Tuesday 28 June 2022

The UK is not a voluntary union. It is not a union at all.


What sort of state would Scotland be if it were to leave the UK? The SNP talk little about this, but there are only really three options. Scotland could be a unitary state, a federation or a confederation. A federation is like Germany, Australia or the USA. The USA was briefly a confederation between 1781 and 1789. The Confederate states of America was still more briefly a confederation between 1861 and 1865. Its brevity was in part due to its being a confederation. The EU is arguably a confederation which is moving towards becoming a federation. Russia and Belarus signed a treaty of confederation in 2000, but Belarus’s sovereignty looks more theoretical than actual 22 years later.

Realistically Scotland could either be a unitary state, with or without devolution or it could be a federation. I have never once read about anyone giving the parts of Scotland federal powers. Arguments about federalism in the UK are only ever about the whole of Scotland becoming part of a federation, so it is unlikely that the SNP would give Aberdeenshire or Orkney a federal parliament. We might not even get devolution. But in that case Sturgeon intends Scotland to be a unitary state within a confederation the EU.

Sturgeon complains that “Westminster is taking a wrecking ball to the idea of the United Kingdom as a voluntary partnership of nations.” But the UK has never been that. The UK is and always has been a unitary state, with parts that happen to be called countries.

It is arguable whether the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain voluntarily. There was no referendum. There was barely a democracy at all. But having united there is nothing whatsoever in what passes for the British constitution about the Kingdom of Great Britain being a voluntary union. Kingdoms throughout Europe merged, but the UK was never the equivalent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a Scottish part and an English part. If that had been the case it would have dissolved long ago.

Until devolution was created the UK was a classic example of a unitary nation state ruled from the centre. We voted in General Elections and local elections and that was it.

A political convention developed in the 1960s and 1970s when the SNP began to win a few seats that Scotland could have independence if it wanted it. No one at the time thought there was any chance of this happening for which reason Margaret Thatcher offered the SNP independence if it ever won a majority of seats in Scotland.

The lesson from this is that political conventions can change, otherwise Scotland would have become independent in 2015.  

Modern Scottish nationalism however did not begin with the SNP it began with the idea expressed frequently in the 1980s that it was unfair that Scotland voted Labour but got Tory Governments anyway. It was this together with the decline in Conservative support in Scotland that led to the uneven devolution settlement in the UK which grants devolved powers to three of the UK’s parts but not the fourth.

Once Scotland had its own Parliament it was inevitable that it would want more devolution and then still more independence until it became a sovereign state in its own right. This is because unlike French regions or German federal states devolution in Scotland was portrayed by Labour as giving power to a country, giving it back the Parliament that it lost. No wonder some Scots wanted the independence Scotland had lost too.

The demand for secession does not affect other countries that either have devolution or are federal states, because contrary to Sturgeon it is rare indeed in the world for anywhere to allow a democratic right to secession. The UK’s position on the world stage will hardly be changed if we forbid it too. Each member of the UN Security Council would agree with us and hardly a member of the UN General Assembly would disagree with us. This is because all of them forbid secession in theory or in practice make it impossible to achieve.

Federalism works well in countries like Germany and the USA because federal powers are given equally and they each have strong central governments as well as federal states with clearly defined powers. Federalism is not remotely like “devo max”, which leaves the UK in control of very little indeed, but neither is it an answer to Scottish nationalism. Federalism requires that the parts accept that they are subordinate to the whole. You cannot have a federation of countries, because that would be a confederation.

Devolution works well in countries like France, because the parts do not think of themselves as countries in a union, voluntary or not, although the process by which they were united is historically similar to UK.

But no country in the world has a system where it is a unitary state made up of places which think of themselves as countries each of which has a right to leave whenever it pleases. Such a state would be inherently unstable, it would be looser even than the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon thinks of the UK as if it were a confederation made up of nation states. But if that were the case Scotland would already be independent. But one of the features of confederation is that each state is independent financially. It is this amongst other issues that caused difficulties in the early years of the United States. It is difficult to create a stable single currency unless there are fiscal transfers from a common central bank, but this requires a political union that goes beyond confederation and resolves itself either in unity or federalism.

If Sturgeon really thinks that the UK is a confederation of independent states with the right to leave when they please, then she cannot accept fiscal transfers from the centre. So before asking for a second referendum she should be told to give up the Barnett formula and have all public spending in Scotland paid for by Scottish taxes alone. When you have done that come back and ask again.

But if Sturgeon thinks the UK is a confederation, why does she seek independence at all, for she already has it. Either the UK is like the EU in which case Scotland is independent, but part of a union of other similar countries, so why is she not content with this, or the UK is either a federal state or a unitary state. But it cannot be a federal state because devolution only occurs in unitary states. But if the UK is a unitary state, she cannot use its being a confederation to justify independence.

