Saturday 22 February 2014

A Doric declaration of independence

I come from very rural Aberdeenshire. I remember once when I was at university I had a friend from Edinburgh for a visit. We went to the pub and she quite literally couldn’t understand a thing that was being said. She couldn’t even understand how much the barman was asking her to pay and so gave a note that was bound to cover all eventualities. When I first lived in Edinburgh I realised quickly that I simply could not speak my native language. Not only would I be mocked as some sort of peasant, but I would frequently not be understood at all. You see I don’t speak Scots, I speak Doric. Scots is an accent with the odd word thrown in as if from a half remembered age. Scots is really just English with some variance in pronunciation. Scots amounts to much the same as Geordie. Doric on the other hand is a living language.

In Aberdeenshire there is an ancient people who speak Doric. We were known even in Roman times. Ptolemy called us the Taexali, though in fact that name is based on a simple Roman misunderstanding. The word “Taexali” is a rather rude way of saying go away. But that first contact was full of misunderstanding, given that neither side knew each other’s language. But it was a precursor for our subsequent history. The Doric language has meant that we have been an oppressed and misunderstood minority ever since. Still we were able to chuck the Romans out at the battle of Mons Graupius (we call it Bennachie) which took place on the 24th of June in the year 84. Although we technically lost the battle, the price was so high for the Romans, that theirs was an Agricolic victory and we still celebrate and sing of how we sent Agricola homeward to think again. We were once an ancient nation and we intend to rise up now and be that nation again.

We’re sick of being dominated by the Scots. Look at them all down there in the Central Belt. We make up less than ten percent of the population. The way we vote hardly matters as it will always be the Scots in the Central Belt who will determine the outcome of any election. What chance do we have against their inbuilt majority? What’s more, we’re much wealthier than those Scots. All that oil money flowing into Aberdeen could be ours alone. Why should we share it with people who don’t even speak our language? Given our geographical and historical connections with the Vikings, we have much more in common with Norway than with Edinburgh. We want to set up a Norwegian style oil fund for Aberdeenshire and we want all the nice things that Norwegians have rather than the nasty things that Glaswegians have. What have we to do with the culture down there? The Scoti still show how their origins are Irish. No doubt that is why they still wave Irish flags at their football matches and celebrate battles fought in Ireland. Well we’re sick of being dominated by these invaders. We were here first. You only arrived when the Romans left.

One of our most important principles is based on our love of democracy. We want all of the decisions that affect Aberdeenshire to be made in Aberdeenshire. For this reason we’ve come up with a declaration which we urge every true Doric person to sign:

I believe it is fundamentally better for us all, if decisions about Aberdeenshire's future are taken by the people who care most about Aberdeenshire, that is, by the people of Aberdeenshire.

Being independent means Aberdeenshire's future will be in Aberdeenshire's hands.

I want an Aberdeenshire that speaks with her own voice and makes her own unique contribution to the world: an Aberdeenshire that stands alongside the other nations on these isles, as an independent nation.

As an independent Doric nation we would of course be small, but small nations are best and in fact having dropped those poor parts where the Scots live, we’d be one of the richest small nations in the world. The benefits of not sharing our wealth are self-evident to anyone from Aberdeen. There would be more for us. We can in fact promise the Doric people that because we would no longer have the drain on our resources which comes from subsidising the Scots, each of us would be one thousand pounds a year better off. That money would immediately go into each of our bank accounts as soon we reached our independence day on March 24th 2016.

There are some Scots who will say to us that we are too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, but they know that this is not true. There are lots of successful small countries that would be the size of the Doric nation if not smaller. Luxembourg is one of the richest countries in Europe; Singapore is one of the most successful countries in Asia.

Naturally we will always think of the Scots as our friends. We’d never think of the Scots as foreigners. But they have to understand that we are Doric and not Scottish. We hope that they will cooperate with us economically and we would like to maintain the present currency union at least for now. Naturally we will treat any attempts they make not to give us what we want as bullying. Moreover, if they bully us they will just show how little they understand the Doric people who once stood alone against the whole Roman Empire. Their threats will only encourage us the more. We will throw off the Scottish yoke no matter what. We too can take action. We’d smash up the oil and gas pipelines, we’d stop you reading the P & J, we’d … well as a last resort we’d refuse to export rowies.

This piece has been translated from the Doric by Effie Deans so that you Scots, let alone you English might have a chance to understand it.

