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Scottish independence: not worth the trouble

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Chart the actual probable outcomes of independence, and there is little to recommend it to the Scots, if slightly more to the English. Yet the results would be devastating.

John Lloyd
19 April 2013

Scotland’s independence is a British matter. The Union, which followed the vote in 1707 of the Scots parliament to dissolve into a new legislature created in London, is the basis of the United Kingdom. If  Scotland leaves, following a ‘yes’ to independence in next year’s referendum on the issue, two new states will be created: Scotland, and the Rest of the UK (rUK), which as yet hasn’t thought of a name for itself. The Rest must have a voice on the terms under which their present nation-state is to be destroyed.

That voice will take the form of a negotiation. If the Scottish National Party, in its push for independence, had remained determined to have as little to do with those British institutions which Scotland shares as possible – the monarchy, the currency, defence and foreign policy – then there would have been a negotiation, but only one to sever connections and staunch what wounds would be inflicted by the severance on the rUK.

But that proud attitude, attended in the writings of nationalism’s intellectuals with much contempt for England, has been greatly modified. The monarchy will remain. Scotland will stay in Nato. The pound sterling will remain its currency. All of these shifts in present SNP policy, were they to be agreed with rUK, would depend upon technically and politically difficult issues for both parties, but particularly for the Scottish side. 

The monarchy would likely be the easy one. The queen would, presumably, agree to add another of several independent states to her formal suzerainty, and the arrangements would, presumably, be made with their customary smoothness and deference.

But what would remaining in Nato mean for Scotland’s defence posture? How far would it cooperate with rUK in continuing to host the nuclear submarine fleet and its onshore technical support at Faslane on the Clyde – since the SNP retains an anti-nuclear stance? Would rUK continue to wish to base the centrepiece of its strategic defence posture in a foreign country whose government might remain hostile to the technology, and which would employ foreign (Scottish) labour at the expense of rUK workers? 

The economic issues would be yet more difficult. Most of the oil extraction lies on what would become Scotland’s continental shelf, and thus any argument that Scotland take control of it on independence would likely carry in international law. But a decision has to be made, between using the oil after independence to fund the superior level of public services Scotland enjoys over England because of the 14 per cent more public spending per head it receives via the workings of the Barnet formula, or to put the revenue into a fund, as does Norway, against the day when the oil runs out, and when the interest from the fund can help support still relatively generous welfare and other payments. A new government of an independent Scotland would have an overwhelming temptation to do the former – since the second, while appealing to the residual Presbyterian spirit, would mean cutting back sharply on public expenditure (Barnet having been retired, to the gratitude of English taxpayers), not a grand beginning for a new state.

Further, using the pound would raise the same issue as has become painfully obvious within the Euro zone: that is, that to deploy a common currency in a zone where fiscal policies are largely independent, and where low interest rates allowed, indeed invited, the southern spendthrifts to spend beyond their pre-Euro means, was asking for trouble. Governments, including the non-Eurozone British one, have learned that lesson well: Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne both called for closer fiscal integration in a zone they had no intention of joining, since the health of the main trading partner is a vital British interest. They will not take a different view of Scotland: permitting the use of sterling, with the Bank of England as the lender of last resort, will be heavy with the kind of conditions the creators of the Euro should have insisted on, but didn’t. 

This is a short list of the most prominent issues: a full list of negotiating points would be much longer. Since that is so, and since at the end of the negotiation the Kingdom of Scotland is likely to have a very conditional independence, any savvy Scot must now ask him- or herself: is it worth the trouble? That question, in turn, breaks down into a number of subsidiaries.

Would there be economic advantages? With the Barnet top-up gone, oil would take its place: a real advantage, but with the tough decision described above waiting to be taken. Assuming, as would be likely, that the revenue forms part of general taxation, Scotland could find itself in the pickle which looms for Russia: dependent on a diminishing asset for funding social programmes which, without it, would not be affordable. That asset may decline more slowly than presently thought: a consortium of oil majors, led by BP, thinks there’s a big field west of Shetland island. So big oil could tidily boost little Scotland – at least for a while longer. It would certainly boost the SNP. It depends, however, on the price of oil – presently falling; given the slowdown in China’s growth, the discovery of large reserves of shale oil in the US and elsewhere and various recessions in Europe, it is unlikely to reach recent highs again soon, if ever.

