Stop the World, Scotland wants to get on!
The Scotsman, February 18th 2012
Scotland has been all over the world news these last few weeks: the independence debate, David Cameron’s high profile intervention, and of course the saga of Glasgow Rangers FC.
What has been missing from the Scottish debate is an engagement with the wider environment beyond Scotland, both in relation to the UK and internationally. In times it almost seems as if the debate is being undertaken, irrespective of opinion, in a vacuum.
The prevalent Scottish debate amongst politicians, commentators and seasoned observers is to talk of Scotland in isolation. Whether unionist, nationalist or neither, many people embrace, often without understanding it, an ‘independence of the mind’.
This imaginary Scotland is a self-determining territory which operates without much relation to the British state. The crises of the euro zone and European Union go unstated. And even more fundamentally, the global economic crisis, and that of Western enlightened liberalism and social democracy, usually pass without comment.
There is a political subtlety and ahistorical nature in this. The journey Scotland is currently on, and which post-Cameron, everyone seems to be signing up to, of more powers and self-government, isn’t as many assume, cost-free.
Scotland in the union has had to undertake over the years a delicate balancing act between Edinburgh and London. Scotland pre-devolution, under numerous Secretaries of State for Scotland and governments has enjoyed quite a bit of clout in relation to Westminster and Whitehall. It had a Cabinet minister; it had a Whitehall government department; more importantly, it had political relationships and leverage.
Over the post-war period and particularly post-1979, this carefully balanced system began to break down. Scots saw their interests and wishes being less and less effectively addressed and dealt with.
This built up pressure for change and was a contributory factor in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 which gave us a greater say over domestic policy. It also affected this balancing act, weakening the Scots voice and influence in London; the Scotland Office was diminished, as was the standing of the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. More crucially, Scotland was basically forgotten across Whitehall, seen as having less of a British voice and being more detached and doing its own thing.
This set of dynamics of Scotland accruing more powers, but losing voice and power in the corridors of British government has to be factored into current debates. If we are to explore the prospect and detail of full fiscal autonomy we have to understand that complex trade-offs are at work here, and that such change would entail a fundamental dilution of Scottish status down south. This would happen formally with the continued reduction of Scottish MPs at Westminster, and consideration of ‘English votes for English laws’, but even more at the level of how British government departments worked.
Then there is the issue of how we relate to London and the South East, even if independent. Some anti-independence voices argue when will this Scottish debate ever end. The answer to this concern is that part of this debate is about how we deal with the UK as a deeply unequal, unevenly developed society, and central to this is London and the South East.
Even an independent Scotland would have a relationship with the world city London and South East. We will always have to face living on the same island the challenge of how we relate to London and prevent wealth and power being over-concentrated in it. This is part of what implicitly drives the debate now, and will go on whatever our constitutional status.
Then there are the external dynamics which will play a part in shaping Scotland’s future. What happens if Greece is unable to implement the current austerity programme, defaults, or is driven out of the euro by the European Commission?
What would occur if the euro itself goes down, or perhaps a more likely scenario, fragments into a core euro zone of Germany-France and a few others, and an outer set of states who have to leave, led by the unfortunately titled PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain)?
Then there is one of the great watershed moments. What impact would British withdrawal or serious detachment from the European Union have on Scotland? This is at least a possibility after Cameron’s disengagement from the European Union project at the end of last year, and use of the British veto.
Any debate on this has to frame that Scottish and English public opinion are not that different on this; both are Eurosceptic. Yet while English political debates are shaped by fear of Brussels encroachments on ‘the British way of life’, Scottish politicians are comfortable living not just in a union, but a multiplicity of unions, which involve sharing sovereignties and are more aware of Europe as a positive.
Then there is the final other external variable visible at the moment: the prospect of a US backed Israeli attack on Iran to thwart its supposed nuclear weapons ambitions. Such an attack would have devastating effects on the region, peace and would one surmises be carried out with the backing of the UK Government.
If this was to occur and the worst consequences flowed from it, this would have huge impact on the shape of the Scottish debate to put it mildly.
In these turbulent times it is highly likely that external events will frame and shape a significant part of, and possibly the outcome of the Scottish debate.
The first two Euro issues would on balance probably deal a blow to ambitions of independence. But the second two would bring to the fore the problematic character of the British state, its isolationism in Europe and fanatical pro-Atlanticism, and overall aid the argument for independence.
Scotland is not an island. Despite the rhetoric used by some unionist campaigners no one is seriously proposing ‘separatism’ and ‘separation’.
Scotland is connected to and shaped by the external world, and part of the Scottish debate is about a large part of the Scots public having a lack of trust and faith in believing the British government and state has the interest or ability to look after and protect the values and interests people believe in north of the border.
It would be a sign of welcome maturity if increasingly our politicians and other leaders would position Scotland in a wider context, talking about London and our relationship to it, the British state, and crucially, the wider world. Maybe we could all live up to that age old retort of Winnie Ewing many years ago, ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on!’