Op-Ed: Scotland – The Caledonian Question

By Juan Kotze 17 September 2014

A democratically-minded person should support the view that the people of Scotland should get the government they feel they deserve. And in this sense, the independence referendum is a red herring. The (only) question to be put on the 18th is “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, but “Is the United Kingdom in need of constitutional reform?” would be more appropriate - not least because the disillusionment with Westminster, mainstream Establishment politics is by no means limited to Scotland. By JUAN KOTZE.

“…if we take the issue of the role of the state, what we find is that the history of Scotland in the twentieth century has bounced from one extreme to the other and back again. The oscillation between these extremes has meant that much of the periodisation of Scottish society has been determined by one form of economic policy cleaning up the mess of the previous one.”

-Richard J. Finlay

“…everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous.”

-Paul Krugman

As the process of bringing Hadrian’s Wall out of mothballs might commence on Thursday, the result of a long process in which the Scottish National Party has shrewdly outmanoeuvred Westminster and played on the unpopularity of the succession of centre-right United Kingdom governments (Blair’s Labour included), we may ask what this could broadly mean.

Ultimately, Scots devolutionists will be the winners. Largely self-governing since the late 1990’s in a number of spheres already, the UK coalition (with Labour support) has now rushed to place more devolutionary rights on the table, as the so-called Devo Max option. Holyrood’s writ would not run though defence, foreign policy, immigration or a wholly independent treasury under such a dispensation, but increased power of taxation would result in a quasi-independent state—we would almost have to revive the 19th century Imperial concept of suzerainty. Such a regime would entail Scotland remaining in the European Union, using the Pound Sterling and enjoying NATO’s security umbrella. Heads Alex Salmond wins, tails David Cameron loses.

A further result would be that the West Lothian question, a constitutional debate dating from 1977, asking whether non-English parliamentarians should enjoy the prerogative to vote on matters exclusively affecting England, would demand urgent attention. English devolution from the United Kingdom, if you will, as represented by an exclusively English parliament, asks fundamental questions. A federal structure, with a written constitution, must surely loom for the greater political project.

It is helpful to remember that Scotland was never a colony or occupied territory, and what is commonly seen a secession debate actually amounts to the irredentist dissolution of a political union between sovereignties. For complex historical reasons dating back centuries, the English and Scots monarchies ended up vested in the person of one individual, James VI. The Union of the Crowns was followed by the Union of the Parliaments just over a century later, in 1707. Counterintuitively, the SNP is not a republican movement; the Queen should remain head of state.

As such, the independence movement’s impetus does not draw on ethnic chauvinism, or the nationalistic impulses of previous eras. Tartan and bagpipes have not played the role an outsider would glibly expect; rather a quite modern nationalism of the left has presented itself. It has also been characterised by a kind of British (an adjective the meaning of which has also been much debated recently) flavour one may have thought has been lost. Civilised, restrained and thoughtful, interest and public engagement have reportedly been extremely high, both sides pushing a bewildering array of arguments. This is unusual for a developed western democracy at the grass roots / burgher level—social ennui and political apathy are widely considered hallmarks of the developed world’s malaise. It illustrates that when the electorate believe their vote matters, or can make a difference, they will participate. Turnout is estimated to be in the region of 80% and reports make it clear the excitement is real. The view that the referendum represents a rejuvenation of mainstream politics in a cynical country is widely held, and presents voters with an actual choice beyond the stale and ineffectual Conservative/ Labour, Democrat/ Republican or ANC/ DA mirages with which we are familiar.

A democratically minded person should support the view that says the people of Scotland should get the government they feel they deserve. And in this sense, the independence referendum is in many ways a red herring. The (only) question to be put on the 18th is “Should Scotland be an independent country?” whilst “Is the United Kingdom in need of constitutional reform?” would be more apposite, not least because the disillusionment with Westminster, mainstream Establishment politics is by no means limited to Scotland. The Welsh and Northern Irish may also well ask why greater autonomy is not a choice placed before them.

The ballot is one way in which Salmond has outmanoeuvred Whitehall, the other one being the inclusion of 16-year-olds as being eligible to cast a vote. An additional question on the ballot, offering further devolution or Devo Max, would have offered a win-win scenario by defanging the SNP, and giving unionists and nationalists the world they all really want. This represents a stunning failure on the part of the UK’s political machinery (you do not cut off your foot if your shoe is broken!), not to mention the Left’s abandonment of its long-held principle of international cross-border class solidarity. The latter’s counterparts in the UK should feel particularly betrayed. Unions’ growing irrelevance in the face of global capitalism third decade of victory only underscores this point.

The dominance of London, both politically and financially, is a concern in England itself, particularly in the north, having increasingly less in common with the globalised metropolis that deprives the rest of the Union of oxygen, and is widely considered beholden to the City and self-serving elites, who themselves look to the United States for global leadership. Since Scotland’s population is 60% and 8% of that of London and the UK respectively, it cannot speak of a marriage of equals and has not seen its political ambitions reflected in London in many years.