The problem with the SNP argument is that always assumes what it is trying to prove. Sturgeon argues that the UK is a voluntary union of nations, but this is to justify Scotland becoming independent by assuming it already is independent.

She then complains that since 1979 Scotland has not got the Government it voted for on 70% percent of the time. But again, this is begging the question. If in an independent Scotland Orkney and Shetland on 70% of the time voted for the Northern Islands National Party, would Sturgeon give them independence?

What if the Borders voted to remain in the UK instead of joining an independent Scotland? The SNP would argue that this doesn’t matter because Scotland is a unitary nation state that cannot be carved up. But the UK is equally a unitary nation state and has been for 300 years. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have lasted a decade.

If you choose to field candidates only in Scotland you cannot reasonably complain that you never get to form a UK Government. Arguably it is the rise of the SNP that has made it less likely that Scotland gets the Government it votes for.

If the Yorkshire National Party always won in Yorkshire it could hardly complain that it never won a majority of seats at Westminster. It would be like complaining that you never win the 400 metres even though you only ever take part in the 100 metres.

In every democracy there are parts which sometimes never get the Government they vote for. This is not a fault in democracy it is a feature. The task is to persuade the majority not just to win in your area. It could equally be the case in an independent Scotland that a part might vote differently to the whole. If this would not justify that part seeking independence, then neither ought it to justify Scotland seeking independence. Whether Scotland once was an independent state or whether we think of ourselves as still being a country has nothing to do with it. Otherwise once more you are merely assuming what you are trying to prove.

The sort of state that Sturgeon wants Scotland to be is an independent unitary state in the EU. The EU at present is like the United States in its early days. It is made up of independent states, but most of them are part of a currency union and there are signs that the EU is moving towards fiscal union and political union.

But if Sturgeon thinks that Scotland is already part of a confederation (the UK), a voluntary union of nation states, why does she want to leave it in order to join another (the EU)? The UK already has a political, fiscal and currency union. We in have what the EU would like to have. We also have a common language, common culture and a population which is similar.

If Sturgeon cannot bear to live in a union with England, how is she going to bear living in union with people who are very different from us? She might argue that the EU would be a looser union which would allow Scotland to maintain its power and its independence. But she already thinks the UK is a confederation, which is about as loose as you can get. In order to think the EU will continue to be still looser than that she must hope that the EU’s goal of ever closer union won’t succeed. Has she told them that yet? But this is to argue that the EU will forever remain a very loose confederation. But history shows us that confederations either split or unite into federations.

But this is Sturgeon’s problem. What if the EU’s aim succeeds? She thinks that Scotland is now part of a confederation, but she wants to join a new one that is moving towards becoming a federation. But in that case Scotland would no longer be independent, but rather become like Vermont, New South Wales or Saxony part of a new federal state called the EU. Scotland would be less independent according to Sturgeon’s logic than we are now.

The UK would not prevent Scotland leaving if it were clear the overwhelming majority wished to. That British political convention still exists. The UK Government has not said to the SNP that you will never have a second referendum. We are not Spain. But the referendum in 2014 did change the convention that winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament was sufficient for a referendum which meant David Cameron felt compelled to grant Salmond his wish. That is no longer the case and it is why both May and Johnson have said No, not yet even if they have not said No not ever.

But is the EU a more voluntary Union than the UK? We learned in 2015 that it didn’t matter which way Greece voted it had to do what the EU told it and it couldn’t practically leave the EU without wrecking its economy. Faced with the negotiating tactics the EU employed after Brexit few smaller countries and no Eurozone countries would manage to leave. Once federalism is achieved departure from the EU will be as forbidden as departure from the USA.

Within certain constraints and conventions, the UK while being a unitary state will continue to allow a referendum on independence, but the bar is now rather higher, precisely because a majority of Scots voted to stay a part of a unitary state and to be British only a few years ago. The SNP cannot overcome that majority by winning most seats at a General Election nor by winning a majority at the Scottish Parliament. It would have to show over a number of years that independence is the settled will of Scottish voters, which means something like two thirds support. If it becomes obvious that support is at that level, then I think the UK would not behave like the EU but rather find a way to dissolve itself by mutual cooperation.

But I fear that Scotland and Wales under those circumstances would find that life in the EU would involve rather less freedom and independence than they have at present and goodness only knows how Northern Ireland could be kept peaceful.  

But in the end breaking up the UK might be no more practically possible than breaking up the EU or the USA. The economic and political cost to ourselves and to the West in general would be such that no matter the result of a referendum in Scotland independence would not happen and we would discover that we needed each other after all.