Guan’s blog


Should Scotland be an independent country?

06 Sep 2014

“Between 7am and 10pm on the 18th of September,” SNP politician Jim Sillars told Scots, “we are totally sovereign. We have power in our hands for the first time in our history. Whether at one minute past 10 we remain sovereign and powerful or whether at one minute past 10 we’ve given it all away once again and we’re powerless, that’s the key question.”

It is a question I have been obsessing over for months, though I know next to nothing about Scotland. With the latest polls it seems the rest of the Internet has caught up. The referendum has been set up through a law passed by the Scottish parliament in 2013, following what is known as a Schedule 5 order. In addition to creating 28 new crimes, the law commits the further crime of suggesting that ballots be set in Arial. (If I were a Scottish voter who lives in an area with such a ballot, I would probably vote no.)

If a majority of Scots—and EU/Commonwealth citizens resident in Scotland—vote yes, then on 19th of September… well, officially, nothing happens. There is no immediate legal effect. There is only the symbolic effect is that a “yes” vote will be seen as the Scottish people expressing their clear desire for self-determination.

The supreme court of Canada ruled in 1998 that there is no right of unilateral secession in that country. The same is likely for Great Britain. The court also found that if the people of a province clearly expresses their desire to separate, then the government of Canada has to negotiate the terms in good faith. The British government will have to do the same.

In 2000 Canada asserted the right to decide whether a referendum question is sufficiently clear to express the desire to separate from Canada (something that can’t be said for the 1995 one), and to decide after the vote whether the majority was sufficiently large, suggesting that more than just 50% may be required. The UK did not do that for the Scottish referendum. It sure looks like a majority of one is all that is required.

This means that none of the details are settled today and everything you hear from either side is a campaigning and negotiating stance. It’s not great to have to vote on something without knowing exactly what you are voting for. The alternative, to pre-negotiate all the terms, is unworkable, because the British government has already demonstrated a willingness to be excessively inflexible in the hopes that Scots will vote no. In fact they would not be willing to negotiate at all.

Scots overwhelmingly elected the SNP to govern them and to negotiate independence on their behalf, and they will have to trust them to do it well. It’s not that the details of the terms of independence are not important and would be nice to know in advance, but barring exceptionally punitive terms, most of the effects can be changed by a sovereign Scotland in the long run. The binary question of independence is still most important. The whole point of independence is that you get to do whatever you want.

Should Scots vote yes? Yes. The reasons I, as an outsider, think so can be easily discounted. If you are interested, you could do worse than read two outsiders, Jon Worth and Matt Yglesias, on this issue. The key question is the one Jon states: Will Scotland be better governed from Edinburgh or London? Catherine Butler takes that question at face value and proposes moving the union capital to Glasgow to save the United Kingdom. Which is so crazy it just might work, but is unlikely at this stage.

Britain is weird. Every background article on Scottish independence will mention the bribes of 1706-7, empire (though Scots were complicit in that and worse), the perfidy of 1979, Maggie Thatcher and the poll tax. Even apart from how Scotland has been treated, Great Britain is financially one of the most centralized governments in Europe. Maybe the union could have been saved with more devolution and even federalism, much sooner, but it may be too late for that now. Britain has nuclear weapons and thinks of itself as a superpower. Britain is undemocratic: Alex Salmond likes to complain that for most of his life his country has been ruled by people he didn’t vote for; Brits can say the same thing. Britain is horrible.

Jon Worth quotes Paul Henri Spaak saying, “in Europe there are only small countries left. Those that know they are small, and those that do not know it yet.” (Is France an exception?) As Adam Ramsay argues, if Scotland becomes an independent country, it will be free to be a normal, small, northern european country. Being from such a country, one which even has insane, self-destructive currency arrangements, as an independent Scotland is likely to have initially, I know that such an entity can be viable and successful. SNP has a neoliberal streak, so it will fit right in with other dominant parties in the nordic countries, another one of which also has abysmal monetary policy. The party wants to increase public spending and preserve the post-war British welfare state. Its tuition-free universities exist alongside great inequality and gated communities in Aberdeen.

Alex Salmond says he wants a currency union with the rest of the UK. I’ve argued in the past that that was just a ploy to get out of its share of the UK’s debt; I was at least one-third kidding, but it seems that James Mirrlees takes that idea seriously. 18 other European countries, including one in the British Isles, have joined a currency union, with varying degrees of success. It was a bad idea, but with few exceptions, those countries still exist and should still be considered some of most successful in human history. None of them would prefer to be part of Great Britain. Having a stupid currency regime will simply put Scotland in the shoes of a majority of the EU it wants to remain part of.

