There’s a day to go before the Scottish independence vote. The opinion polls are fairly even; the bookies are backing “no”. But it could go either way. I’ve swung both ways on the issue, but I’m now firmly hoping that “no” will win, though I think that the campaign has demonstrated that the United Kingdom is broken, and needs a comprehensive constitutional fix, which may be hard to achieve.
My reasons for favouring “yes”, initially, were sort-of quasi-Rousseauvian. Democracy thrives better in small states where government is closer to the people; large anonymous states, whatever their political form, have distant governments often captured by special interests. That’s a general inclination, to which I would add a sympathy for Scots who are sick of being ruled by Tories they didn’t vote for and who hope for a more inclusive and socially just society. I doubt their hopes will be realized in an independent Scotland though.
For me, though, the balance of reasons decisively favours “no”, for three reasons: abhorrence of nationalism, a dislike of the idea that smaller entities claiming full state sovereignty should proliferate, and disbelief at the economics of separation, which will not turn Glasgow into Stockholm.
First, though the nationalists have kept the Braveheart references fairly muted during the campaign, there’s a strong sense that some of the emotional impetus behind the campaign draws on nationalist myth and nativist sentiment, coupled with resentment at the English. This sense has been bolstered by the way some of the “yes” campaigners have treated their opponents, as “traitors” and “quislings”. The image, tacitly encouraged by nationalists, of Scots as the victims of English colonial oppression, on a moral par with such victims elsewhere (Kenya, India etc) is hogwash. The Act of Union was the result of Scotland’s own colonial failures but launched a partnership in imperialism in which Scots played a leading role. No clean hands there. There’s some ground for Scottish resentment at their experience under Thatcher (poll tax, deindustrialization) but these are, generally speaking, experiences that they share with their northern English counterparts. This resentment grounds the myth that Scots are naturally or essentially more leftie and social democratic than people elsewhere on the island. But go back a few decades and the Tories were the majority party in Scotland. The dynamic there is the same as in places like Liverpool, where people like to think of recent political sentiment as an expression of a deeply rooted local culture, even though it pretty obviously exists as a recent reaction to relative decline. Resentment at getting Tory governments they didn’t vote for also seems misplaced: there was a Scottish Labour Prime Minister as recently as 2010, and many in the south of England didn’t vote for him (that’s just the way things work out in a democracy). Far from being disadvantaged, Scotland enjoys higher per capita public spending than England (and lots more that many places in northern England do). Finally, though Scottish nationalism builds on myths of English oppression and indifference, its modern source is the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s and a desire to assert national rights over natural resources: i.e. local greed. The general principle isn’t a good one.
Second, though I have a prejudice in favour of small countries, I don’t necessarily favour a proliferation of small fully-sovereign states. Given global problems, both economic and environmental, small independent sovereign states can get in the way of the kind of cooperation necessary. What we need is less-than-sovereign entities embedded in larger structures … like the UK or the EU. Devo-max (more devolved powers to a Scotland within the UK), the probable outcome of a “no” vote gets us closer to that outcome; “yes” takes it further away. Scotland won’t necessarily find a place in the EU easily (given what other states such as Spain want) and it makes EU exit for the rUK and the rise of a nasty English nationalism more likely. Additional sovereign states also mean additional hard borders. I agree that it looks unlikely that free movement within the island of Great Britain would be restricted, but there’s a complex and unpredicable interplay with other issues (the EU treaties, Schengen, the rise in English nativism). International human rights law only recognizes a right to free movement within the boundaries of states, and states have (unfortunately) full rights to regulate cross-border movement. That puts the freedom of Scots to seek work in England (and the English to seek work in Scotland) in the hands of venal and opportunistic politicians, and there are no guarantees of how that would work out.
Third, the “yes” campaign hasn’t been able to come up with any convincing arguments on the currency question. In any post independence negotiations, rUK will play hardball, bolstered by a rise in anti-Scottish sentiment. If rUK is unwilling to form a currency union, Salmond has the options of simply using sterling unilaterally, of launching a Scottish currency or joining the Euro. None of these options looks great, all of them look likely to be accompanied by the kind of austerity that would make dreams of Scandinavia-on-the-Clyde look even more ridiculous than they already are. (If there’s a yes, I predict a spate of books in about ten years by embittered Scottish lefties complaining about their “betrayal”.)
So I hope there’s a “no”; “yes” could turn things very nasty, both in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. But DevoMax brings its own problems. If Scotland gets so much devolved power, then why should similar local control not be vested in other parts of the UK? In short, what we need is a federal structure with Scotland, Wales and a selection of English regions being the constituent Länder. Eine Bundesrepublik Britannien, in fact. If Ed Miliband and Labour are smart, then they will make the call for a UK-wide constitutional convention part of their campaign for 2015. If not, then the question of Scottish independence will keep on coming back until “yes” wins.