Would there be other advantages, economic or otherwise? Yes: Scotland could – and probably would – cease to be part of a nuclear-armed power. The SNP has always believed nuclear weapons to be evil, and wishes to have nothing to do with them – though as members of Nato, it would, willy nilly, be under a nuclear shield.  It could reduce, or increase, the size of the Scots army (assuming these to be the Scottish regiments, though Scots who join the army go into many different regiments); it could create its own navy and air force – or have no standing army, navy or air force at all. It could, like Switzerland, have a citizen’s militia – each adult male armed with an assault rifle, kept at home - with a tiny professional core. Ireland has taken a middle course, with defence forces which are mainly configured for coastal protection and service in peacekeeping operations. Its army has some 8500 personnel with 13,000 in reserve, armed, as well as personal weapons, with light tanks and howitzers; the navy, 1150 strong, has eight offshore patrol vessels; the air corps, with some 1000 personnel, is mainly configured in support of the navy and army, has eight helicopters, seven turbo-prop aircraft with rockets and machine guns and two maritime patrol aircraft. Scotland might want to follow that example: it would be a well tried one.

Ireland is not a member of Nato – one of the small club of European non-members, including Austria, Finland, Malta, Sweden and Switzerland. Scotland – given that all its parties now including the SNP, are pro-Nato  - almost certainly would be, but would join Germany and Norway in not being pro-nuclear (these is no obligation to be so). So it would have the benefit of Nato protection and fewer obligations: and were it to emulate Ireland – whose stance is based on the assumption that, even with small armed forces and not in Nato, it benefits from protection which would, in practice and in the event of hostilities, extend also to it (or conversely, that neutrality wouldn’t help it) – then it would have minor expenditure. Ireland presently spends – on Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures - only 0.6 per cent of its GDP on defence, at just over Eu1bn, making it the 63rd highest defence spender in the world. This compares with the UK expenditure of c. £58bn, 2.6 per cent of GDP making it roughly joint fourth in the world with France.

Could it evolve a different tax policy? Yes: tax of all kinds would be within its control, though with the reservation entered above – likely to be significant – that the use of sterling would bring with it fiscal controls imposed by rUK. Even so, it could decide to increase tax to fund better public services – or reduce tax, to encourage individual enterprise and the creation of pro bono foundations, as in the US. The trend in Scotland post war has been quite strongly towards high public expenditure: but Scots, especially those on modest incomes, don’t like paying high taxes any more than anyone else. Given independence, and if taxes became to seem too onerous compared with what they funded, a revived party of the right with a tax cutting agenda could make headway.

Could it return to what had been its pride – an education culture superior to that of England’s, perhaps that of anyone else? Education has long been thought, not least by Scots, to be much better in Scotland than in England: that probably is no longer true. The best schools by A level (in Scotland, often Advanced Higher) results are in England and Wales - though since Scotland’s education system is already separate from rUK, and its schools rated separately, absolutely accurate comparisons are difficult. In global university rankings, only universities located in England feature in the top ten, besides US universities. In the QS rankings for 2012/13, these English universities are  Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial College London. The first Scots university in this ranking is Edinburgh, at 21 – a high score, ahead of all other European universities except the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (at 13). However, no other Scots university features in the top fifty of QS, while three other English universities (Bristol, Kings College London and Manchester) do. Two other Scots universities – Glasgow and St Andrews – are in the bottom half of the top hundred; as are eight English universities – Birmingham, Durham, Leeds, London School of Economics, Nottingham, Sheffield, Southampton and Warwick; and one Irish, Trinity College Dublin. That Scotland has three universities (all several centuries old) in the top 100 in the world against 15 in England shows that, on a strictly proportional (to population) basis, the smaller country is batting above its weight. But it isn’t any longer Britain’s education leader.

Scotland could decide to put large extra resources into education to try to make it, at all levels, among the best. Other small nations – as Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong (considered separate from China) – are in the top ten in the 2012 Pearson rating of ‘Best education in the world’. So, however, is a large country, Japan; and middle-sized countries, as South Korea…and the UK, at number six. Pearson’s education adviser, Sir Michael Barber, is quoted as saying that small size may, or may not, help: but what will determine quality is a long term focus on a culture of teaching excellence, with quite different regimes – relaxed and supportive in Finland, at number one, strict and disciplined in South Korea, at number two – but above all, an ‘underlying moral purpose’.

