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.