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.

But.

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.

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20 thoughts on “Midges and smirr and ‘independence’

  1. “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.”

    Tell me how the UK Govt managed to avoid these pit falls against the bigger fish such as the Banks, New’s International, etc

  2. It is very simple, it is about being responsible for ourselves, making our own decisions and facing the consequences of those. It is not about some circular debate about economics, although I am confident we would thrive, it is about standing on our own two feet. All the rest is simply diversionary, I could directly respond to some of the points you make but we would just go back over the same well worn ground. Although I would suggest that the “Scottish” banks were only so in name and were actually multinational entities, the EU position you refer to is exactly the same as the UKs at the moment, ie you seem to be inferring that it is ok for the UK but somehow does not make sense for an Independent Scotland. Personally I think we should move to being part of the Free Trade Area just like Norway, but these are matters for after Independence, when we can sit and thrash out whatever future direction we would see our country going in.

    1. “It is very simple, it is about being responsible for ourselves, making our own decisions and facing the consequences of those. It is not about some circular debate about economics, although I am confident we would thrive, it is about standing on our own two feet.”

      This is something I don’t get about the nationalists. They harp on about people who believe in the continued close co-operation in the UK using negative language, ie too small, too stupid and too poor.

      The only person on here who has said anything like that is Soosider (as quoted) – talking the Scottish people down while we are IN the union. Apparently we are too stupid, too poor and too timid to have a say as part of the UK. Why do you not have confidence in your fellow countrymen and women to effect change on a global level through the strength of the UK?

      We are equal partners in a successful grouping of countries that has great economic and political strength. We have great Scots who have reached the top while in that union both economically, culturally and politically. We have democracy which gives us a say on what happens – are you suggesting there is no democracy in Scotland and that we do not make our own decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions?

      Are you also intimating that we are not a successful country while in the UK?

  3. This post is just about as weird as the last one. The SNP were elected on a manifesto that included a commitment to a referendum in the second half of the parliamentary term. It’s not the SNP who are obsessing about this, but yourselves. Presumably you are in favour of parties honouring manifesto pledges? You’d be better using the time to come up with a few ideas of your own.

    1. The SNP were elected on a manifesto that included a commitment to a referendum in the second half of the parliamentary term.

      Wrong. Read your manifesto – it doesn’t give a timescale.

      1. I think your comment “Wrong. Read your manifesto – it doesn’t give a timescale.” is an example of the so intense approach that it misses the message. The original poster did not mention manifesto, you did. The poster was very clear about what they meant and it is very clear in his statement “a commitment to a referendum in the second half of the parliamentary term” I think everyone in Scotland was aware of this yet you seem to take a different view.
        May I respectfully suggest that a less partisan approach might assist debate and discussion, which is something that we would all welcome.

        1. oops, seem to have misread the original post, which did indeed mention manifesto, however I still maintain that people were very clear about the referendum and the timescale.

  4. The problem we have is not the ‘whys’ the author outlined it’s the ‘why not?’ All his why’s are subjective easily answered with counter argument. The power of the Nationalist argument is an emotional one and the counter argument has to have the same strength. I fear that if we go down the age old economic route of Scotland’s too small (crap) and too weak to survive on it’s own then we win the referendum but lose Scottish public opinion for a generation. Divorce is an expensive business but for most divorcees once they are through the initial period of turmoil and pain, they end up in a happier place. We need a positive campaign about what Scotland can be as part of the UK not why independence is bad.

    1. I don’t disagree that the emotional argument is important and we do need a broader narrative to capture that idea.

      But we mustn’t ignore reason and logic. And the Nationalists must be made to explain why we need, and what are the benefits, of “independence”.

      The emotional side may be our perceived weakness, but the logical side is theirs. If we stick to the emotional argument alone, they will never need to explain the real, as opposed to romantic and imaginary, position if we break up the UK.

      And the truth is, they can’t produce a reasoned case, not just economic but cultural and political, to back up their emotional certainties.

      1. I have heard this argument and ones like it before except that “us” and “them” had other meanings. They didn’t convince me then and I am not convinced now. Ideas and the emotions they engender are far more powerful than disputable statistics or shaky arguments. This is why elections and referendums are fought with relatively simple messages, the best of which are still memorable long after the elections themselves are history.