Scotland’s education had that; in his influential ‘The Democratic Intellect’, George Elder Davie sees the Scots 18th and 19th century educational tradition as in direct descent from a Presbyterian culture which stressed broad and close study and the widest possible inclusion of boys (always boys, then) from all classes: its distinctiveness, in teaching arts and philosophy for  years before a professional training, was seen as much superior to the English system, as well as essential to the national income. Davie writes that ‘the established (Scottish) system of schooling was popularly cherished as the chief asset of a poor country whose wealth to an unusual extent depended on the export of educated men’. 

Davie’s view, if right, would mean that a cultural/ religious ethic which included egalitarian elements (to be sure, attached to those of the true faith), national pride, and an economic incentive all had to be present to construct an education system as good as the Scots one was held to be – with conspicuous successes in the arts, philosophy and above all in the applied sciences and medicine (the leading lights not always, of course, the products of universities). That would be impossible to duplicate: some other combination of belief, will and resources would need to be developed. Possible, but very hard: and a largely independent system (though one, as Davie laments, much influenced by the English neighbour) has not seriously  lagged, but not led, the English in the 20th century.

Could the national spirit be revived? Quite likely.  Countries which have broken away from union with overweening  neighbours – in recent times,  Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States from the Soviet Union: further back, but closer to home, Ireland’s achievement of republican status after a violent exit from the UK  – reported an improved national culture, one able to be truly national and thus more self confident in their relationships with the outside world. There are counter examples – the two Slav states of Ukraine and Belarus have done badly, democratically and economically, when they left the USSR; Pakistan has not found any kind of stability after separating from India. But in a rich country with no hostile neighbours, Scotland bids fair to feel the national blood pulse faster.

Yet Scotland will be a multi-ethnic state – one whose diversity the SNP government has (with other parties)  celebrated. It has also been concerned to show itself a much ‘better European’ than the England-dominated, eurosceptic UK – and would thus presumably welcome greater integration with other EU countries. If so, it would have achieved statehood by leaving one Union, to find itself in another whose planned unification is as yet far from complete. And its nationhood would contain thousands of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who may, as many do everywhere, feel pulled emotionally and perhaps politically by their or their forebears’ native country. Thus the Scots national spirit, in the form it had been used to take elsewhere, would be heavily diluted.

There could be real advantages: but there could be disadvantages. Certainly, had Scotland been independent when its two main banks, HBOS and the grossly inflated Royal Bank of Scotland, collapsed in 2008, it would have been in a similar situation to Iceland, because their size had wildly outgrown the resources of a small country. Had Scotland also joined the Euro, it would have been in the same fever ward as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain.

National independence is not, of course, a matter of banks and budgets. Ireland, in spite of past miseries exacerbated by England’s policies, would likely have been better off financially for much of the 20th century had it remained within the UK. But by the beginning of that century, the wounds to its people, its culture and its dominant religion inflicted by its rUK were, or could plausibly be represented as being, too deep and unforgivable to allow continued union. The ruling class was disproportionately ascendancy Protestants: the economy had long been so poor that it forced waves and waves of emigration, creating one of the most influential diasporas in the world, especially in the US (much more visible and careful to retain cultural markings, if not quite as successful and upwardly mobile, than that of the Scots and protestant Scots-Irish). Independence met a deep seated need which, to be sure, as all these things are, had been carefully nourished by republican propagandists and heroes – but which could only succeed because sentiments in every class could, because of a pervasive national bitterness, relatively easily be swayed towards a republic.

Scotland has nothing of that. Attempts to construct a national martyrdom at the hands of the English must go back centuries, and be as highly coloured as Henrietta Marshal’s 1905 ‘Our Island Story’, the patriotic-mythic version of UK history for children. There was much English guffawing at the poll, published in December 2011, which showed that two thirds of Scots would be for independence if it would make them £500 a year better off, while only one fifth would so vote if it made them worse off: here was surely  proof of the Scots’ true and much storied meanness underpinning the rhetoric about freedom. But actually it showed how  low the independence stakes  are; so meagre, for most people, are the  patriotic or moral issues in the independence question that it makes very good sense to fundamentally vary one’s reaction to it for the sake of the price of seven litres of petrol a week.

