Friday 8 January 2021

Secession versus unity : two views of democracy collide


There are two views of democracy in Scotland. The first view is held universally by SNP supporters and many politicians and journalists who officially don’t support independence. This is the view that Scotland always has the right to leave the United Kingdom and that if the SNP and other independence supporting parties ever gain a parliamentary majority then Scotland should have the right to a referendum on this issue whenever it wishes. This argument is frequently framed, I believe wrongly, in terms of self-determination. The second view is that nation states have the right to defend their territorial integrity and that a part of a nation state does not have the automatic right to leave even if a majority wish to do so.

The argument that parts of a nation state cannot simply vote to leave is supported by precedent the world over both historical and political. There are very few places in the world that have granted a part a legal right to secede by means of a referendum. Canada is one when it granted two referendums to Quebec. The UK is another when it granted Scotland a referendum in 2014. There are very few other examples.

The territorial integrity argument has been undermined in the UK not merely by Scotland being given a referendum in 2014, but also by the Belfast Agreement which gave Northern Ireland the right to secede from the UK if a majority both in Northern Ireland and Ireland voted for it.

If you can give one referendum on the basis of an SNP majority at Holyrood why can you not give a second? Moreover, if people in Northern Ireland have the right to leave the UK when they wish, why shouldn’t Scots, Welsh or Cornish people have the same right?

But there is a problem with this argument. If Northern Ireland united with Ireland would it have the right later to secede from Ireland? Would Munster or Connaught have the same right? The IRA demanded Irish unity on the basis that while it was legitimate for Ireland to secede from the UK, it was illegitimate for Northern Ireland to secede from Ireland. But Northern Ireland was never part of the territory of an independent nation state now called Ireland. It was never therefore Irish territory. It just shared the same island also called Ireland. But sharing an island doesn’t mean you share territory. Lots of islands in the world are partitioned including Hispaniola and Borneo. Conflating the name of an island with the name of your country does not make the territory yours.

The IRA view was that when the whole people of Ireland achieved independence from the UK, that whole should have made Northern Ireland come too. But this is a territorial integrity argument. The will of the whole Irish people trumps the will of that part that wished to remain with Britain. Ireland had the right to remain intact even if a part didn’t want to leave the UK. But if that argument applies to Ireland, why doesn’t it apply to British territorial integrity, not merely about Northern Ireland, but also about Ireland’s right to leave the UK in the first place?  

The same argument applies to Scotland. The SNP would be horrified if Scottish independence led to the partition of Scotland. But somehow, it’s quite alright to partition Britain. Scottish nationalists would object if parts of Scotland opted to remain in the former UK. So, the SNP argument amounts to Scotland can secede from the UK, but the Borders must remain in Scotland even if it did not vote for independence.  Having achieved independence, the SNP would use the territorial integrity argument to prevent any part of Scotland voting for independence. This means that both the IRA and the SNP are using both territorial integrity arguments and secession arguments.

But if the territorial integrity argument is legitimate then the United Kingdom clearly ought to have the right to prevent both Scotland and Northern Ireland from seceding. The argument against this is to suppose that the United Kingdom is in some strange way not a country and lacks the right to territorial integrity that an independent Scotland and a united Ireland would have. But why?

Historically the process by which Great Britain was formed from England (and Wales) and Scotland uniting first into a kingdom (1603) and then politically (1707) is remarkably similar to the way in which for instance various kingdoms in Spain became united. The political union that formed Great Britain is no different from the political unions that formed Italy, Germany or France.

But Italy would not grant a secession referendum to German speakers in South Tyrol who had been united with Austria for centuries until it was given to Italy as a prize for fighting on the Allied side in World War One. Nobody in the EU supposes that these people have the right to self-determination, nor to reunite with their fellow Austrians. Perhaps if they had bombed Italy for thirty years, there would now be a Bolzano Agreement giving both Austrian citizens and South Tyrol citizens the right to unite if they wished it, but would Austria really wish to gain territory as a result of terrorism and would Italy give up its right to maintain its territorial integrity because of terrorists? After all Spain defended its territorial integrity against ETA and defeated an illegal attempt by Catalonia to secede.

Britain could easily have defeated Irish nationalism after the First World War in the same way that numerous other European countries defended their territorial integrity at that time, but while we were willing to lose nearly a million men in order to defend Belgium neutrality we were unwilling to lose more than 261 British soldiers to defend the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and allowed Ireland to secede.