  5. Ah! Some bona fida questions starting with the classic “why would anyone want “independence” at all?” Lol – why not ask the vast majority of the world’s population? The fact is that most countries are independent because they find that works best. The independent nation state is the basic unit around which the world is organized.

    So next question “what are the benefits of independence?” The key benefit is that it allows governments to take decisions which are in the national interest and which reflect the values of the electorate. Scotland at present occupies a kind of half way house in that respect. We have the ability to take decisions in devolved areas such as health, education or justice but not in reserved areas such as pensions, benefits or foreign policy. The SNP would argue that Scotland has benefitted from the ability to take decisions and implement distinctively Scottish policies in devolved areas (and let’s remember that if we did not have that freedom our NHS would be facing the prospect of being systematically dismantled, our comprehensive education system would be lying in tatters and we would be losing hundreds of police officers from our streets instead of seeing their numbers maintained). In the same way we would argue that Scotland would benefit from seeing all of the reserved policy areas transferred to the Scottish Parliament. That would not preclude any future cooperation between the Scottish and UK Governments on matters of mutual interest – but it would mean that Scottish interests would not be sidelined and never again would Scotland be governed at any level by a party that had not been elected by the Scottish people.

    The next question is not really a question, more of a statement – “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.” That is hardly surprising because no Nationalist from any wing of the party is in favour of severing links with people in England, Wales or Ireland. Hope that’s cleared that up for you!

    On the two main recurring themes.

    1) “Scotland was independent at one time and therefore should be now”. I have never heard anybody make that argument. Wessex was independent at one time but no-one argues that it should be now. The difference between Wessex – or indeed Bavaria or Piedmont – and Scotland however is that Scotland remains a distinct nation – a country rather than a region. In the modern world most countries are independent. That does not of mean that Scotland automatically should be independent (and there are other exceptions to that rule) but Scotland’s current status is constitutionally peculiar and worthy of re-consideration.
    2) if we are “independent”, things will somehow be perfect, or at least much better. Again, I have never heard anybody say that independence will make things perfect. We believe that independence will make things better of course because independence would allow us to mobilise our assets and prioritise our own interests in a way that we can’t do now. Incidentally the reason we believe Scotland will be better governed as an independent country is not because we think that the SNP would make better decisions – it’s because we think the Scottish people will make better decisions. That’s the point I think you may be missing.

    “Then there’s the European question. What is the point of claiming sovereignty from the UK only to invest it in the EU?”

    This shows a serious misunderstanding of what independence means. Independence for Scotland would result in the transfer of the areas in which Westminster is currently sovereign to the Scottish Parliament. It would not result in the transfer of the areas in which Westminster is currently sovereign to the EU. So the idea is not , as you suggest, to replace London with Brussels – it is to replace London with Holyrood.

    Then – of course – we go on to the collapse of the “Scottish banks”. As you may be aware Professor Andrew Hughes-Hallet has calculated that if Scotland had been independent at the time of the banking crisis the cost of bailing out the banks would have been around £1billion. That is less than the sum which has been cut from the Scottish Budget this year so would have been affordable. The idea that an independent Scotland could not have afforded that is based on the erroneous belief put forward by various politicians that it would have been responsible for 100 per cent of the liability. In fact it would have been responsible only for the share of the liability which fell proportionately on the jurisdictions within which the banks traded.

    Then we get onto that old chestnut about an independent Scotland being weaker in defence. For many years I remember the standard insult was that Scotland would have an armed forces that was on a par with Ireland’s. Well that can no longer be said because Scotland now has a smaller military than Ireland. And Ireland’s neutral! If conventional defence spending in Scotland got any lower it would barely exist. And please don’t bother to come back and say “Ah but we have Trident!” Most Scots don’t want it here – and I will hazard a guess that includes most members of the Scottish Labour Party.

    Then we come to “An “independent” Scotland would probably be weaker in diplomatic terms too, with less ability to influence decisions on a European or UN level. “ Given that Scotland currently has no ability to influence either the EU or UN it is difficult to see how that statement can be true. In order to have any influence or say in those institutions you have to be a member and in order to be a member you have to be independent.

    I feel if I continue to go on this will certainly not be published because it will be longer than the original article but I hope I have answered some of the points Alex has raised.

