Nationalists are avoiding the difficult questions over their preferred option for Scotland’s future. ALEX GALLAGHER’S not having that
High summer in Scotland and the air is filled with midges, smirr and the clamour for a referendum on “independence”. Indoors (away from the midges and the smirr), the letters pages and internet blogs vibrate to the call of the nascent Nat: “What do we want? A referendum!” “When do we want it? In 2014! Or 2015… Not really sure…”
But they are sure that we must have referendum. Nae buts, nae mebbes, it’s the seasonal right of the Nat Triumphal that s/he must have a single/double/triple question consultation with the – it has to be said – largely uninterested populace.
Wait a wee minute. Aren’t we leaping ahead just a tiny wee bit? Do we really need it? And by “it”, I don’t just mean do we need a referendum on “independence”. The real unanswered question, which the Nats never address, is: why would anyone want “independence” at all? All the dispute and argument about the whys and wherefores of a referendum obscures the underlying foolishness of the aim of the whole “independence” enterprise in the first place.
What are the benefits of “independence”? How is the life of the average Scot improved by “independence”, and in which ways? Who would be the winners and who would lose? What are the obstacles along the way? How long would it take? What are the chances of “success” (and indeed, how would you define “success”?). Are we richer or happier or healthier or better off in any noticeable or calculable way for politicians in Edinburgh running our ministries than politicians in London? Come to think of it, politicians in Edinburgh already run most of our ministries, so where’s the profit, and for whom?
I have been debating the arguments for and against “independence”, on different platforms and through newspapers and on the internet for many years and I have yet to hear convincing answers to these questions. Nor have I heard any positive, comprehensive and coherent case made by any Nationalist from any wing of the party that would convince anyone, on mature reflection, that it is better for the people of Scotland that we sever our links with our neighbours on this small island, relinquish the strengths that it gives us and destroy a working relationship that has lasted centuries, replacing it with… what? Nothing that they can explain with any coherence.
There are two main recurring themes that Nationalists return to every time:
1) Scotland was independent at one time and therefore should be now; and
2) if we are “independent”, things will somehow be perfect, or at least much better.
On the first point, it’s true that Scotland was at one time a separate state from England. But that fact in itself doesn’t seem to me a sufficient argument for breaking the subsequent, and successful, union of these countries which, after all, inhabit a small land mass and are joined together by history, culture and geography. By that argument, the principalities of pre-Bismarck Germany or 18th century Italy should all be independent. Indeed, if once-upon-a-time difference was a case for independence, why not return to the borders of Pictland or Dalriada or any other of the ancient kingdoms? It’s a romantic notion, not a practical one.
Then there’s the European question. What is the point of claiming sovereignty from the UK only to invest it in the EU? All the arguments about remoteness from decision making and the differences in culture (London’s too far away, the English don’t understand Scotland) just look silly when the idea is to replace London with Brussels and UK law makers with law makers from 27 other countries – including, incidentally, England. It’s frankly nuts.
On the second point, the most sense that you ever get from the Nationalist side beyond grievance and the incipient, if currently muted, anti-English sentiment, is that, because the votes are counted in Edinburgh and not London, “Scotland” will somehow be “better governed” or “better off”. Quite what is meant by “better”, or how “better” is to be achieved, is never defined, or the definition changes from time to time and from circumstance to circumstance. It boils down to: it will get “better” because “we” say it will. For the Nationalist, faith trumps reason and evidence every time.
Meanwhile, on the real evidence in the real world, there are strong indications that an “independent” Scotland would have significant economic weaknesses as compared to its current position. The collapse of the Scottish banks and Alex Salmond’s preferred Celtic Tiger model has laid bare (some would say threadbare) the paucity of the Nationalists’ economic analysis. Economic strength matters. Without good economic resources you cannot have a strong civic sector. The building of new schools and hospitals and the employment and wage levels of public sector staff require a strong economy. A weaker economic base = higher taxes and/or more borrowing and/or fewer schools and hospitals, lower wages and pensions for teachers and nurses, worse maintained roads: the whole of civic Scotland would suffer from this core vulnerability.
It’s likely that an “independent” Scotland would be weaker in defence and security terms as well, although defence is something the Nats don’t like to discuss. Too many anti-establishment votes at risk. Better to pretend that their Scotland wouldn’t have a military or a defence posture or even a foreign policy, a ridiculous position but acceptable to the SNP, apparently.
An “independent” Scotland would probably be weaker in diplomatic terms too, with less ability to influence decisions on a European or UN level, and with greater commitments in the way of embassies and consulates to be met from decreased resources.
One thing that doesn’t attract much comment is the strength of the body politic in an “independent” Scotland. A lesson of the Irish economic disaster is that small countries have less leverage when dealing with multi-national corporations, who come and go as they please while demanding favourable terms of business. They also have difficulties with their own large companies and sectors which tend to have undue influence, through funding and lobbying and just sheer size, on politics and policy. In a smaller pond the bigger fish can be bullies, to the detriment of democratic accountability.
One question which Nationalists shy away from is: how would “independence” be achieved? What pain, what legal and political hoops would have to be negotiated? How long would the process take and would it be open to challenge? What would be the fate of the Scottish people, Scottish democracy, the Scottish economy and the development of Scottish prospects while the politicians and the constitutional lawyers and the international lawyers fight over the borders and mineral wealth and shared organisations and their ownership and governance and continued existence and financing or their demise and doling out of shares and responsibilities?
To list these, and other possible consequences of separation is not, as our Nationalist brethren claim, to do down Scotland in some way. These are legitimate concerns and Nationalists fail to address them. But for me they are only part of the objection to the Nationalist obsession with “independence”.
It’s not just that an “independent” Scotland might be weaker in some important aspects; it’s also that there is no evidence that it would be any better or stronger. And, for the life of me, I cannot see the sense of spending all of our political strength and public discourse for an unspecified number of years or decades, for an outcome for which there is no real evidence that the people of Scotland would be any better off at the end of the process than at the beginning.
Alex Gallagher is a Labour councillor on North Ayrshire Council. He blogs at Braveheart’s Blog.