Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Reasons to oppose Scottish independence, #4: it is not the Scots' 'settled will'


A nation is a construct: a living, breathing, warts-and-all set of contracts between human beings. It must be held together by ties of fellow-feeling, loyalty and reciprocity, especially if it is to exist and thrive within the framework of a new and fledging state.

A newly-independent Scotland looks like it will lack that feeling of 'all-in' communality - that sense that all citizens are part of it, have agreed to its nature, and assent to its traditions. It's be a major problem of state-building in the years ahead if Scots do vote to secede from the United Kingdom.

Take a look at the results of the 1997 referendum on devolution. You can look it all up local authority area by local authority area if you really want, but we'll save you the bother. Every single area voted for both the creation of a Scottish Parliament and for that new parliament to have tax-raising powers - except Orkney, which demonstrated its traditional independence of Edinburgh by (narrowly) voting against the tax-raising powers. It was and had long been the 'settled will' - in revered Scottish Labour leader John Smith's words - that Scots should govern their own domestic affairs, while remaining in the UK for the purposes of running the social security system, organising Britain's defences and managing the currency.

No such consensus exists today. We know from previous polls (though they are all a bit out of date) and other evidence that (at the very least) the Borders, Fife, the North-East including Aberdeenshire and Orkney and Shetland will all vote no. Other areas look perilously close. Only in central Glasgow and in Dundee can the 'yes' camp really be sure of carrying the day and (seeing as a great proportion of Scots live there) that might be enough. Even the capital, Edinburgh, may vote 'no' - leading one to wonder what it is to be 'Scottish', and where and how 'the Scottish' live, breathe and define themselves.

In so far as any agreement does unite Scots, three-option opinion polls show that by far the greater number of Scots would rally round the option of 'devo max' - for everything, including tax and borrowing powers, to be run from Edinburgh. Only responsibility for defence and the currency would remain in Westminster. It is this deep longing to remain within the British 'family of nations' that explains Gordon Brown's last minute intervention in favour of a (watery) form of 'devo max' - which may or may not come too late - as well as the Scottish National Party's (deeply suspect) promises that they will 'keep the pound' and maintain some completely nebulous 'social union'.

But that option isn't on the ballot paper. David Cameron and Alex Salmond went for a high-stakes all-or-nothing shoot-out in the Edinburgh Agreement under which we now labour, and that's all there is to it. Scots have to decide how best to get to their desired destination: independence under the same monarch, trying to use the pound without any control of the Bank of England? Or Mr Brown's 'devo max' plan, hurriedly assembled but passionately advocated by the former Prime Minister himself? Here at 'Public Policy and the Past', we would suggest that the latter option is more likely to unite rather than divide Scots, lessen the finger-pointing and the raging, and form a good, sound basis for co-operation in these islands. It is up to Scots themselves, but if they are happy to go it alone on the say-so of Glasgow and Dundee alone, their road to statehood may be a steep and bitter one indeed.

One thing's for sure: the fate of the United Kingdom now rests on this single question.

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