Let them have their independence if they want it has been the long term British historical viewpoint. Unlike other European countries we have not wished to hold our country together by force and it was politically accepted here that any part of the UK would have the right to leave if a majority wished it, in a way that is contrary to the norm in both the United States and Europe. After all the United States used a forcible secession argument to justify its independence and a forcible territorial integrity argument to hold itself together in the face of secession. Most of its states were either bought or captured from someone else, but no one thinks that Old Mexico and New Mexico should be united even if a majority in New Mexico one day speaks Spanish. The United States will defend its territorial integrity against all-comers both foreign and domestic but will criticise Britain for doing the same because of a great grandfather that left Ireland in the 1840s.

We defended Northern Ireland against IRA bombs because we thought the people of Northern Ireland should have the choice rather than be bombed into submission, but we never used the argument that it is our territory and we will defend it for that reason alone.

While we went to war in 1939 to defend the territorial integrity of Poland, we were already willing to give up our own territory. Churchill was willing to trade Northern Ireland for peace as was Wilson as was Blair.

Britain lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers defending Singapore, Burma and India, but lost all these places anyway. It would have been better to let the Japanese have them without a fight and keep our soldiers at home. So too if we always intended to give up Northern Ireland in the end without a fight, it would have been better to have done so in 1968 and let Ireland deal with the cost of Northern Ireland and whatever terrorism resulted too. There is zero point fighting for what you intend to surrender.

There is a tension between the two views of democracy. We can either view a nation state as a whole and argue that it is justified in defending that territory and follow that logic to its endpoint, or we can view a nation state in terms of its parts and argue that the majority in a part outweighs the majority of the whole.

Because we are human beings, we use democracy to justify what we want. Scottish and Irish nationalists use both views to justify the secession of the whole of the territory that they then want to keep intact but refusing the secession of any parts they wish to prevent leaving.  They use spurious ideas about (the whole of) Ireland and Scotland being countries while the UK supposedly is not a country at all even though there had never been an independent nation state covering the whole of Ireland and the kingdom of Scotland merged with the kingdom of England in 1603. The United Kingdom on the other hand was a great power, a founder member of the UN and IMF and sits on the Security Council. If that isn’t enough to make you a country what is?

The United Kingdom has as much right to defend its territorial integrity as anyone else, but we choose to allow the secession argument, perhaps out of a British sense of fair play, perhaps because we never quite feel as united as France, Germany or the USA. Almost uniquely in the world we think of the parts of the UK as countries and our identities are frequently derived from football or rugby rather than our citizenship. For this reason, many people in England would be delighted to get rid of Northern Ireland and Scotland in a way that would be unthinkable for someone from the United States.

I know of no other country that complains about fiscal transfers from one part to another in the way that we do in Britain.  Fiscal union and political union in any country requires monetary transfers, but only in Britain do we pretend that this means one part owes another part. It isn’t English money subsidising anyone, rather it is British money helping everyone including much of England, because we are all British citizens.

The two views of democracy are not reconcilable. Each can be justified at least in part. But this means that there is always the danger that they come into conflict. Scottish nationalists may so believe that they have the right to secede that they see the alternative argument as so intolerable that it justifies them in taking measures that are contrary to the alternative viewpoint of democracy.

In Northern Ireland one democratic argument, that the whole of Ireland should have seceded came into conflict with an equally democratic argument that Northern Ireland had the right to secede from Ireland and remain in the UK. There was no way to reconcile this argument and so both sides bombed and murdered each other for thirty years.

Scotland is not Ireland, but it is crucial that Scottish nationalists and Pro UK people do not inflame the situation. Let our argument be theoretical. Let it be a matter for keyboards rather than the streets.

It is perfectly legitimate and democratic for the United Kingdom to refuse an independence referendum forever. It is also legitimate to believe that there may come a point when a second referendum should be granted. Some people may think that point is now. But we must be moderate about either view of democracy and not be so sure that our view is right that it leads us into righteous anger that may lead us to taking action that is contrary to all views of democracy.

In both Northern Ireland and in Scotland there are different desires for the future. They cannot be reconciled. It isn’t possible for everyone to get what they want. Ulster unionists have the right to argue that the United Kingdom should defend its territorial integrity and that they wish to remain British, Irish nationalists have the right to campaign for a united Ireland, but someone has to lose. In Scotland too we cannot both be part of the UK and independent. But in neither place can losing be made so bad that we take the law into our own hands.

