Ellie McHugh assesses the implications of the impending referenda on self-determination in both Scotland and the wider United Kingdom
The United Kingdom stands at the nexus of two great debates on the nature of sovereignty: this is somewhat problematic, as her political and media classes much prefer consensus and the careful papering-over of cracks, rather than their exposure to the full glare of public scrutiny.
Let’s start with Scotland where the hope of independence from the wily Sassenach oppressors waxes strong, fuelled by promises of North Sea oil revenues and Scandinavian models of social democracy with their efficient hospitals and excellent schools.
Looking back three centuries to the Union of the Crowns, it’s hard to present Scotland as a unanimously willing participant. Indeed, outside of a small political class in Edinburgh, many of them bankrupted by the disastrous failure of the Darien Colony and desperate to secure their position, opposition to Union was understandably overwhelming.
Meanwhile, among the English political classes, a United Crown had one overriding purpose: to prevent Scotland ever allying with a continental power. Less than twenty years earlier, the Glorious Revolution had dethroned James III in favour of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. The Old Pretender, however, retained a court in France at the expense of Louis XIV, and with it his claims to the Crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland, claims which would continue to be held through two successive generations.
To be honest, a gerrymandered union between unwilling partners, one bankrupt and the other fearful of war on two fronts, hardly sounds like the basis for a successful sovereign state. The two major Jacobite uprisings of the next forty years would seem to support this pessimistic assessment, and, were it not for other factors at work, the Union would likely have failed.
However, the Acts of Union had left the Scots legal and education systems intact, allowing the development of a distinct intellectual culture which, combined with greater exposure to the more advanced economy of England, led to an increase in national wealth and prosperity. By the middle of the 18th century, the Scottish Enlightenment was in full flow and young Scots from Edinburgh and Glasgow grasped the fresh possibilities offered by London and the colonies. Whilst an older vision of Scotland faded into the pages of romantic fiction, the sense of Scottishness remained intact and strengthened amidst imperial expansion and industrial revolution.
Two centuries later this sense of Scottishness is still strongly entrenched, as are its counterparts in England and Wales. This, apparently, comes as something of a shock to the political class in Westminster if recent remarks by Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary are anything to go by. Hence why the whole debate seems straight-jacketed by economic considerations, where independence is really an issue of sentiment.
Alex Salmond and his supporters know this. In their minds, an independent Scotland is necessary for the Scottish people to fully express their sense of identity. However, in playing the commentariat’s game, they look to the small but highly competitive social-democratic nations of Scandinavia, and see there the model for a prosperous nation. Why shouldn’t a nation, congenitally leftward of her southern neighbour, enjoy the same social model and attendant success as Norway or Sweden or Denmark?
Perhaps, one’s tempted to speculate, because Scotland isn’t a Scandinavian country and her socialist traditions are rather more… strident?
The Norwegian model is probably the most appealing of those on offer: a fellow oil producer, whose $810bn sovereign wealth fund is both a testament to national prudence and the largest fund of its kind anywhere in the world. Now prudence is a very traditional Presbyterian virtue, and one can easily imagine the Jute barons of a previous century admiring the industry and sobriety of modern-day Norway.
However the Norwegian government – in common with those of other Scandinavian countries – runs a very different economy to that favoured by Scottish tribal socialism. There is a small or non-existent fiscal deficit; private sector provision of public services; tight restrictions on welfare; highly competitive corporate tax regimes; strong social pressure towards work; etc. The avowedly social-democratic Scottish Nationalist Party would have difficulty adopting a number of these policies.
Unfortunately, if this is the prescription for successful independence – and a case can certainly be made along these lines – then a ‘Yes’ vote in the September 18th referendum could be the beginning of an acrimonious Scottish national debate, but without the comfort of having the ‘auld enemy’ to blame for failure.
Matters are further complicated by the faith that the SNP place in the idea of a strong, independent Scotland remaining within the European Union, to many people south of the border the epitome of a centralised, bureaucratic, sovereignty-destroying superstate. Indeed, as Nigel Farage recently pointed out, there’s precious little independence down that path – certainly no more than under existing arrangements within the United Kingdom. Amidst the rousing cries of Braveheart, there’s more than a hint of ‘et tu, Brute?’
Then there’s the matter of fiscal transfers. In recent years we’ve seen the southern Eurozone blighted by the unwillingness of its more affluent (and prudent) northern members to fund economic restructuring without severe austerity measures. By way of contrast in the UK, Scotland is well-served by the Barnett formula and by common goods such as HM Armed Forces.
As an alternative, it’s been mooted that Scotland and England could form a ‘sterling zone’ or currency union. However the relative size of the England and Scotland economies would leave most of the power in any such relationship firmly in England’s hands. So yet again true independence would prove elusive.
Be that as it may, the Parliamentary Union is probably more endangered now than at any time since the Jacobite era, as predicted by many who opposed devolution and the restoration of a separate Scottish Parliament. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. When people have their own Parliament, they naturally tend to want it to have the power to directly address their own concerns, and the pressures unleashed by devolution will inevitably lead to either an independent Scotland or the emergence of a more federal structure for the United Kingdom as a whole.
Meanwhile, in England, there’s a deep vein of resentment at the power wielded by the supranational European Union in determining laws and setting government policy, particularly with regard to unrestricted mass immigration from other EU countries, climate change amelioration, and the increasing intrusion of Human Rights legislation into areas which have always been considered either matters of personal conscience or areas where the common law has long-established precedent.
Euroscepticism in its current form grew out of the Conservative Party’s Maastricht Treaty rebellions in 1992 and 1993, setting the fractious tone for John Major’s second term as Prime Minister. The weakness of the Major government lead to a mainstream media focus on the Conservative element of the Eurosceptic movement, but there were always prominent voices across the political spectrum who viewed the project of ever-closer union as the death-knell for British sovereignty and parliamentary democracy.
Initially many of these voices had been largely supportive of continued membership of the Common Market whilst rejecting political federalism: however, by the late 1990s, many eurosceptics had come to believe that full withdrawal from, and the negotiation of a new relationship with, the EU was necessary, based on free trade after the model of either Switzerland or Norway.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the three main parties of British politics are all committed to membership of the European Union, and therefore by definition to ever-closer political Union, as well as eventual membership of the Euro. They don’t like to admit this, and use a variety of weasel words and misleading statistics to appear otherwise to the British public.
And yet opinion polls repeatedly show that a majority of the population want a referendum on this matter. A referendum repeatedly promised but to date undelivered.
So on 18th September 2014 those resident in Scotland will have their chance to vote on whether they wish their nation to remain a member of the United Kingdom. Whatever way they vote I wish them well, for self-determination is a core British liberty.
This then beggars the question: when will the British people get a chance to have their say over continued membership of the European Union? Or is our venerable Parliament doomed to become little more than a glorified Parish Council?