Saturday 15 February 2014

The threat of independence

I’ve long thought that the SNP were running a clever campaign. That is one of the reasons why I have thought it intellectually worthwhile to try to challenge it. The debate is interesting because the opponent is worthy. It may surprise some people on both sides that a supporter of the UK should respect the SNP case for independence. But really I suspect most Scots, who are not completely dogmatic, can see some merit in at least some aspects of each side’s position. What has most impressed me is that the SNP have been pragmatic. They have put forward a vision of independence which can best be described as the minimum necessary to be called independence at all. This has commonly been called independence lite. It amounts to a desire for Scotland to be independent politically and to the greatest extent possible fiscally or economically, but for everything else to stay the same. This position is barely different from so called devolution max, which quite a lot of people in Scotland say they support. Personally I think devolution max inevitably leads to independence, but that’s another story. Once you begin to understand what the SNP are arguing for, you realise how difficult it is to argue against. If they could obtain independence lite, most of our lives would carry on much the same. Many of us would barely notice the difference. But from an SNP perspective even a sliver of sovereignty is enough to satisfy, for it can be portrayed quite accurately as a seed that can grow into any tree they want. It should now be clear why the SNP position is so cunning. They want to maintain most aspects of the present relationship that exists within the UK, because they know that most Scots on both sides of the debate want that too. No one wants to have to show their passport at Berwick, everyone wants the same sort of rights that we have now within the UK to continue, we all want the sorts of things that work well in a UK context, like pensions and currency to continue. The tricky task, for those of us who oppose independence, has been to point out that some of these things may be contingent on us remaining in the UK. The standard reply has always been that to doubt that such and such would continue is to engage in scaremongering. What this amounts to is that to disagree with the SNP vision of independence lite is to be insincere, someone who is trying to con the Scottish people. You see now why I respect my opponent. He is slippery and clever.

But what happened recently I am afraid is less clever. The UK government together with the Labour party have said that one of the main planks of independence lite, currency union, is not going to happen. Moreover, and this is really the most important point, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury has said the same thing. This is the person who advises governments of whichever party. This is not some slippery politician, but someone whose reputation depends on giving sound, consistent advice. He has not given this advice out of spite, or because he is against Scotland, but for reasons that are logical and reasonable. He does not believe that currency union would be in the interests of the rest of the UK (rUK) after Scottish independence. Of course, it is possible to disagree with this reasoning, but that is beside the point. He is saying that this is the advice that he would give to any future government. If the SNP are unwilling to believe this, then they are saying that they are unwilling to believe anything that their political  opponents say. But this is not to debate. It is a refusal to listen at all.  Moreover it would be rather hard to negotiate with people you so little trust.

Independence lite just got a little heavier then. If there is to be no currency union between an independent Scotland and rUK, this is something that we all would notice. Scotland would have to come up with another currency arrangement. There are a number of perfectly sensible options. In my view, the most sensible option would be a new Scottish currency pegged to the pound with a Scottish central bank to back it up. This is perfectly possible. After all even Iceland with a population the size of Aberdeen has its own currency. Lucky for Iceland that it did, for when faced with economic meltdown a few years ago the currency took the strain. The difference between renewed prosperity in Iceland and continuing poverty in Spain is that Iceland had its own currency. There are also disadvantages to having your own currency. There may be fluctuations up and down and pegs can break as we learned from the ERM some years ago. The biggest disadvantage however, is that having a separate currency would lead to additional transaction costs and would damage Scotland’s position within the single UK market. But really this is the least worst option. Serious countries with a financial sector the size of Scotland’s do not attempt to use another country's currency without the benefits of a currency union and the safety net of a lender of last resort.

The option of independence then may have become a little heavier. But the response of the SNP to the news from the three main UK parties has made it considerably heavier still. Threats to not pay Scotland’s share of the UK national debt contradict the logic of their own campaign strategy. Some nationalists have seized on the fact that in January the Treasury guaranteed the whole of the UK’s debt. The reason for this guarantee is now clear. What if the Treasury had only guaranteed a future rUK’s share? Well Mr Salmond’s threat would immediately have caused bondholders to fear that a proportion of the national debt was liable to default. This would have had alarming consequences for the whole UK economy and would have been damaging for all of our pensions. The Treasury guarantee however, does not mean that an independent Scotland would have no share of the national debt.  The Treasury note says “An independent Scottish state would become responsible for a fair and proportionate share of the UK’s current liabilities.” This isn’t a matter of choice for an independent Scotland, but a matter of international law. It is therefore not a bargaining chip that Mr Salmond can use to try to bully rUK into maintaining a currency union when they clearly do not wish to do so. If the two sides cannot agree over this matter it will be decided by the court of international opinion. It is clearly not in the interests of the international community to allow places like Catalonia, Flanders or for that matter Texas to secede without accepting their fair share of mutually incurred debt.  