The House of Commons’ first-past-the-post constituency system means that despite the Scots’ view of themselves as centre-left social democrats, neoliberal and pro-American governments populate Whitehall. Iraq was unpopular in Scotland, and right-wing reforms emanating in London have appalled many, as they did in the north of England, all the while still de-industrialised by Thatcherism. It is the wish to decouple from this dominance that is the impetus behind the devolutionists, despite the fact that nationalism has historically embarrassed the left. It also helps to understand that the SNP, policy-wise, are not the true heirs of a diminished Labour Party. As an aside, the Obama administration has been curiously silent on the referendum, perhaps in tacit recognition that American support for the status quo could only jeopardise the No campaign’s efforts.

But decoupling carries risk. Apart from prestige, Scotland will lose clout on the international stage, taking its place amongst the Estonias and Slovenias of the world, even though it is developed and affluent (although very unequal). The ‘Yes’ campaign has glossed over what the morning after looks like, finessing the issue by redundantly pointing out that Scots will finally be in a position to decide for themselves. Decoupling from neoliberal structures in a globalised world could also be a fiction, especially for a country so closely integrated with the rump state. Such integration would have to survive independence in hard-bargained treaties with the rump, treaties in which the Big Finance has indicated they would ensure their interests are secure, and in which Scotland would be forced to take on its portion of the UK’s £1,3 trillion debt.

EU membership, whilst likely, is not a given, as 28 potential vetoes to stymie other domestic secessionist groups (notably in Spain) face them. There is no legal precedent for a portion of a member state to claim it is automatically entitled to entry. NATO would demand 2% of its budget.

The polls themselves have made predictions difficult. Whilst for example, American presidential elections are now called to astounding accuracy, the swings thus far are neither insubstantial nor necessarily meaningless. Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that the ‘No’ camp has blown a substantial lead over the last few months. Many commentators consider their campaign to have been negative and based on scaremongering. The traditional British reticence to define “Britishness” and its values, and its view of patriotism as callow, initially embarrassed Unionists from articulating a more romantic and less economic -pragmatic view of Great Britain.

Last week’s visit to Scotland by Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did, however, bring out some more visceral arguments. And whilst considered negative, their campaign has been mud-free. They have not attempted to turn the referendum into a Alex “Nelson Mandela of the North” Salmon popularity contest: a sophisticated electorate have implicitly understood that a ‘Yes’ vote does not necessarily imply future SNP dominance, in the same way that the Australian electorate, whilst supportive of the idea to remove the Queen as their head of state, pushed back in 1999 at the idea of populating the new Presidential position with unpopular elite figures.

The smart money, judging by the bookies’ odds, remains firmly with ‘No’, but the high turnout and likely small margin of victory, would mean that no victor could claim a resounding mandate, and neither could the loser blame apathy.

David Cameron would have to resign, despite being on record as stating he would not. No Conservative unionist prime minister could do otherwise. As a bitter consolation though, independence would hand the Tories a 20-seat majority in the Commons on a platter. Labour would be the big losers for many years to come, and Tory efforts to test the waters to leave the EU would be encouraged, partially to head the populist UKIP off.

There is a sense among many that independence may be an idea that’s time has come, although not in the sense under consideration. Independence has now become a mainstream idea, buoyed with new legitimacy by neck-and-neck polls. During the ‘Yes’ vote’s recent surge, polls showed majority support for independence amongst the younger generations. The older generation remains staunchly unionist— their natural small-c conservatism rendering them unwilling to risk a lifetime’s asset and pension accumulation in an arguably unnecessary state-building exercise, one that is highly likely to be shorn of mighty sterling’s stability one way or another. This is not insignificant, since Scotland’s population, like that of western Europe in general, is old and aging. Independence’s message has at times been jejune—but swallowed by the young—low taxes and Scandinavian welfare policies can only be familiar bedfellows in the shorter run. As the UK’s pensionable age rises, the deficit increases and the famous North Sea oil depletes, the subsidisation provided by the status quo resonates.

The pound is already under pressure as the ‘Yes’ vote grows, but the stock market has seemingly shrugged it off. In a globalised, interconnected world, this should not surprise us too much. The Scots will find that being dominated by London is one thing, being dominated by the Brussels-Berlin axis is another. The Greeks will tell them. Countries with 5 million people dance to the tune of the WTO, not the skirl of the pipes, and surrender sovereignty to multinationals through such corporate vehicles such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to a greater degree than those with stronger hands.

True independence requires your own currency—but here the SNP have failed to hold their nerve, or have recognised that Scots would lose theirs. There are briefly, four options. Keeping the pound, based on a historical view that “it’s also ours” and makes sense due to existing economic integration, has been unequivocally ruled out by London. It would also leave Edinburgh beholden to the Exchequer as regards to deficits and last resort lending. Monetising, or pegging it, as Panama does with the dollar, accomplishes this without London’s permission, but leaves them as a fiscal satellite as well. Join the euro and submit to Merkel and Frankfurt’s financial mandarins, and help bail out whoever’s next to fold in Europe. Go it alone, and devalue yourself. At least the whisky will be cheaper. DM

Juan Kotze is a South African lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland. He writes in his personal capacity.

Photo: A bakery employee places a ‘question mark’ cupcake between a Scottish Saltire cake (L) and a Union cupcake (R) at a bakery in Edinburgh, Scotland, 16 September 2014. Polls are showing that the Yes and No camps are neck and neck in the Scottish Independence referendum. Scots will vote wether Scotland should become an independent country 18 September. EPA/ANDY RAIN


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