Saturday, 21 June 2014

A brand new UK is on offer if we vote No.

The independence debate that is going on in Scotland will change the nature of Scotland’s relation to the other parts of the UK no matter the result. If we vote Yes, we will become a new nation state and the relationship will become international, but if we vote No, we won’t go back to the place where we were before the debate began. We will rather have decisively rejected independence and defined ourselves as part of the UK forever.

The reason for this can be illustrated by the example of the US Civil War. Prior to that conflict it was common to describe the United States in the plural (The United States are) afterwards in the singular (The United States is). The Civil War fundamentally was fought over the question of whether a state had the right to secede from the Union. Force of arms answered the question in the negative.

We in Scotland are asking a similar question albeit in a peaceful way. The United Kingdom, (unlike the United States in relation to South Carolina), has given us in Scotland the right to determine whether we wish to leave the Union. But no nation state can forever be faced with an existential question as to whether a part will decide to leave. For this reason the choice will be irreversible.

Scotland will become a part of the UK in the same way that Aberdeenshire is a part of Scotland. Nationalists, who think that they can continue to push for referendums on independence every few years, will find that that the Westminster consensus on this issue will have changed. We will have gone through the crisis and Scotland will be no more able to secede than South Carolina. Secession will become something for history books. Of course Scottish nationalists could always try to persuade Scots of the merits of a unilateral declaration of independence, but the moment would have passed and they will rapidly become a dwindling band toasting the memory of their lost cause over the water.

Just as in the United States, the present struggle over independence will make the relationships within the UK stronger, but also and for this very reason much looser.  Once it is recognised that devolution is not a stepping stone to independence, the process of devolving powers can be extended almost without limit. This is the prize that is becoming available to us precisely because we are going through the trauma of the present independence debate.

The problem of devolution was always that it was asymmetric. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given parliaments, but England had none. We’re all familiar with the unfairness of this situation. But with the new powers on offer to the Scottish parliament something will have to be done about England. A wide ranging discussion is therefore going to take place on how more powers can be granted to Scotland, but also to England

Mr Salmond wants a currency union together with close ties and cooperation with the other parts of the UK. There is much in our present relationship that he wants to retain. The problem with this sort of relationship is that an independent Scotland would be sharing part of its sovereignty with a foreign power, but we would have no popular representation with which to regulate that relationship. At present the UK shares part of our sovereignty with the EU, but despite all of its faults with regard to democracy, at least in the EU we have a shared parliament and representation on the European commission. But Mr Salmond’s vision of what we would share with the other parts of the UK is far greater than what the UK shares at present with the EU. It makes much more sense therefore to have a shared parliament to regulate what we have in common with the other parts of the UK. But that is precisely what we have already. It’s called Westminster. Why would you want to get rid of our representation there? It would be like being in the EU but withdrawing our MEPs from Brussels.

There is an alternative on offer to us now. If only we reject independence there is the chance to create a federal UK. Why not have a parliament that deals only with English affairs, Scottish affairs, Welsh affairs and Northern Irish affairs, plus a parliament that deals with what we have in common. But it is precisely this that will inevitably occur once power is devolved to England. This sort of federal relationship would give us practically speaking as much control over Scottish affairs as independence, but we would still be able to influence the matters we share with the other parts of the UK.

Naturally Scottish nationalists dismiss these offers of extending devolution. They have never wanted devolution, they only want independence. It is also true that the new devolution settlement that would take place in the UK has not been put to the people of the UK either in a General election or a referendum. There is therefore the degree of uncertainty that is inherent in the democratic process. But any fair assessment shows that there is uncertainty on both sides of the independence debate.

The vision of independence put forward by the SNP depends on the cooperation of those who have already said No. Mr Salmond hopes to be able to reverse that No through negotiation, but no one in Scotland can know if he would succeed. Everything that is said about the pound and about EU membership is so much speculation governed by the bias of whether the person supports or opposes independence. But one thing is certain. These matters are uncertain.

The major UK parties could renege on their promise to extend devolution, but remember it was Labour and the Lib Dems who introduced devolution into Scotland in the first place.  The Tories now have been persuaded precisely because the irreversibility of the independence referendum result takes away any risk of extending devolution.

