Saturday, 1 September 2018

Indyref; or, 'tis four years since

It’s nearly four years ago since we had the Scottish independence referendum. Some of us are still fighting it, but most of us have moved on. Four years is rather a long time. The First World War only lasted a little longer than four years. A baby learns to speak and walk and changes more in its first four years than all the rest of its life put together. Yet some of us are still stuck in 2014.

 I don’t write that much about Scottish politics anymore. If you dig into a mine deep enough and long enough there will be no more gold nuggets to find and you’ll end up digging up only mud. Better by far to look for other topics to write about.

I happened to write about Alex Salmond last week, but I wasn’t really writing about Scottish politics. It just happened that he was the latest person to be caught up in the post-Jimmy Savile/Harvey Weinstein hysteria which convicts people on the basis of unverifiable testimony. I hope history will look back on this period as a modern day Salem, but I fear we will gain a taste for burning witches.

I think I surprised quite a lot of independence supporters by writing in defence of Mr Salmond. But in pointing out that Mr Salmond should be treated as innocent until he has been convicted of something and in arguing that there should be the same quality of evidence as for any other crime before he is convicted, I was merely making a general point about justice rather than politics.

People who want the UK to remain together differ from Scottish independence supporters in our political views, but we are all Scots, nearly all of us are British citizens and anyway we are human beings who owe each other kindness. We ought to be good neighbours even if we disagree. We owe each other justice and we ought to be fair.

I have moved on from the views that I held in 2014. Some of the arguments I made in the months leading up to the independence referendum I wouldn’t make now. Sometimes this is because I think these arguments are ineffective, but sometimes it’s because I think they are wrong.

I think it was counterproductive to argue as if it were impossible or disastrous for Scotland to become independent. Lots of countries have become independent in the past decades. Some have done better than others. How they do really depends on how they are run after independence. But fundamentally we all have to accept that if a country like Latvia can become independent, then so can Scotland. There would, no doubt, be difficulties to overcome and there would be challenges, but none of them are intrinsically insurmountable.

For this reason I find the strand of Pro UK thinking that goes on and on about the economic disadvantages of independence to be counterproductive. I don’t think this sort of thinking persuades one Scot to be Pro UK and it doesn’t dissuade one Scot from wanting independence.

If Scotland were to become independent, it may well be the case that public spending would have to be cut. It may be that we would all have to work harder and find that our living standards had got worse. But no-one can know what the future would bring for an independent Scotland. It could be run well like Switzerland and be wealthy or run badly and be Greece. There is no point at all arguing that Scotland would definitely be wealthy nor is there any point arguing that it would definitely be poor. It could be either, or something in between.

I think there are advantages to remaining in the UK and some of these may be economic, but it is not because of these that I am Pro UK. I am Pro UK because I am British and because I wish my fellow citizens in Wales, England and Northern Ireland to remain my fellow citizens. I want this for exactly the same reason that someone from Florida wants someone from California to remain his fellow countryman. Even if I thought Scotland was going to be wealthier after independence, I would still vote against independence, partly because I would want to share this wealth with other Brits, but more because I don’t think the argument has anything to do with economics.

The argument is about sovereignty and where it should lie. Over the last few years we have all had to learn about each other’s arguments. Pro UK Brexiteers have had to make Leave arguments and Remain arguments. Europhile Scottish independence supporters have praised one union (the EU), while wishing to leave another (the UK). This is not inconsistent. It is about where you think sovereignty should be.

I believe that the nation state should ultimately be sovereign. If the EU were to become a nation state like the USA, I might have been persuaded to support it. But I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to create a viable, democratic nation state out of the various very different European states. I came to this conclusion because these European nation states lack a common identity and lack a common language. Because the EU cannot become a democratic nation state, it is forcing integration undemocratically. If it succeeds in creating a United States of Europe, this nation state will not be like the USA. Power in the EU will not be divided between an elected House, Senate and President, for which reason the EU will be more like an Empire than a democratic state. Once I came to this conclusion, it became obvious that we had to leave.

Once more it is not about the economics. We ought to be willing to go through some economic difficulty in order to avoid the fate of being trapped in a European Empire. Moreover, it will be worth it because we will fully bring power and sovereignty back to Parliament. No unelected bureaucrat will be able to tell us what to do.

The difference between me and the Scottish independence supporter is simply that we disagree about where to locate sovereignty. He wants to locate it Scotland while I want to locate it in the UK.

But my reasoning for wishing to leave the EU that it will in time become an undemocratic Empire, obviously does not apply to the UK. We all take part in elections. We send members to parliaments in Edinburgh and London. This means that each individual Scot has more representation than any individual person from England. UK democracy is not perfect, but then neither is Scottish democracy. No voting system is ideal.