The SNP’s threats unfortunately show which way divorce negotiations would go. It is this which is most damaging to the SNP’s case for independence lite. What sort relationship would exist between rUK and Scotland if we threatened not to accept our share of the national debt? Remember that quite a large proportion of that debt was incurred when a Scottish Prime Minister and a Scottish Chancellor chose to bail out two Scottish banks. If we were to renege on that debt, what do you think the people in rUK would think of us? You see actions have consequences. The SNP vision of independence lite depends on the goodwill and friendship of the people we now call our fellow countrymen. The SNP wants to maintain a social union, wants to continue using many presently shared UK institutions, wants us to have the same rights in London as we do in Edinburgh, wants life to go on pretty much the same as it does now. I want these things too. But how much of this social union would survive a messy divorce? How much would survive if Scotland somehow were able to persuade the international community that we need not take our share of the national debt. Independence lite begins to look heavier and heavier. The threat to not pay our share of debts is dishonourable and wrong. To make such a threat seriously is irresponsible and frankly scares me very much, for if carried through it  would have consequences that are impossible to predict. It would damage perhaps irreparably our relationship with our neighbours and the wider international community. It would affect each of our lives profoundly. The existence of such a threat is a reason in itself to vote no.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Vote no If you want to keep the Tories out of Scotland

I have a friend who reads the Daily Mail every lunchtime. She sometimes discusses what she finds there and it’s fairly obvious that she agrees with most of it. Her point of view is basically right of centre. I asked her once if she had ever voted Conservative. Like most Scots, she said she would never consider voting Tory. After all, her grandfather had worked down a coal mine. I’m pretty sure she will vote Labour all her life even if she disagrees with them. This is a pretty good example of just how toxic the Tory brand is in Scotland. Even people who basically agree with Conservative policies would not dream of voting for them. The only comparable political situation I can think of is when conservatives in the southern states of the USA used to vote Democrat, because Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican and it would be a betrayal of their Confederate grandfathers to vote for his party. It took about a hundred years for the Republican brand to cease being toxic in the South. It’s fairly obvious therefore why the SNP like to use the idea that independence would guarantee that Scotland would remain free of Tories. They see this as a major selling point to Labour voters. We’re all, no doubt, familiar with how the argument goes. Scotland always votes for left-wing parties, but frequently gets a right-wing Tory government in Westminster. Independence would mean that this would never happen again. But let’s look at whether the SNP are really primarily motivated by avoiding Tory rule or whether this is just a way of persuading those who otherwise would not support independence. In doing so I am of, of course, not attacking people in Scotland who support the Conservatives. I generally can see merit in some of the views of every party that competes in Scotland.

Some people simply want Scotland to be independent come what may. They see it as Scotland’s natural position. For the simple reason that Scotland once was an independent country, nationalists think that we should be one again. Basically they think that countries ought to be independent. I can see the appeal of this reasoning even if I disagree with it or more fundamentally don’t feel the same way that nationalists do. The SNP however, have long realised that in order to win a referendum they would have to appeal to more than their hard core support. The fact is that the number of Scots who support independence come what may is relatively small. For this reason they have to come up with ways of persuading the rest of us. The important thing to realise is that these reasons are not what motivate the core SNP supporters. Take the example of Scotland voting for the left and getting Tory government. Well what about when Scotland voted Labour and got a Labour government? Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in power for many years. During those years did the SNP cease campaigning for independence? No of course not. So they want independence when there’s a Tory government in Westminster and they want independence when there’s a Labour government in Westminster. Really they just want independence. Imagine if I asked someone, who for his whole life has wanted independence, if he would cease to want independence if it could be guaranteed that the Westminster government would always reflect the wishes of the Scottish electorate. How much of the core SNP support would give up their goal of independence? I suspect rather few. People who have for a long time supported independence, to their credit, do not do so for transient reasons, but because it is their fundamental political ideal. But of course they will use whatever argument they can to try to persuade the rest of who lack this ideal.

For a long time most of Scotland has voted solidly Labour. These people, like most Scots, are vehemently opposed to the Tories. Well there is going to be a UK election in 2015, which Labour are favourites to win. But if Scotland voted for independence the plan is that we would cease to be part of the UK in 2016. So what would happen to a Labour government depending on its Scottish MPs for its majority? The likely result would be another Tory Government in Westminster. This means that Scottish Labour voters, who at present, we can assume, support their party and its leadership, would be the cause of Ed Miliband ceasing to be Prime Minister two years from now. Can the SNP really expect Scottish Labour voters, in this way, to desert the cause they have fought for all their lives? Let’s hope that most Scottish Labour voters will realise that solidarity is closer to their ideals than nationalism.