In their soon-to-be published ‘Scotland’s Choices’ (Edinburgh UP), Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge mark the effort, after the last war, by the Labour government to create a national community based on broadly social democratic values of common provision, more or less standard throughout these islands. As they write, that provision was never perfectly equal: but it was roughly so, and is so (pace the Barnet formula) even now. A multi-national community, which no longer cared much about the defence of Protestantism and the spoils of empire, was able to develop further a Union whose great merit was that it had to confront, head on, strong national differences and absorb them into a national, but not an ethnically based, state. It failed in Ireland, with a long tail of terrorism still feebly if viciously twitching: but it succeeded, brilliantly, in both Wales (whose nationhood had for a millennium been submerged into England) and in Scotland, where nationhood was as well developed as anywhere in the world, but whose ruling class had the wisdom to realise that peace, cooperation and cultural mixing were preferable to the evanescent joys of a country which was, in any case, deeply split between highlands and lowlands, Gaelic and Scots-English and Catholic and Protestant.

In a poem included in his collection of essays, ‘Surviving the Shipwreck’ (1991), the writer William McIlvaney sees Scotland as a caged lion which, for a moment, hears and responds to the call of independence – but then loses heart, and ‘sleeps among the stinking straw today’. The poem was very much in the Braveheart mode: it saw Scotland’s self image and national pride as wholly calibrated against how forcefully it rejected the English. Alec Salmond, who had been happy to run with the Braveheart tide in the nineties, dropped it in favour of a ‘good but separate neighbour’ rhetoric in the 2000s: yet it still pokes out, as when, in a speech in Ireland last year, he claimed that Scotland and Ireland were alike victims of English nationalism.

The Union, as Alvin Jackson notes in his ‘The Two Unions’ (2012), was a ‘Scots invention’ (like ‘Rule, Britannia’, the product of the Scots dramatist James Thomson)  - as intellectuals who included David Hume ‘posit(ed) the idea of a shared and equal enterprise, and one in which Scots identity might by preserved and Scots interests sustained…the idea of a union partnership was looked upon with scepticism by the English generally, on the grounds that, as the richer and stronger power, more sacrifice would be required from them than from the Scots’. Both the Scots intellectuals and the English sceptics have been proven right: the Scots identity has been so well preserved, in distinct legal system, education organisation and (now less important) dominant religion that many foreigners believe it to be a separate country. And English taxpayers pay for the greater generosity of the Scots public services.  It was a Union which was not proposed as one that stirred the blood: on the contrary, it was entered into for sober, religious and pacifist reasons – and thus, in the nationalist revival, has been swamped by Saltire crosses, skirling bagpipes, tartanry and the evocation of ancient wrongs – wrongs, but romantic.

This kitsch stirs most Scots’ sentimentality, so much had it been part of the cultural environment of (especially) lower classes’ life. It’s an apparent irony that it – the swing and skirl of the Scots regiments, Jimmy Shand and his band, the drunken couthiness of Burns nights, the Sunday Post with the Broons and Oor Wullie, the great tradition of fun-poking and popular comics from the subtle Harry Lauder through the genial  Jimmy Logan, the super-patriotic Andy Stewart, the chameleon Stanley Baxter, the unsurpassable Chick Murray to the brilliant (in his comic prime) Billy Connolly – should now be in retreat, and that popular culture, including popular comedy, is more like England’s than it has ever been, while  Anglophobia is much more rife than it has ever been.

The SNP ideologues (though not the mass of the supporters) often scorn the kitsch, if not the anglophobia: they have been more concerned to promote, on the one hand, victimhood and on the other (closely linked) the narrative of a ‘Great’ Britain sinking into irrelevance, burdened with institutions and embedded reflexes of absurd imperial pomposity which prevent it from seeing that its only salvation is severance from Scotland and closer integration with Europe.  This narrative’s popularisation links with the long-running undercurrent of Scots’  pride: the multifaceted belief that the Scots mentality – more egalitarian, more rational, more charitable, more moral – was superior to the English even as forced to be subaltern to English power. Subaltern, through treachery down the ages: the charge sheet against the English includes the conviction that ‘a parcel of rogues in a nation’ (as the Burns martial-patriotic poem, ‘Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame’ described those Scots parliamentarians who voted for union in 1707) were bribed and browbeaten by the English and their Scots lackeys to take the decision they did.