The future is uncertain. But there is at least as good a chance of Scotland becoming part of a fully federal UK as Mr Salmond getting his vision of independence. A federal UK moreover has the virtue of the fact that we know it would work, just as it works in countries like the USA and Germany. The nationalists of course don’t want this and will try to persuade us that it is not on offer. But this proposal is quite real, sincere and naturally follows from caring about both the interests of Scotland and  the United Kingdom. It is an offer for those Scots who want the maximum amount of devolution that is consistent with us remaining a part of the UK. It’s for those who don’t want to risk losing the pound or a messy divorce mucking up the UK’s economic recovery. It’s an offer that’s worth grasping with both hands as it will never come again if we reject it. 


  1. You say this proposal (and I assume you mean federalism?) is quite real. Can you point to where the proposal has been made? I'm interested that you feel it 'naturally follows from caring about both the interests of Scotland and the UK'. While I don't doubt that many folk do care, our experience of being governed from Westminster, where decisions on the future would be made, might lead a lot of people in Scotland to feel otherwise.

    The problem with anything other than independence appears to be that we are reliant on a Westminster government, where we have almost no influence, deciding on what would be the best way forward after a No vote. Yes, perhaps that might end up with some sort of federalism. But equally well, it might end up with more austerity, cuts to our budget for the NHS, more money spent on nuclear weapons etc etc. That's a huge risk for us to take, especially given the track record of Westminster.

    Looking at the range of positive discussions that are happening in Scotland right now, there's some really exciting ideas emerging for better ways of governing our country, and making it a fairer happier society to live in. The current Scottish government has a pretty healthy track record on keeping its spending within budget, and making decisions that are working towards creating a fairer society. Looking at what's happening in the UK right now, there seems to be a picture of negativity and gloom, with ever widening inequalities resulting from cuts that that are devastating the poorest in society.

    I know which picture of the future I would rather choose for myself and the people I care about.

  2. Thanks for your comment. All three major UK parties have committed themselves to extending devolution in Scotland. They have also recognised that this has to be done in the context of the UK has a whole. Well if power is devolved everywhere including England that amounts to federalism even if that word is not used.

    I don't suppose that I can persuade those who are committed to the merits of independence and there are of course merits. No matter how far you devolve power to Scotland it will not be the same as independence as Scotland will not have sovereignty. If that matters to you, then by all means vote for independence. I'm suggesting, though that people who are not nationalists might find appealing the offer of much more devolved power together with a shared voice in matters that we have in common with the rest of the UK.

    Austerity is not so much a matter of being in the UK or out of it. It is a matter of a country living within its means after the worst economic crisis since the 30s. Countries all over Europe have had austerity to some degree, most of them to a far greater extent than the UK. Luckily however with low inflation and good growth rates we can see that austerity has worked and the UK is recovering.

    I think Scotland could be a prosperous country whether we are independent or not. It depends on how a government runs things. Each of us must assess the economic data as well as we are able and I'm of the opinion that Scotland is so integrated into the UK economy that leaving would inevitably damage us in ways that we can hardly guess. But those who assess the economic data differently may well be persuaded that independence would leave us better off. If that's your assessment then by all means vote for independence.

    Lots of people in Scotland think if we only vote for independence we would become like Denmark or Norway. I have lived in both these countries and speak the languages. They have a very different mentality to us in Scotland and it would not be easy to create a Nordic society outside Scandinavia. Increasing the size of the state is a relatively risky endeavour and could equally end up like France or Spain as it could end up like Denmark. One thing is certain though, if Scotland takes a radically different economic root to the rest of the UK it will damage our trade relation with them and make currency union impossible.

    I don't believe there is negativity and gloom about the UK. We are a society rather that is attracting people from all over the EU precisely because our economic situation is much better than the EU norm. The best solution to poverty is economic growth as it provides the work opportunities that take people out of poverty and enables us to share a fair proportion of that growth with the poorest. The hard decisions that were made which have lead to our present enviable economic position were opposed by the SNP. It for this reason that I am less optimistic about their ability to run the Scottish economy. The idea that you solve every economic problem by throwing public spending at it,might seem appealing, but if it leads to the economy remaining in recession it would hardly help the poor.

