Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Scottish independence is a wretched idea riddled with inconsistencies and ironies
The phrase "the country is falling apart" used to be uttered metaphorically by despairing old men. Today, it is literally true. Britain is falling apart. The leadership in the Scottish Parliament is determined to break away. The SNP have the advantage, whatever David Cameron might say or do in London. Give the SNP four more years of plotting and scheming in Edinburgh and the Union will have disintegrated.
Scottish independence is a wretched idea riddled with inconsistencies and ironies. Lets start with the most obvious paradox. Scottish identity is fundamentally an ethnic affiliation. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, now professes to be a multicultural and multi-ethnic state. Is it not strange that this modern reinvention of British identity was unable to purge itself of its oldest ethnic division? One would have hoped that multicultural Britain was made of sterner stuff. If the Scots and English can't live together, one wonders about the prospect for peace among more recent ethnic arrivals.
In order to gain independence, the SNP simply need to win the majority of votes in an arbitrarily defined region known as Scotland. However, the border was, for over a 1000 years before the glorious and mutually beneficial Act of Union, a matter of violent dispute. The current delineation is a mere historical accident. What if the southern portion of Scotland votes against independence? Doesn't the border region also have a right to self-determination? The Orkneys or the Shetlands Islands didn't vote for the SNP. Can't they go their own way so long as a majority votes in favour of their own independence? Likewise, Berwick upon Tweed should be seceded to Scotland. Borders are treacherous affairs.
This principle can be taken to absurd levels. Here's another rhetorical question. Suppose the good people of Bradford or Liverpool wanted self-determination and voted to leave the United Kingdom. If it is good enough for Scotland, is it not also good enough for other regions of Britain too? In principle, is there any reason why the Island could not be a conglomeration of city states?
The SNP also assumes that future membership of the European Union is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps they are being a little too presumptuous. There are other countries in the European Union that have their regional difficulties; Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Romania. It might be in the interests of Spain to veto Scottish membership in order to dissuade Catalonia or the Basque country from exploring the independence option. Italy has its Northern league to worry about, while Belgium has Flanders and Wallonia.Romania has the nastiest separatist issue in the EU. It has a large and frisky Hungarian minority that were arbitrarily cut off from the homeland after the first world war. Other fragile European States might find it useful to punish Scotland in order to dissuade other regions from taking separatism to its logical conclusion. If this sounds far-fetched, it is worth remembering that Spain still refuses to recognize Kosovo because it may encourage Catalonian separatism.
Let's brush aside this potential difficulty and assume that Scotland will be a future member of the EU. Whle Scotland may have acquired the outward raiment of sovereignty; in reality it will have traded capitals. Instead of London, Scotland will be governed from Brussels. The SNP might argue that London has become irrelevant and rather than negotiating with the impotent government in Westminster it would be better to deal directly with the monster in Belgium. In truth, it is a fair point and perhaps the strongest argument in favour of Scottish independence. However, the British people could come to a better solution by repatriating powers and giving the Scottish people a genuine voice in Westminster. Regrettably, British politicians - north or south of the border - don't have the stomach for that kind of independence struggle.
The newly independent Scottish state will have some difficult decisions to make. The first one will be the choice of currency. It will have three options; issue a national currency, adopt the euro or keep the pound. The latter two options will hand over monetary control to foreigners. A Scottish pound would buttress independence but would come with its own difficulties. In particular, the costs of doing business with England or Europe would be much higher.
The newly independent Scotland would also have to do without the fiscal largess from England. The SNP might argue that Scotland would gain oil revenues from the North Sea. However, England might have a thing or two to say about that. Look closely at the border between England and Scotland on the East Coast. The last stretch conveniently points north eastwards. England could plausibly argue that a large part of the North Sea actually belonged to England and not Scotland. That dispute could become very nasty.
Scotland may find answers to these immediate questions, but it will remain a minuscule economy on the fringes of the North Atlantic. Scotland, with its fetish for socialism, its overpaid stroppy workforce and large intrusive public sector will be an unattractive place to invest. Cut off from England, it will be marginalized economically. A post independence Scotland will stagnate.
The SNP might harbour the illusion that separation will be amicable. Certainly, it will be peaceful. No one in England wants to hold Scotland in the Union against its will. But once they are gone, that is it, they are on their own. There will be no bailouts from London. There will be no special relationship with Edinburgh.
Objectively, Scottish independence makes no sense whatever. England and Scotland have lived together peacefully for over 300 years. Both countries have prospered in the Union. Geographically, Britain is a small island. It is united, linguistically, culturally, and historically.
Nevertheless, rationality and common sense is unlikely to win the day. Unfortunately 300 years of good government will count for little. There is something fashionable and radical about the idea of Scottish independence. The moment has arrived. Its novelty and glitter will win the day. The SNP need only win one referendum and United Kingdom will fall apart. Once the Union is shattered, it will be impossible to restore it.