Scottish independence: what’s the question?Posted: August 25, 2014
It seems simple enough. Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No? Except that is not simple at all.
With less than a month to go until the referendum, the debate seems to be hung up on issues of detail that cannot possibly be settled until the negotiations that would follow a Yes vote. Ahead of the second debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling this evening, the BBC identifies five unresolved questions: the currency, oil, border controls, the EU and Trident.
For me the questions seem much more fundamental, and much more numerous, than that. This is the perspective of a non-Scot who does not have a vote or any special insight. But here’s what a recent stay in Edinburgh (with Yes-supporting friends) got me thinking:
What does Yes mean? For the SNP, it seems to mean the ability to run its own domestic and foreign policy while retaining the security of a larger entity through membership of the European Union and of the Pound through a currency union with the rest of the UK (rUK).
That’s not a lot different from the position adopted by the many European countries that are members of both the EU and the Eurozone but remain independent (though critics of German-imposed austerity might beg to differ). However, it is the polar opposite of the position on independence adopted by UKIP, whose founding principles are leaving the EU and having a national currency.
Alex Salmond argues that a post-independence currency union is in the interests of both Scotland and rUK but that he will keep the Pound come what may. Scotland is part of a Union that includes the Pound, so why should it have any less right to use it than rUK? The No campaign – when it’s not busy refusing to discuss a currency union – counters that it’s a funny sort of independence that will see decisions on interest rates taken in a foreign country. Then there’s the little matter of the national debt – and whether a Scotland denied the use of the Pound has any responsibility to pay its share.
Beyond this though, Yes supporters point to the scale of political engagement at the grassroots and to a turnout that could be as high as 85 per cent. Could a Yes vote be the start of a different way of doing politics?
What does No mean? The referendum offers a straight choice of Yes or No. A third question – something like ‘do you want to transfer more powers from Westminster to the Scottish parliament, including tax and welfare but excluding defence and foreign affairs?’ – was ruled out at the start of the campaign on the insistence of David Cameron.
Scotland already has new tax powers that it can use from 2016. However, all three main UK parties have now signed a joint declaration promising ‘to strengthen further the powers of the Scottish Parliament, in particular in the areas of fiscal responsibility and social security‘. In other words, Unionists who want as much as possible decided in Westminster have nowhere to go and a No vote would mean exactly the sort of DevoPlusQuiteaLot that Cameron once ruled out.
Or would it? Without going into huge detail, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all seem to have different ideas about what should be transferred and the detail makes a huge difference. Take, for example, the fiscal issues associated with differences in the demographic profile of the UK and Scotland. These were summed up by one Scottish comedian I heard in Edinburgh this month as: ‘If we all start eating our fruit, you’re fucked.’
The Yes campaign argues that the UK parties cannot be trusted to deliver. Given that at least one would-be Tory leader has said outright that is against handing any new tax raising powers to Holyrood, it may have a point. If there is a No vote, especially if it is by a healthy majority, will UK politicians really follow through on this rather than take a fresh look at the Barnett formula?
What is the real question? The rival campaigns have attempted to create their own subtext to the official one.
For Yes, it’s something like ‘Do you agree with the way Scotland is being governed?’ How can you when it’s run from Westminster by a government dominated by a party that has only one Scottish MP? Under devolution, Scotland has developed distinctive policies such as free tuition fees and it has protected the NHS from the privatisation that is taking hold in England. All of that could be thrown into doubt if the Tories win the 2015 election and even if they don’t the record of New Labour after 1997 suggests that not much will change. Put simply: do you want more Thatcher, more privatisation, more bedroom tax? Even if you think DevoMore has something to be said for it, do you want no say over more Iraqs and more nukes? Yes becomes No.
For No, the implicit question is something like ‘do you want to take a gamble on the future of Scotland?’ That certainly seemed to be the negative subtext behind the effective points about the currency made by Alistair Darling in the first debate and it is the one I found pushed relentlessly in the Scottish media (with the exception of the Herald). However, No can also become Yes when (as above) the implicit question is more like ‘do you want to have the best of both worlds?’
What about Ireland? If the referendum had happened before 2007, this would have been a key question. Celtic Tiger Ireland might have been held up alongside Norway as an example of a small country that is both independent and successful.
As it is, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the references to Ireland tend to come from No campaigners asking what would have happened to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland (and Scotland itself) without the financial strength of the UK. Salmond responds to this by arguing that RBS’s problems were caused by the capital markets division based in London – and that Darling was chancellor at the time.
However, Ireland offers a precedent for what can happen when one part of the UK leaves the Union (albeit after a war not a peaceful referendum). And Ireland is also highly relevant to some of the unanswered questions identified by the BBC:
- On the currency, Ireland continued to use the Pound for five years after independence before introducing what became the Punt in 1927. However, a sterling link was seen as key to maintaining a stable environment for trade and the Punt was worth exactly the same as the Pound for another 50 years. Things only changed in 1978, when Ireland joined the ERM as a precursor to joining the Euro. (See here for more detail).
- On border controls, Ireland and the UK have a common travel area. This means that citizens do not need a passport to travel between them, although there can be selective checks.
- On defence, the UK retained treaty ports in Ireland for 16 years after independence. They were only handed back in 1938, after the Irish Free State had become the Republic.
If Ireland illustrates some of the risks of independence, it also shows that independence is a process of negotiation and it can evolve over time.
Where do I stand? I’ve carefully sat on the fence throughout this blog and the fact that I don’t live in Scotland allows me to stay there. If I did have a vote, I’m pretty sure I would vote Yes because that seems to me to be the best way for Scotland to determine its own political future free from control by governments it has not voted for. As I don’t, I hope Scotland votes No – as the best way of saving the rest of the UK from the consequences of the governments that the South East of England does vote for and because i feel British. But then I find myself wondering whether either scenario is quite that simple. It seems fitting that this blog should end up with two different answers (for the same reason) plus yet another question.