The debate in Scotland is really about identity and citizenship. At present the majority of Scots feel both Scottish and British and wish to remain British citizens. A minority of Scots feel exclusively Scottish and wish to cease being British citizens in order to become Scottish citizens. Quite a lot of Scots don’t think much about the issue at all because they’ve moved on.

Because the debate in its essence is about identity and citizenship, it changes very slowly indeed. If we ever got to the stage where the vast majority of Scots felt no particularly kinship with people from other parts of the UK and rejected their British citizenship, then independence would follow as a matter of course whatever the economics. But this is not going to happen because a few thousand independence supporters go on marches. The Pro UK side likewise will not be helped by a few hundred people dressed in Union Jacks shouting at them.

I disagree with independence supporters, but I don’t think their argument is unreasonable. Good, clever people can differ on this, just as we disagree about other issues. But I do find it peculiar that some independence supporters want to leave the UK in order to subsume their newly won sovereignty in the EU. It’s an awful lot of struggle for very little gain. It would also involve giving up quite a lot of powers that the Scottish Parliament is going to gain post-Brexit.

Brexit will clarify this issue. A close relationship with our fellow English speakers in the UK ultimately is going to depend on remaining a part of the UK. In order to become independent after Brexit, Scotland will need to leave the UK and then apply to join the EU from scratch or decide not to join the EU at all.  Neither of these options looks particularly palatable.

The Republic of Ireland neatly shows the dilemma. Ireland is closely aligned with the UK in terms of trade and culture, but is liable to end up in a different trading bloc (the EU) to its greatest trade partner (the UK). Ireland therefore has a choice. Either it stays in the EU and gradually grows closer to the EU and further apart from the UK, or it leaves the EU and gradually becomes closer to the UK and further apart from the EU. But if the latter then Ireland will converge with the UK into a “United States of the British Isles”, an ever closer union of English speakers, for which reason the decision the Irish made in the years following 1916 looks very like a long term strategic error. But this, of course is impossible to admit.

The same logic applies to Scotland. Either we become independent and subsume our newly won sovereignty into the EU and gradually distance ourselves from the other parts of the UK, or we remain closely aligned with the UK, in which case independence ceases to have any point. We too would end up in reality in a “United States of the British Isles” and the same logic of ever closer union would apply. Why should it only apply to the EU?

There isn’t going to be an independence referendum anytime soon, because no-one can possibly make a sensible judgement until we discover how Brexit works out. Even then sensible Scottish independence supporters would be better advised concentrating on making Scotland more prosperous and gradually persuading the Pro UK majority that Scottish independence is the way forward. They can do that best by being reasonable, friendly and kind. The same goes for Pro UK people. We must make our arguments to our friends and neighbours, not by shouting at them or telling them that they are stupid, but by persuading them that the UK is a great country and that together we can all enjoy the great future that Brexit will bring. It will give us all more sovereignty and that after all is what the argument ultimately is about.


  1. All sensible people will welcome the eirenic tone now manifesting itself in Effie's pronouncements. We may hope that it will be combined before long with one or two other ameliorations.

    1. A certain amused detachment is pardonable when we note that both French and British ideology, despite centuries of squabbling, both subscribe to the dogma of indivisible sovereignty. Both monarchies (e.g. Canada and pre-1918 Germany) and republics (e.g. Switzerland and the USA) can function efficaciously informed by multiple sovereignties. Insistence on this dogma helped turn the Irish desire for self-government within the British Empire into a drive for independence from it. EU membership has given Ireland more freedom of movement than that country has enjoyed in centuries. One quite sees the attraction of the Independence + EU option for increasing numbers of Scots.

  2. One desirable amelioration would be a greater concern for conceptual clarity. For example, one can only admit that which one holds to be the case. Since no significant body of opinion in the RoI holds the drive to independence to be a mistake, the major premise for the admission that Effie posits is absent. It follows from this that her 'United States of the British [sic] Isles is a non-starter.

  3. Another good move would be to examine one or two of the challenges or queries posited. Effie clearly finds it paradoxical, for example, that more and more people wish to leave the UK and remain in the EU. Since the proponents of this policy have published copious materials in support of it, Effie could profitably examine what they have said.

  4. Not sure i agree that loss of sovereignty to EU is anywhere near what we lose to London. It's completely different in scale and impact.

    If Westminster were to offer EU terms and sovereignty to other countries of UK i think it would swing a lot of voters. However they need to hang onto Scotland for a myriad of reasons.

    When the EU start taking all our tax revenue and paying us back pocket money then we can talk about EU and UK in the same breath.

  5. There's a lot in what you say, Running. The EU is a treaty organization, bound by strict rules and with no power to do anything not authorized. All relevant entities have to take part in decisions, which is why the process can be so long-winded. (Remember the external trade pact held up over the decision of the Parliament of Wallonia?) The UK, on the other hand, is a unitary state whose sovereignty lies in a Parliament which is, on the authority of the English Courts, a continuation of the Parliament of England. Any country incorporated in the UK has, in effect, signed a blank cheque. The UK Parliament has the power to permit a Minister to rewrite legislation, to abolish the rights of citizens, and, apparently, to repeal the laws of arithmetic.

