Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Separatist Sirens in Scotland..and England

Much is being made of the development of a small lead for the SNP in the opinion polls ahead of next years election to Holyrood. In addition there is said to be small majorities in favour of independence on both sides of the border. The way some tell it, the United Kingdom is headed for inevitable dissolution.

So, it is a relief to see a much more balanced analysis from Magnus Linklater in The Times.

The key point is that while the idea of independence might be emotionally attractive, the practical realities would be deeply unpopular and as a result, even were the SNP to be able to form a government at Holyrood next year, they would be highly unlikely to win a referendum on independence. The support for the SNP is support for an opposition- and as the election draws nearer, even that lead in the polls may prove illusory.

To a certain extent the increase in the support for the SNP reflects the final despair of the Scottish Conservatives. The classically liberal elements of the Scottish Conservatives have seen the success of the liberal policies in the Baltic countries and now believe that Scotland could aspire to the same Über-Liberal nirvana- as an independent state. Unfortunately the economic policies of the SNP are based on the Social Democrat centre of gravity of Scottish politics. The radical nature of Liberal policies is not likely to be loved by the Socialist wing of the party, so ex-Tory entryism is unlikely to capture the heart of the SNP- despite their dreams.

The SNP stands for only one thing: independence; but against lots of things,including many things that provide Scotland with jobs. Even if they could gain power, they are likely to prove factional and unstable- defections and disagreements are the norm for the SNP. The fact is that separatist politics has a long way to go before it can mature enough to create stable economic or even constitutional policies for Scotland- it still can not decide whether Scotland would be a Republic or not. In short, it seems unlikely that the SNP alone could carry Scotland to independence without a significant change in the current conditions.

Of course one of these changes might be a backlash in England. There are two sources for discontent south of the Tweed- one is the question of local government and the other is a national question.

The grumbling about the perceived subsidy of Scotland has become a roar since the Holyrood Parliament was established. Of course the fact is that any constitutional settlement should take into account the whole of the UK, and the advent of assemblies or Parliaments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has left a glaring omission: England.

Originally the idea was that English regional assemblies would fill the gap. However the primary identification for most English people remains with the county. Sports,especially cricket, remain organised by counties. "Eastern Region" masks intense rivalries between Norfolk and Suffolk; "South West Region", stretching from Gloucestershire to Cornwall, can barely be said to have a common identity at all. If local government is to have local roots, then there is a case for much stronger county governments, which can cooperate amongst themselves on an ad hoc basis where appropriate, rather than the devolution of Whitehall to regional bureaucratic hubs. Then a weaker "English Assembly" could sit as a committee of the House of Commons.

I put forward the idea, since it strikes me that the one size fits all approach to local government is clearly not appropriate. Most English counties have populations around a half a million- and several are over a million- a level that is greater than several individual member states of the European Union. Although the British civil service has split itself, to some degree, in order to work under unelected regional groupings, the fact is that the regions remain unpopular and regional assemblies have already been rejected in referenda.

The national question is bound up in sense of English grievance about the whole idea of the UK. Personally I find Conservative complaints about "the whinging Jocks" pretty irritating. It reflects the lack of confidence that repeated defeat is instilling into many Conservative minds. "Since we win a plurality of votes in England, should we not control England, and let Scotland separate?". I do not understand such weak minded self indulgence. The United Kingdom stands for many positive virtues- not least the idea that nations can work together harmoniously. Our long history together has seen lows- the slave trade, some aspects of colonialisation- but also enormous success- the rise of industry, liberal politics and a culture of liberty and tolerance. Our shared institutions include everything from the RNLI to the BBC, and this is social capital that takes years to build, but which can be destroyed all too easily.

Real leadership involves speaking up for those shared values- leaders of all political groups should remind the British people constantly of the value of our shared civic identity. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, supporters of devolution, have been far more forthright in supporting the UK than the Conservatives, who opposed it. This reflects a political calculation that is profoundly dangerous. The vacuum that the weakness of the Scottish Conservatives is creating is a window of opportunity for separatism- but with vision and leadership the separatist sirens can be beaten- on both sides of the border.

13 comments:

Will said...

"Since we win a plurality of votes in England, should we not control England"

It's always amusing when the Tories use this argument given that they didn't win more seats than Labour in England but still show no signs of favouring PR.

Anonymous said...

The SNP is a catch-all party at this stage, with independence as its raison d'etre. Once that is achieved, the party will dissolve into the proper philosophical blocks. But for now, that one goal is important enough to bury the differences between republic/monarchy, left/right, nuclear/non-nuclear, etc.

Norway had a successful split from Sweden and things have been otherwise rather smooth. There's no problems at the border, even with the hundreds of thousands that live across the border. Would Norway have been better off to stay in a Union with Sweden? Scotland can use that example and find its own way.

Plus, think of this. Scotland gets rid of the excuse to use the sassanach as a reason not to innovate and succeed, and England gets rid of the marauding Scots taking over its political positions -- another great excuse. The Union has been used more as an excuse than anything.

Cicero said...

I do not think that Sassanachs stop us from being innovative now, and the problems of Scotland: economic social, political and moral are not going to be solved by the magic bullet of independence.

