Monday 21 July 2014

On Scottish independence

In 1630, at the height of the Thirty Years War in Germany, the French Ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire made a clear and unequivocal demand: reduce your troops and sack Wallenstein (the Imperial General). This placed the Emperor in a difficult situation. The Swedish King had just landed in Northern Germany and the Ambassador's demands were tantamount to leaving German lands defenseless. Still, the Emperor acquiesced. Wallenstein was sacked and most of the troops demobilised.

Listening recently to the debate about Scottish independence I was reminded of this episode in the Thirty Years War. In effect, the French Ambassador's ultimatum was something akin to President Holland asking David Cameron to sack the Chair of the General Staff in London. Our reaction, rightly, would be: 'Who the hell does he think he is?'

Comparisons are of course fraught with problems, especially if they bridge several hundred years of European history, but this historical example is instructive. Sovereignty never was and certainly is not the indivisible prerogative of national governments.

This is where the Scottish independence debate strikes me as curiously lopsided. Let me say at the start that I firmly believe that Scotland, independent or as part of the Union, is and will continue to be a prosperous country, with rich natural resources and a highly educated and skilled workforce.

However, the tenor of the independence campaign has strangely romantic overtones that I struggle to reconcile with any realistic assessment of modern nation states operating in an interdependent world. This cuts both ways, interestingly. How so?

Firstly, it's what I would call the French Ambassador test. Some in the independence campaign appear to suggest that, once Scotland is independent, it can decide its own fate (whatever that means). The experience of the German Emperor should be a lesson to the contrary. The vision of an unencumbered Scottish public will manifesting itself in a sovereign Scottish government free to do all it currently cant do, is hard to sustain in a world like ours. In a sense, those who argue that independence will grant eternal freedom from external strictures (English or otherwise) take a similar view of Scotland as those in UKIP entertain for Britain. If only those evil 'others' would grant us full autonomy, we could decide things for ourselves. There is good reason to believe that this may turn out to be a mirage.

Yet, secondly, this vision of an independent Scotland assumes that there is a consensus about what this future Scotland should look like. The picture put forward tends to be a strange amalgam of socialist egalitarian nirvana with prosperity for all thrown in. This strikes me as an even stranger case of romanticism gone wild. It seems to rely on a caricature of 'the English system' (which is everything bad on the planet) and an eclectic melange of utopian, socialist and proto-communist elements.

There are two arguments that strongly suggest that an independent Scotland will not massively divert from where England is going, socially, culturally and politically. First, the Scottish government already has full powers over pretty much anything that matters in people's lives. Education, health and social services are all fully devolved issues at present. The Scottish Executive has even tax varying powers (which it has not used so far). It is interesting to note that there has been very little divergence from the 'English' path in devolved areas so far. So, why should independence be the start of total transformation?

The second aspect however is that this vision of a radically transformative society post-independence somehow assumes that there is a broad consensus amongst Scots about the direction of travel (to this socialist nirvana). Nothing could be further from the truth. The polling (and previous elections for the Scottish Parliament) indicate that Scots are just as politically diverse (political scientists speak of electoral cleavages) as any other modern society. There are even a solid 15 percent of Scottish voters who vote for the Conservative Party. So, the utopian socialist consensus does not seem to extend much further than the one third of voters who favour independence in the first place.

Which brings me to the reason why I believe this referendum will be lost by the SNP. Right from the start the campaign for independence was strongly premised on a cultural, political and social vision of Scotland that is curiously narrow, something that speaks to the proto-socialist romantic convictions of those who supported independence in the first place. Yet, the campaign was to be won (or lost) with the votes of those who did not share the SNP's electoral manifesto. All polling suggests that the Yes campaign has failed to reach out to the moderate centre. Barring any major political earthquake, Scotland may thus just stay part of the Union it joined about 300 years ago.

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