At present both in Scottish elections and in Westminster elections the Tories have virtually no chance in Scotland. But actually the one thing that would change this would be independence. The SNP promise that independence would banish Tories from Scotland for ever, but independence is in fact just about the only thing that could give them the chance to rule again in Scotland. At present the two main parties in Scotland are Labour and the SNP. They are both left of centre. The main issue that divides them now is their views on independence. But if the major parties in Scotland after independence were pretty much the same, what would happen if circumstances were such that the Scottish electorate wanted real change and demanded a really different sort of party to rule over them. It would only take a few bad years under left-wing government, for Scots to realise that perhaps it would be worth giving a different point of view a chance. The party that might express this view, most certainly would not be called the Conservatives. It could be called something suitably ambiguous like the Free Democrats. Such a party would be right of centre, supporting free markets, capitalism, small government. Really this is the only plausible alternative to socialism and social democracy. And if Scots wanted a break from the left, then that is the sort of party they would choose. Such a party would have a far greater chance to rule in an independent Scotland than the Tories do at present.  But, of course, Free Democrats would be just another word for Tories minus the toxic brand. My Daily Mail reading friend would have found her party.

People on the left should be careful what they wish for. If Scotland remains in the UK, there is no chance whatsoever of more than a handful of Tories being elected in Scotland. The devolved powers of the Scottish parliament control most aspects of our everyday life and these powers will remain in the hands of the left for the foreseeable future so long as we remain in the UK. But the idea that an independent Scotland would have permanent left-wing government is thankfully unlikely, not least because people like to have a real alternative. It’s in the nature of politics that we eventually we get sick of those who rule us and look for change. Independence would therefore, inevitably lead to a revival of the right in Scotland, a revival that is highly unlikely to happen otherwise. The SNP would not mind this as their only goal is independence. Ask an SNP supporter if he would prefer Tory rule in Scotland with independence or Labour rule in Scotland without it. It’s obvious what an honest answer would be. Naturally the SNP are appealing to Labour voters. They want to win. But the appeal is fundamentally at odds with the core beliefs of the left. Historically socialists have tended towards the ideal of breaking down national barriers rather than erecting them. This is why people on the left traditionally sang the Internationale:

Let us group together, and tomorrow
The internationale
Will be the human race.

Left wing idealists have long thought that people were better together and dreamt that one day there would be a world without nations. Well you will hardly further this dream by creating an international border where at present there is none. It’s clear therefore why Labour voters should not be taken in by the appeal of nationalists. Independence would make a right-wing party the only effective opposition and alternative to the dominance of the left in Scotland. When there’s only one alternative it’s inevitable that this party will eventually be chosen to rule. The SNP would not at all be concerned by this. Some would no doubt welcome it. But for everyone else the conclusion is obvious. If you really want to keep the Tories out of Scotland, vote No. 

Saturday 1 February 2014

The delusion of independence

People who are not completely dogmatic about the Scottish independence debate recognise that both sides have some good arguments and that sensible, reasonable people can support either side. One of the reasons for this is there are advantages and disadvantages to independence. If there were no advantages, it is hardly likely that so many people would support it. If there were no disadvantages it is hardly likely that so many would oppose it. I must admit that I find the debate rather tiresome at times. Would Scotland get to keep the pound, would we remain in the EU? There is claim and counterclaim and endless effort is spent on matters which are uncertain. But one method of getting at the truth is to accept what one side of the argument thinks and thus see what develops. On this basis let’s assume that the SNP would get everything that it wanted. Let’s assume that an independent Scotland would keep the pound and remain part of the EU.

Scotland would just have achieved sovereignty, but would immediately begin sharing some of it with the EU and some more of it with the rest of the UK (rUK). We know that the EU has as its goal ever closer union. Those countries in the Eurozone have already achieved monetary union and are in the process of gradually moving towards fiscal and political union. The goal of ever closer union is that eventually there will be a United States of Europe. This may still be quite a long way off. But it is clearly the goal, indeed the point of the European project and has been since the beginning.  

But what is true of the Eurozone is liable to be true of a Sterling zone likewise. The EU set up the single European currency precisely because they knew that it would make fiscal and political union eventually inevitable. They viewed the sort of crisis that is happening now as essentially benevolent, as making their goal of ever closer union easier to achieve. This really was the purpose of the Euro to facilitate the construction of a United States of Europe.