Academic work has tended to the nationalist side – not only from political partisanship, but also from what Colin Kidd, Professor of Intellectual History at Queens University, Belfast, in his ‘Union and Unionisms’ (2008) calls a ‘non doctrinaire nationalist outlook…Scottish academics have paid vastly greater attention to nationalism than to unionism, out of all proportion to the former’s representativeness of public opinion. It would be hard to gauge the overwhelming dominance of unionism in Scottish political culture between the 1750s and the 1970s if one read widely in Scottish historiography, even harder if one immersed oneself in Scottish literary studies…the Scottish intelligentsia as a whole  tends to view unionism as un-Scottish and inauthentic, a form of false consciousness which is passively derivative of English values, aims and interests”.

Yet, as Kidd’s own work, and that of Alvin Jackson, show, unionism was nursed in Scotland and predated the high imperial period by more than a century. Not for the first time, politics has caught up with academic and creative work: the implicit nationalist drift in historiography, and the aggressive nationalism in the poetry and politics of Hugh McDiarmid and some of his followers from the 1920s onwards, creators of the ‘Scots renaissance’ (a movement now spent: the limpid work of Alastair Mackie – who died in 1994: see his ‘Collected Poems’, ed. Christopher Rush, 2012 – appears to be that of the ‘last of the makars’, or poets in Scots) have, like old moles, grubbed well and deep and engendered a massive political effect.

But in its political iteration, it has had a massive (within Scotland)  effect for small political goals. Scots nationalism plays very well in the media, both Scots and rUK, as well as foreign. It links instantly with stereotypes which are world-famous and which can be promiscuously borrowed: leaders of the Italian Northern League - a rightist separatist party which flourished, often as a partner in Berlusconi governments, in the 1990s and 2000s and is now much reduced after showing itself to be as corrupt at the top as the other parties which it flayed for corruption at the top - were wont to wear kilts and paint their faces a la ‘Braveheart’.

But its substance is so small: doing politics in aid of what for Scots will at best be a marginal improvement is a terrible waste of  political time and energy, a diversion of youthful idealism and older experience into tumultuous streams  which feed no useful reservoir but instead trickle down into now useless peat bogs. It is, of course, a considerable fact on the British ground: it has to be dealt with, by politics, officialdom, the academy, journalism and the citizenry in many thousands of differing ways.

But as a political pursuit, it has been and remains the mobilisation of a hunting party to catch a mouse. The good that Scots have done for the world, the innovations they pioneered, the breakthroughs in science, literature and philosophy, the treasure trove which was the 18th century Scots Enlightenment (a particular part of a British movement, but for some decades much the more focussed and fruitful part) make the current nationalist debate look really tawdry. As Tom Gallagher, a professor at Bradford University’s department of peace studies and a writer on Scots nationalist issues, told a recent seminar in Oxford, “there is (in the Scots debate) no idealism of the kind which founded the United States or Israel; there has been nothing like the Philadelphia debates; the discussion in Scotland is long on entitlements: indeed, entitlements and victimhood are at its base, while freedom is narrowly defined as independence from England”.

The sundering of Scotland and England, perhaps more desired, as one poll has shown,  by the English than the Scots, would be neither a tragedy nor a triumph. It would be a mistake, a changing of the subject from the larger problems of the world, problems to the solution of which a relatively large, relatively influential UK can and does make some contribution, a retreat into little nation cosiness with all the assumptions of big-nation protection and competence at global level that attitude presently makes. Less grandly, the shocks of the past few years have diluted, even destroyed, the easy assumption that small nations are best and that the European Union provides a strong bulwark, as well as a representation, for them.

Scots have done so much to fashion the UK into a force which can do some good: to retreat into insignificance when the challenges are so large is quite perverse. This is the more so, since the prompts for independence are so weak, and the disruption it would herald so large, so irrelevant to our shared British life.

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