Scotland has a huge banking sector compared to the size of its economy. If there is another financial crisis, the Scottish government may not be able to bail it out. A lot of banks will move to London before independence, which would be good. If they don’t, well, Iceland was in a very similar situation, and that was disastrous, but they’re still around and annoying us with their volcanoes, and GDP per capita similar to Scotland’s. Also, read this by Simon Nixon. He has nothing but contempt for the Scots, but his conclusion seems to be that in the event of a true disaster the UK may have to bail out Scotland anyway, just as they contributed to the Irish bailout in 2010.

When analyzing the British fiscal union, we also have to look at the likely alternatives to independence. It seems almost certain that some sort of devomax will be on the table. If Scotland has control over most taxes and spending, how inclined will the British government be to bail out Scotland—or subsidize it in any way—without extremely punitive measures? With devomax, the fiscal union is hollowed out too. (Or maybe devomax is an empty promise. That really makes you trust the English. “The core of Britain is England,” Churchill said in 1943. “There is the source of the recurring pestilence.” (I may have doctored that quotation.))

If Salmond does manage to negotiate a currency union, there will be strings attached. There is a weird tendency to suggest that the fiscal restrictions imposed would negate independence completely. If Westminster decides to allow a currency union on terms that are unacceptable, he may yet reject them; this is part of the negotiating process. I have no idea if Salmond is a master negotiator, but he has been freely chosen for the job.

Scotland in a sterling zone would certainly be less than fully independent. That is also true of Scotland in the European Union, and the EU is one of the most important reasons why an “independent” country the size of Scotland would even be viable in this day and age. Every EU country is subject to similar fiscal restrictions. None of those countries would give up their independence. And currency arrangements can be changed (easier in the sterling zone than the eurozone).

There’s some suggestion that EU membership on independence day is impossible. Again, that’s a negotiating stance. It’s inconceivable that 5 million EU citizens would be involuntarily stripped of their rights as union citizens; countries have left the EU before, always voluntarily. They will have to negotiate a sui generis solution. My own take is that Scotland will be an EU member on independence day, but there’s no way that happens by March 2016.

Some critics also argue that there will be no negotiation at all, that the rump of the UK can just dictate whatever terms it wants. The implication is that maybe Scotland will get zero North Sea oil revenues, and that Alex Salmond will not be able to get any of his demands met. These people are nuts. Mute, unfollow, block and report as spam.

Finally, there is the offensive notion that the people of England should get to vote on Scottish independence too before it goes forward, and that the referendum is illegitimate because David Cameron felt politically pressured to allow it because of Scottish nationalism. No Englishman should ever get to vote in a referendum on any question, no matter how important: he should lie in the bed he has made. Such a referendum would also render completely impossible the possibility of peaceful exercise of the right to self-determination.

Among the truly important unresolved questions are the national anthem of an independent Scotland. The consensus on Twitter seems to be that it has to be either this, this, this or this. I don’t see how anyone could vote without a resolution to this issue. We also need to know the name of the rump UK. My suggestion is simply “The United Kingdom.”

Yo SCYOTLAND to get a yo when Scotland votes for independence.

Scotland’s draft interim constitution. Robert Kuttner on Scotland. How many states will Europe split into? More on Scottish independence after the financial crisis; Scotland attempted a federal union with England in 1705-7. This is a detailed take on Scotland’s EU membership, but it loses credibility when it suggests Brexit is a remote possibility. BBC snowfalls the referendum. An even nuttier proposal for Scotland’s currency. John Swinney is calm. Gordon Brown says independent Scotland will have “neo-colonial” ties with UK. Scotland’s main export. War? Could Scotland join the Nordic Council? A monetary history lesson. What happens to the national lottery? Tactical kilt.

Scotland will probably miss the Rio Olympics because they will not be able to get their national olympic committee set up in time. Athletes who qualify may be able to compete as independent Olympic athletes, as happened after South Sudan was established and the Netherlands Antilles dissolved. The next Winter Olympics are in 2018, and the Scottish curling team should be able to participate then.

Should Scotland be an independent kintra? Result nae yet kent.