  3. Effie,
    There's an absolutely straightforward lesson in realpolitik that you are ignoring. Unless you have the power to implement something, it isn't implemented. Like you, I'm probably a federalist at heart, but I recognise - which you don't - that the chances of a federal UK occurring under the present system, are next to nil. After all, the Liberals and the Lib Dems have been going on about this for a century, and what has happened? Nothing.

    The only way to achieve the kind of solution you advocate, is to get the power to do it. This can only be done with a Yes vote. Thereafter, Scotland can decide on whatever relationship it wants - independence, federalism, confederalism. But without the power to create change, there won't be change. To think otherwise is naive - for why is it in the interests of Westminster to cede power to the regions.

    Additionally, before you advocate federalism so blithely, you have to consider how it would work in islands with such a disparity of populations. It's not easy to find a workable solution.

    A final point. You say all three parties have committed themselves to extending devolution. They have not. Their Scottish branches have - that's all. And before you go further in your admiration, you might wish to examine just what additional powers are on offer. They are not exactly inspiring, I'd say.

    I think you may have to vote Yes in the end, Effie. Because it's the only sure way of acquiring the power to achieve the vision you espouse.

    1. Oh I think it's pretty clear that a vote for independence will obtain independence and not federalism.

      There is a granted a gap between voting Yes and becoming independent some time later, but there would be hell to pay in Scotland if the SNP began to backtrack on obtaining full sovereignty.

      The key to federalism I think is devolution in England. Once that occurs we pretty much have federalism automatically. Will that occur? Well there comes a point when asymmetrically extending devolution becomes untenable. Eventually you have to address the unfairness of the devolution settlement.

      I agree it is problematic that England is so much larger than the rest of us. I think the solution to this is to extend devolution much further to the local level and thereby bypass to the greatest extent possible national parliaments.

      We have different takes on the additional powers that are on offer and the sincerity of those offering them. Those Scots who've got to the stage of not trusting anything "Westminster" says probably should vote for independence and there is certainly nothing I can say to convince them otherwise.

      Strange that we probably want nearly the same things but will vote differently in the referendum. In the end the future is uncertain and we will have to wait for events to prove which of us, (or more likely neither of us), was able to predict better.

    2. I won't labour the point about requiring power before you can achieve anything. You and I will differ on that. But I would draw your thinking to the idea of confederation rather than federalism. Many argue (and I would agree) that the EU is becoming a kind of confederation. The difference between the two, of course, is that nation states cede powers to the centre - rather than the other way around, which is what happens with devolution.
      The fact that much of England is very unhappy with the EU, does not, IMO give much cause of optimism in that direction for the moment. But I can eventually see a sort of solution where the nations of Britain form their own mini-confederation within the wider EU. It's all very ancient Greek as a model (cf the Delian league and the various others) but it's not to say it wouldn't work.

    3. I think the difference between confederation and federation is a con. In the EU power is ceded to the parts and devolved from the centre. Anyway I think the EU is going to have to become something approximating a nation state in the next few years or break apart.


      If both Scotland and the other parts of the UK were in a democratic EU something along the lines of the USA, the whole debate about independence becomes irrelevant. It hardly matters that Virginia and West Virginia Split in 1861 if they are both parts of the USA. In parts of Europe today you hardly notice that there is a border. Bavaria and Austria speak the same language, use the same money, have devolved power. The border is hardly even marked. It hardly matters to ordinary people if sovereignty is in Brussels, Berlin, Munich or Vienna.

      If we could come up with a fully democratic EU we would not need mini confederations, no more than they are needed in the USA. The important strategic question is how to reconcile concepts like sovereignty and nation in a modern world that is becoming ever more interconnected. For this reason I tend to see nationalism as a 19th century answer to an 18th century problem. In the 21st century it fails even to understand the question.

  4. Except Federalism "equivalent to the vision of independence" (seat at the UN, EU member status, devolved armed forces, etc etc etc) is absolutely not on offer. Even federalism at the small amount of further devolution on offer, which differs according to the party offering it, isn't on offer. And, if this federalism comes at the price of the permanent loss of the right of self-determination by the Scottish people, well then that's a price that no-one can pay even if the wanted to. In summary, this article is fantasy.