Scots have far more control over our own affairs than we had before- so I would like to see us making the most of our potential today, rather than going to the blind ally of the SNP, who will devote more energy to the design of stamps than to real, fundamental reform.

JPJ2 said...

Cicero says "The United Kingdom stands for many positive virtues- not least the idea that nations can work together harmoniously."
I have no trouble with Scotland working harmoniously with England and the other nations of the UK. However this seem to result in a major restriction on being able to work with all the other nations of the world. For example, Scotland does not have a place at the UN table nor at the European Union top table.

I also find the use of the word "separatist" offensive and, more importantly, ridiculous. Cicero are all the 191 countries in the UN "separatists"? I suppose they are, but I bet you would not call anyone from Norway, Switzerland, even the USA, such to their faces. Why do not unionists recognise the way the world IS heading rather than ignoring the fact that there were 80 members of the UN in 1960 and today there are 191.

Cicero said...

jpj2

1) I would call myself a Federalist, not a Unionist.

2) The power and influence of smaller nations at the UN or anwhere else is very limited

3) The relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK is not the same as its relationship with Norway or anywhere else- we are linked by language, culture, humour, and thousands of institutions in a way that Scotland can never be linked with anywhere else.

therefore to argue for independent states for Scotland, England or other parts of the UK is by definition

4) separatist

Sarah said...

The idea that the Conservatives are less supportive of the Union than Labour or the LibDems is laughable. The Conservatives are by and large Unionist through and through and prefer Britain to England despite the electoral liability this entails.

Cicero said...

Sarah- that would explain the wholsale defections from the Conservatives to the SNP then?

If you look at deeds, not words I would say that the Conservative government inflicted massive damage to the Union- and they continue to do so.

Anonymous said...

But Cicero, by your argument then why should Ukraine be free from Russia? They also share many things that Scotland and England share. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians live and have become Russians and vice-versa; much like the Scots and English. Why should Slovakia split from Czech? Why should Crna Gora split from Serbia?

Sure, Scotland and Scots have plenty of potential today with the gradual devolution and improvement of investment environment. However, when things go sour economically, London will take Scotland as a secondary issue. Plus, the Olympics will be a major disaster and will be a disaster for Scotland too.

And think...independence will get rid of Gordon Brown overnight...

Cicero said...

The difference between the countries that you name and the countries and those of the UK is that all those countries were in oppressive relationships- the suppression of national identity was also a supression of civic rights and freedoms. The recovery of such freedoms led to the establishment of independent states.

Scotland has always retained its civic rights and freedoms and therefore the question of national independence was (and to my mind still is) less urgent.

JPJ2 said...

Thank you for your reply to my earlier post. My response, following your numbering is,

1) I am content to call you by your chosen title of Federalist rather than Unionist, but you should reciprocate by calling me a Nationalist not a Separatist.

2) It isn't very limited to have power over your own affairs. I do not believe that an independent Scotland would have invaded Iraq.

3) None of these are going to disappear with independence.

4) If the description were not pejorative you would not be using it. After all, if you call someone a Scottish Nationalist, everyone knows what you mean.

As I said in my earlier post, the trend is for the emergence of more and more independent states, not fewer and fewer.

Cicero said...

jpj2- to answer your points in no particular order.

It is certainly true that there has been an explosion in the number of nation states, but the idea of what a nation state is has also changed drastically over 60 years. The African or Pacific Islands nations have acheived independence but have ended up de-linking themselves from the global economy as a result. For many, independence has been an economic and social catastrophy, and politically meaningless, since the states are chaotic and defenceless and economically subservient. So Independence per se is not automatically a good thing- it depends on the social and civic capital in any given national society.

I can be regarded as a nationalist- I beleive in a Scottish polity- which is why I am a Federalist and not a Unionist, since the Conservative Unionists only recognised a British polity and rejected any idea of a Scottish polity. As a Federalist I see multiple identities: Scottish, British and European as natural to the idea of Scotland. I do beleive in Home Rule and not devolution: that legitimacy flows from the will of the Scottish people upwards and not from the British polity reserving powers unto itself.

So the difference between us is that I see the Scottish polity has having sufficient in common with the polities of the other nations of Britain for us to wish to preserve the special links between us, within a reformed British constitution. You, as I see it reject any British constitutional identity for Scotland- to me that is quite literally a separatist agenda. I beleive that the interests of the Scottish Nation are best served by a Federal relationship with the rest of the Britain- you do not, but we are both nationalists since we beleive that our different ideas should be rooted in trying to serve the best interests of Scotland.

As for Iraq- that seems to me not relevent, since a Liberal Democrat led Britain would not have gone to war there either.

JPJ2 said...

Cicero said "As for Iraq- that seems to me not relevant, since a Liberal Democrat led Britain would not have gone to war there either."

There are a number of realistically probable scenarios in which this would have been/would be far from irrelevant e.g. suppose there had been an SNP/Liberal coalition at Holyrood at the time of the 2003 Iraq war. Both opposed the Iraq war. Suppose at the same time there had been a Conservative/Liberal Democrat or Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition Westminster goverment with the Lib. Dems. as the minor party. Even with the Lib Dems in government in both places the war would still have gone ahead unless Scotland had declared independence, as both the Labour and Conservative parties supported the invasion.

That said, I accept that your belief in a Scottish polity gives us a great deal in common.

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