    1. Some people seem to be happy with that, as a Scot who has seen his own parliament taken to a foreign court twice in the last year I find that disturbing.

      Once where the UK advocate said that any agreement on gaining consensus with devolved governments was purely a convention..... Not a requirement.

      This is what a real loss of sovereignty looks like in real life. I find the flurry of angst from hard core unionists about the EU and their relaxed view of UK riding roughshod over Scottish affairs rather telling.

      As can be seen with the finances of the likes of Scotland in Union and by a fair chunk of its membership, a large amount of this unionist/London centric support comes from outside Scotland.

      In the 21st century can this really be what democracy looks like in a Western country ? I suspect they find the idea of a devolved government quite distasteful now as its challenging issues like this. Despite Labour's attempts to mute the Scottish government when it was setup, it has been quite effective in challenging the status quo. The recent rise in unionist voices calling for dissolution of devolved governments can be used as a measure of their effectiveness.

      They scream and rant about sovereignty and being in charge of their own laws...Yet in Scotland Unionists naturally bow down to Westminster, even on issues that are previously agreed as devolved. Hypocritical one could certainly say.

    2. One certainly could, Running. The EU works by agreed rules: in the UK, the people in power make it up as they go along.

    3. One circle not yet squared is the fact that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is not a rule known to Scots Law.

  6. Where's Aldo ? Gone to ground after his outing on Twitter :+)

    1. I'm not on Twitter - too much like finding oneself teleported into a sort of electronic N├╝rnberg Rally. What happened? *Do* tell!

    2. What sort of outing - Sunday School trip? You simply *can't* leave such an intriguing tale half-told!

    3. Like I care what anyone on twatter has to say :0)

      I've been quiet because nothing is happening. Am very much looking forward to next month though - SNP conference + supreme court ruling + possible brexit deal. Expect plenty of comment then! For the time being, I'll just be chilling in my garden with a beer.

    4. Supreme court ruling will be very interesting, some noises on internet about SNP strategy to force sovereignty question. Not sure how much is behind it but might be a surprise move

    5. I reckon the SNP will lose in the supreme court and then try the grievance routine again - but the people are wise to it. Should they be daft enough to attack the judges themselves, then the comparison with Trump is obvious. I am sure the SNP leadership wont fall into that trap, but their supporters certainly will!

    6. We know what you want Aldo, anyone in London uber alles and all that guff....

      UK will be on a loser on either result, it will be seen by real neutral people as heavy handed government if the win, an attack on Devolution. Tory drones will of course lap it up.

    7. But it will be the judiciary deciding it RM, not the government. At least two of the justices will be Scottish. It will be very interesting to see in which direction their votes are cast. No doubt they'll be "rich land owning toffee nosed toarrries" if they rule in favour of the UK. If you can't get them on nationality, get them on class / imagined political bias.

    8. Its the government who brought the action. I think that's the whole point....

      If WM win the case it just cements the idea that devolution is just a sop.... As it has been treated during Brexit by the Tories. The actions of the current British government are what people will judge...

      That's why its a no win for WM...They'll get it if they win or lose.

      If they win people will say Devolution is a sham and they'll be right. If they lose people will say the government are disingenuous and untrustworthy. That's the point.

      You need to bet that people don't care about devolution. I'm not sure that's the case for the majority.

    9. The government brought the action, but the final decision lies with some of the finest legal minds in the UK. They are not part of the government. They look at law and precedent and deliver a judgment based on those. If the government wins then it means the law is on their side - and in civilised countries we follow the law.

      Devolution is devolution. It is power delegated by a higher power - not the removal of the higher power. From time to time, the UK government will pull rank. I'm comfortable with that and yessers who believe in democracy should be accepting of it.

  7. We all know you are comfortable with it Aldo, I doubt you are that bothered either way. Democracy is not agreeing split of responsibilities and then changing them when it suits you . The worst part if the blatant disregard for the whole process, I should expect no less from authoritarian conservatives.

    This is where we see the polarisation of UK politics at a personal level, unionist like you will swallow absolutely anything from London. I doubt if they had the army on the street if you would even whimper. There is a challenge , do you actually have anything that would change your mind.

    On my side I would reject a very far left government in Scotland pushing for independence or UDI on the back of it.

    Do Tories have any Scottish scruples ? I doubt it

    1. These are not normal times RM. Brexit is not normal. If the government removed powers on a whim I'd be a bit concerned. But we're going through a bit of a storm and so the captain will take the helm himself. This is what we voted for when we voted to not be independent.

      There are virtually no circumstances under which I would support Scottish independence short of genocide.

    2. Spoken like a true democrat.....lolz...You would have been great in Germany in the 30's. A real Hans Scholl....


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.