefore seeks that which is favourable to his theory while ignoring, discounting or arguing against that which is unfavourable. If science proceeds in this way, how can we expect that politics could proceed without bias? The tendency therefore, of some nationalists to complain about the bias of the other side, while ignoring their own bias shows not only that they lack self-awareness, but also that they fail to grasp the nature of political debate.

But what can be done in the context of everyone being biased? We can try to reach a common ground with regard to the essence of the debate. If we can agree on what independence means, not in terms of details, but more generally, in terms of what an independent country is, then it is possible to present more clearly the choice we face. None of us really knows what the future will bring economically, but I’ve always accepted that Scotland could become a successful independent country. There have been a number of European countries that have successfully become independent in the last twenty years or so, such as Latvia or the Czech Republic. If these places could do so then, of course, Scotland could also The advantages and disadvantages of independence can be debated, but Scottish independence is certainly possible.

Still it is important to have a clear idea of what independence means. At around the time that Latvia and the Czech Republic were becoming independent nations, East and West Germany were reuniting. When the two German states became one, it was immediately obvious that the Eastern half was much poorer than the Western half. A process began in Germany of trying to bring the standard of living in the East up to the standard of living in the West. Huge amounts of West German wealth was transferred, meaning that the West gave to the East well over €100 billion a year. This internal transfer of money has now continued for over twenty years and must be counted in the trillions. Why would people living in the former West Germany be willing to give such huge amounts of money to people living in the former East Germany? The answer is that they considered these people to be their compatriots and they wanted the state they lived in to have a standard of living that was reasonably equal.

Let’s contrast this with the situation at present within the Eurozone. There are a number of countries in the Eurozone with standards of living much lower than Germany. Some of these countries have debts that they are struggling to pay. Germany however, is completely unwilling to transfer money to these countries or to write off their debts. Why is this? The answer is that these people are foreigners. They live in independent countries and Germans feel no particular obligation to them.

Looking at the distribution of wealth in the UK, it is apparent that there are parts of the country, which are poorer than other parts. Therefore Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of the North of England receive more from Central Government than they contribute in taxation. The exact nature of Scotland’s economic position is subject to debate, with different sides putting forward different figures. The issues surrounding oil revenues and the Barnett formula are complex and involved. My guess however, is that overall, we Scots contribute somewhat more in taxation than we receive from the Exchequer. Why should people in the South of England or in Scotland be willing to transfer money to people in Northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland? We do so because we see them as our compatriots and we want to live in a country where the standard of living is reasonably equal. What the Scottish nationalists, on the other hand, are saying is that we should treat these poorer people as foreigners and that we should not want to help them to have a standard of living similar to ours. They are saying that the burden of helping the poorer parts of the UK should fall on the South of England alone. At the same time nationalists criticise people living in the South of England as being selfish Tories. But these selfish Tories are willing to share their wealth with the rest of the UK while those enlightened, “left-wing” nationalists are unwilling to share Scotland’s wealth with people who have been our compatriots for centuries. But once selfishness becomes the motive for our actions in Scotland, why should people in wealthy Aberdeenshire be willing to share our wealth with poorer people living in Paisley or Motherwell? Once you start erecting boundaries between compatriots who is to say where to draw the line?

Nationalism is grounded in selfishness, but selfishness cuts both ways. An independent Scotland would treat the English, Welsh and Northern Irish as foreigners. We would be saying that we would have no more obligation to them than we would have to Germans or to Greeks. But then by the same token our former fellow citizens would have no more obligation to us.  Germans treat other Germans quite differently from how they treat Greeks. This difference in treatment, the obligation that exists in any country towards someone from the same country is what we have now because we are British and what we would lose if Scotland became independent. The most important thing we would give up on becoming independent would be our compatriots. This is the essence of the debate. Do you wish to be a compatriot or a foreigner?