The key for both Scotland and Northern Ireland and also for Ireland and the United Kingdom is for us to set out clearly and objectively what would happen if Scotland or Northern Ireland should choose at some point to leave the UK. This is why Jamie Blackett of Alliance for Unity (who I believe understands this issue better than anyone) has been asking for a Clarity Act. It’s only when we know the truth about what the future would be like that that we can sensibly persuade others using political arguments about what ought to happen. Honesty and facts ground political debate in reality and this in itself is an antidote to extremism.

A united Ireland could not expect to have the same relationship with Britain as it does at present. The Common Travel Area was set up as a means of dealing with the Northern Ireland border. If there were no border there would be no need for a Common Travel Area. Irish citizens would have no more rights than any other EU citizens to live and work in Britain. That would be the price.

Ireland too would have to pay the £10 billion a year that Northern Ireland gets from the Treasury and would have to deal with any trouble that resulted from uniting Ireland by itself. Everyone living in Northern Ireland must consider whether change is worth the risk. If a border poll were lost by either side by a small amount there is no reason to suppose that it would be accepted.  No one thought the 2016 referendum on the EU would be so contentious or that the result would not be accepted and instead fought through Parliament and the courts for years. A similarly close poll in Northern Ireland about a more contentious issue would be dangerous indeed.

Scotland too could not expect to retain the same rights and privileges that we have because we are British citizens. People who want to retain those rights ought to vote against the SNP, because that is the only way to guarantee what we have at present. You cannot expect to have the benefits of EU membership and the benefits of UK membership. The two are incompatible. There would be no Common Travel Area between the former UK and Scotland.

The SNP have always presented a cakeist view of independence, but just like Ireland, Scotland would have to pay a price. Scotland would be treated no better nor worse than any other EU member state. Scotland would have to pay its deficit by itself and if there were any future trouble be it a financial crisis or a pandemic, Scotland would have to manage on its own.

Too many Scots at present take a short-term view in relation to a long-term issue. It matters not at all that Nicola Sturgeon is popular, nor that she appears on television every day and appears to be a good communicator. It matters not at all that Boris Johnson is Prime minister nor indeed that Scotland voted to stay in the EU, but the UK as a whole voted to leave. It doesn’t matter that England tends to vote Tory, but Scotland does not like Tories because of Margaret Thatcher, Ravenscraig and the poll tax.

The grounds for Scottish independence are invariably short-term political disagreement. These are the sorts of issues that are forgotten when we look back at our shared history. Do you know how Scotland voted in 1850? Do you care? To break up a three-hundred-year-old country because of a referendum on the EU or because of Covid or because Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister is excessive. We don’t even know if the EU will exist in ten years’ time. Few of us know who was Prime Minister was one hundred years ago.

It is therefore necessary to look at the issue not from the point of view of contemporary politics, but sub specie aeternitatis [under the aspect of eternity]. Was it a good thing that Scotland and England merged more the 300 years ago? Has it been successful both for us and for others? Will the world be a better place one hundred years from now if the United Kingdom ceases to exist or continues? Such questions need to be thought about carefully and clearly and with moderation.

Scotland is not treated poorly compared to the parts of any other nation state. We have received a great deal of support from the British Government in the past year. Our workers have been furloughed our businesses supported. We have nothing to complain about. But support for independence has become vehement in a way that worries me. A second independence referendum campaign would make Scots more divided.  I dread what would happen if Scottish nationalists overly optimistic because of opinion polls discovered that they had lost a second referendum by less than one percent. Some would not accept the result. Some would immediately campaign for a third referendum. Some might try to declare independence anyway. Such a poll would therefore be almost as dangerous as a border poll in Northern Ireland. If it were close neither side in Scotland would accept the result. Each would want another go or would try to overturn it in the courts. What this would do to Scotland does not bear thinking about.

The problem with democracy is that we only really like it when it goes our way. We have learned lately not to accept the results of elections. The SNP didn’t accept the result in 2014 but set about immediately to overturn it. Remain didn’t accept the result in 2016 but used every means political and legal to overturn it.

If we are not careful at some point either in Northern Ireland or in Scotland someone is not going to accept the result of an election and we will all be divided enough about what it is to be democratic that we will decide to settle the matter without ballot boxes.

It will start with marching and insults about opponents. Bitter words will be spoken and the divide between people will become wide and then the impossible will happen just like it was impossible for Trump supporters to get into the Capitol. It couldn’t happen here of course, but then it couldn’t happen there either until it did.