    1. Federalism does not mean independence and will never satisfy a nationalist. I'm not even attempting to persuade those who are desperate for sovereignty. Rather I think there is a sizable part of the Scottish population who would like more power for Scotland's parliament, but also recognise the benefits of being in the UK. It's these people I am attempting to persuade.

      Everyone accepts that a Yes vote will be irreversible, but some nationalists think they can keep on having referendums until they win. This is just like how the EU kept asking Ireland to redo its referendum until they came to the right result.

      It's better by far for all sides to accept that the present referendum will be decisive, legal, fair, irreversible and binding. Anything else would simply be to expose yourself as a poor loser

    2. By that logic, if the Tories win the next general election in 2015, everyone should accept it and vote Tory for evermore or be branded 'sore losers'. Political ideas are not a win or lose race, at least not in the long term. If people believe an idea is important they will keep campaigning, and maybe fighting, for it despite what governments tell them to do.

      One key difference between the state of Carolina and the country of Scotland, is that here in Scotland the desire for independence from England has at least 300 years of history behind it, if not several hundred of years more than that. Carolina was a new state within an new country and only a limited history of identity with and opposition to the ideas of state and country. The desire for Scottish independence will not go away in the event of a No vote as it would appear that, at the very least, a sizeable minority of 40+% are in favour of independence now. The UK government may change laws to prevent a legal referendum taking place in future and that will change the face of the campaign for independence, but it will not kill it stone dead.

      I am afraid that if you think more devolution (leading to federalism) is highly likely in a post-No UK then you are basing your views on hopes rather than evidence. There is no political desire within Westminster for devolution, never mind more of it, and everything that has been delivered to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland was forced on the UK government, not gladly offered by it. And you can't claim, in one sentence, that the UK government will make it impossible for Scotland to try for independence again and, in another, claim that more powers are going to be devolved to Scotland in the future. The two ideas are fundamentally in opposition to each other.

      I agree that Scotland is neither Norway or Denmark and that the peoples of those countries don't necessarily think the same way we Scots do. But both countries offer a model of how Scots could remodel their country rather than following on the English-centric model of society that we are forced to adhere to. If you wish to claim that the Scandinavians think differently to Scots then you have to accept that the Scots think differently to the English and it follows that our society reflects that. But our existing political system does not allow this.

      You also say that Scotland might instead turn out like France or Spain. I am afraid this rather shows up your lack of understanding of European political economics as the financial position of France and Spain are quite different to each other. Scotland becoming 'like France' would be no bad thing in my view, though I don't see why we Scots are somehow more French-like than we are Norwegian-like...

      Hugh Wallace

    3. Thanks for the comment Hugh. Obviously we are unlikely to persuade each other, but here's a couple of thoughts.

      I think referendums are different from ordinary elections. They decide things at the very least for a generation. We had a referendum on the EU in the 70s. There may be another in a couple of years. So that's a 40 year gap. You can't expect referendums on the same issue every few years.

      Strategically the SNP is going to have to accept defeat in the referendum as just that, otherwise it will harm their chances of being elected at Holyrood. Lots of people who don't support independence are willing to vote for the SNP, because they agree with their other policies. But if it is clear that a vote for the SNP is a vote for another indyref then their support will decline to the hard core nationalists.

      I absolutely accept that a vote for independence will mean that it happens. I accept that such a vote would be irreversible. But if both sides are unwilling to accept this there is the potential for much strife in Scotland. There is a long way between voting for independence and it actually happening. Better by far for everyone to accept the result and move on with our lives.

      I'm rather less optimistic about France than you are. But the most important point is that if Scotland follows a radically different economic policy to the other parts of the UK a currency union would obviously be impossible.

      I don't believe that we Scots have a fundamentally different mentality to those in the rest of the UK. A Labour supporter in Glasgow and Newcastle have similar attitudes. As far as I understand these matters Scotland was far more different from England 60 years ago than now.
      It's precisely because we are so similar that some Scots feel the need to assert our distinctiveness.