One of the biggest problems in the Eurozone is that there is not at present a transfer union whereby rich countries share their wealth with poorer countries. This means that poorer parts of the Eurozone or those in economic difficulty are liable to default. It is precisely for the reason that, for instance, Italy lacks a central bank capable of printing Euros that it has an inherent and greater risk of default. When it had a central bank capable of printing Lira the likelihood of default was minimal. The essence of the recent crisis in the Eurozone is that countries like Italy made themselves more liable to default, by giving up their own currencies, without gaining in compensation the guarantee that other countries would share the risk of their debt. This is because richer countries like Germany are unwilling to accept responsibility for the debts of countries like Italy. It is the lack of political and fiscal union which makes the Eurozone monetary union unstable. This lack means that Germany sees Italy as a foreign land. While Germany is willing to transfer money from Bavaria to Saxony automatically, it is unwilling to do the same for people in Lombardy, because these people are not Germans. It is this lack of a transfer union and shared responsibility for debt which makes the Eurozone inherently unstable. One of reasons that the Euro was set up was because economists understood that monetary union would inevitably tend towards fiscal and political union. Germans would be forced to see Italians as their fellow countrymen and would treat Lombardy and Saxony as states in a United States of Europe. Transfers would happen automatically, just as they happen between the states of the USA. The instability of the Eurozone in the long run can only be ended by its members sharing more and more sovereignty and by ever closer union. The architects of the EU knew this and for this reason argued for a single currency. They knew that it would make their goal of creating a superstate inevitable. No matter how much the present parts of the EU might resist, once they had signed up to the Euro they would have little room for manoeuvre and little choice in the matter. The alternative of leaving the Euro would bring about short term economic catastrophe. Countries can not easily leave the single currency as they would face significant risks of major currency fluctuation and possible default. It is for that reason that they have stayed even when faced with years of austerity and depression.

Well logically what is necessary for the Eurozone to be a long term success would be necessary for a Sterling zone. For this reason we in Scotland would have to be willing to transfer some of our wealth to the rest of the UK and be liable for their debts. They too would have to accept this responsibility. This would not necessarily happen in the beginning, but it would be the goal toward which we would be heading. Joining the Sterling zone would set us on a path towards a United States of Britain with ever closer fiscal and political union, debt mutualization and transfers from richer parts to poorer parts.

After all this what expressions of sovereignty would be left for an independent Scotland? Well there would be a seat at the UN, a team at the Olympics and once a year, no doubt, there would be Independence Day celebrations in Edinburgh. We would have given up our Westminster MPs, but we would be part of an ever closer union with which we would have to share ever more sovereignty. Indeed being part of the EU would make us part of two ever closer unions. Perhaps under these circumstances Scottish nationalists would have to begin calling themselves unionists. How much sovereignty would Scotland have left after all this sharing? Well, no doubt, nationalists could still feel independent and rejoice at how they had made Scotland a nation again. But really It begins to look as if the SNP would have us all go through a great deal of uncertainty and upheaval for the mere illusion of independence. Mr Salmond would have meetings on the world stage. There would be patriotic songs. There would be a lot of flag waving. But this is just frippery and of small consequence rather like when Ireland had free and fair elections when all the issues of consequence were determined by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Still at least they could feel good about having got rid of the Brits and that there were no Union Jacks in Dublin

The illusion of independence might well be enough for Scottish nationalists. Perhaps in the end it is all they are after. But should they really be allowed to put the rest of us through the uncertainty and upheaval of divorce, the endless negotiations, just so that they can have that special glow from feeling now we are independent. In establishing monetary union with rUK logically Scotland would be leaving one union of countries in order to eventually establish another. We would be like one of those cartoon characters running while being tied to an elastic band. These scenes are amusing because such a character is not aware that his running and striving to get aware is futile. Scotland’s only chance to break the rubber band would be to set up our own currency from the beginning. Indeed this ability is one of the major advantages that independent nation states have. But once you’ve chosen monetary union, just like the Eurozone countries you can’t easily choose to leave. Just as they are tending towards a union of states, so too, and from the beginning, would we be on the same path only our journey would absurdly begin just as we had voted to leave. This really is cartoon character politics. The difference between a United States of Britain and the United Kingdom is so slim that it amounts to a rounding error in a budget of billions. It is a distinction without difference and barely worth debating. It is the delusion of independence that can only be of interest to someone who is content to be won over by the joys of flag waving.