    1. Indy, thanks for your response.

      I agree that responding point by point takes forever and too much time and space, so ‘ll try to identify the thems in your comment and reply to them.

      “Ah! Some bona fida questions starting with the classic “why would anyone want “independence” at all?” Lol – why not ask the vast majority of the world’s population? ”

      Theme; deliberately misunderstand the question. ..”Why would Scots want “independence”?

      “So next question “what are the benefits of independence?” The key benefit is that it allows governments to take decisions which are in the national interest and which reflect the values of the electorate.”

      Theme; democracy, which we already have. Why would democracy be better after “independence”?

      “Scotland at present occupies a kind of half way house in that respect…..the SNP would argue that Scotland has benefitted from the ability to take decisions and implement distinctively Scottish policies in devolved areas …Scottish interests would not be sidelined and never again would Scotland be governed at any level by a party that had not been elected by the Scottish people.”

      Theme: devolution, which the SNP opposed, but which is working quite well, as you say.

      “…no Nationalist from any wing of the party is in favour of severing links with people in England, Wales or Ireland.”

      You cannot be serious Indy. It’s not a word-game you know.

      “Scotland was independent at one time and therefore should be now”. I have never heard anybody make that argument. …The difference between … Bavaria or Piedmont – and Scotland however is that Scotland remains a distinct nation”

      Ask the Piedmontese – or any of the Italian regions – and they feel local and national. BTW, has it escaped your notice that the great Italian and German nationalists, Garibaldi, Cavour, Bismarck, were great uniters, not breakers?

      ” We believe that independence will make things better of course because independence would allow us to mobilise our assets and prioritise our own interests in a way that we can’t do now… because we think the Scottish people will make better decisions. That’s the point…”

      Theme; if we were “independent” it would somehow be “better”.

  6. I’m guessing the SNP are working hard to identify concrete arguments where Scotland would benefit from being independent.

    They are just keeping their cards close to their chest and waiting for the opportune moment to hold the referendum, for example when the popularity of Westminster hits rock bottom or if the Tories win another term.

    1. Surely after 80 years of existence they would have worked out some positive arguments where Scotland would bnefit….if they exist..?

      “…waiting for the opportune moment to hold the referendum, for example when the popularity of Westminster hits rock bottom or if the Tories win another term…”

      As I said, negative argument against the UK, not positive argument in favour of “independence”.

  7. Mea maxima culpa. Nonetheless, it was clearly and repeatedly stated that the referendum would be held on the timescale I mentioned. It’s for everyone to decide – you can vote yes or no as you wish.

    Congratulations to South Sudan, by the way.

  8. Alex Mason

    You are 100% correct. That is what winners do, wait for the opportune moment.

    A bit like UK Prime Ministers do with the dates of elections.

  9. I can think of a reason!
    We are so unique it is a massive shame and injustice to deny such a unique race the opportunity to speak for itself.Consumption in the UK machine is a misrepresentation of our true spirit.

  10. Alex’s analysis of how an independent Scotland will translate into realityis both accurate and fundamentally depressing. A second rate public sector, smaller markets, the diminution of job opportunities and dangerous uncertainty over defence and sovereignty are,to me, the inevitable corollaries of separation. That doesn’t take into account other imponderables such as a probable upsurge in emigration.
    Labour has failed to develop an anti-independence, anti-SNP narrative for fear of being deemed unpatriotic. It went into the last two Scottish elections singing dumb about independence. Labour has already lost much of its core vote here in Scotland. If this trend continues we will sleep-walk into mediocrity.

  11. Good attempt, Alex but I do feel you are falling into the so-called negativity trap. Instead of being negative about independence, I believe the correct approach is to highlight the obvious advantages of the Union if we want to win the coming referendum. This would ultimately force the Nats to be negative about our Union dividend. The boot would be on the other foot and no-one could accuse you of timidity. We all know you are a fighter, so get out there and give it to them.

  12. You know that you are winning an argument when the enemy starts trying to make fun of you.
    Regardless of the pros and cons of independence the SNP believe in it. Fact.
    They have won a majority in the Scottish parliament. Fact.
    They have a right to call a referendum, it is their democratic right. Fact.
    They would be daft not to hold it at the time they think will be to their advantage. Fact.

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