OPINION

The Idea of Scottish Independence - Work in Progress

August 18, 2007
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Self Determination, freedom, independence etc. are very emotive words. The emotions come from the fact that one is being ruled by somebody unwanted. Like the old quote goes, “it might be in your interest to enslave us, but how is it in our interest to be your slaves”. When a group decides that it had enough of “foreign” rulership, it revolts and then if they are lucky, a new country is born. This birth of a new country is not a given and the process is quite difficult. But one of the crucial factors behind the success of any national independence movement is a deep belief in the separateness of the nation -, a deep faith that they are being kept down or oppressed by the ruling nation and a strong desire that their nation’s destiny will be better guided by themselves. That and few other bits and bobs with a dash of luck will get you your own country. What wont get you independence is a very wishy washy statement, which effectively says: "well, ummm, perhaps it might be better to be independent, but we aren’t so sure, but we think we might be able to do better, so there is a possibility, a chance, not 100% sure, but still …" Unfortunately, the opening shot for Scottish Independence in the 21st century is not really a shot, but a limp dishrag of a document.

The Scottish Government, lead by the Scottish National Party (SNP), took power in Scotland and lead its government since early this year. This is the first time that a Scottish party has actually won power in the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. The SNP has never hidden its primary desire to make Scotland independent from the United Kingdom and despite not being able to achieve a full majority in the parliament, it was able to form a government. As soon as it came to power, it started working on its primary objective, namely start work on independence and it released a discussion paper on the three possible shapes of Scottish Independence.

The paper talks about the current Scottish Parliament, what will be involved in extending Scotland’s devolution, what an Independent Scotland will look like, how the constitution of the British Isles will change, what kind of legislation and referendum will be required and ends with some waffle about a national conversation. I wrote my initial thoughts down when I first read the summary and then I spent some time reading the document carefully from soup to nuts. Then I went back and concentrated on the chapter relating to what Scottish independence will look like and the reasons given about why they should be independent.

My impression of Scotland from reading the history books, watching the, documentaries and movies, talking to Scottish people, etc. etc. was of a proud nation, with a long and strong history, with its own language, blood sweat and tears, with its own throne and kings, betrayal and literature, of poets and sagas, of stags and big swords, of kilts and clans. It is a nation in its own right. It has its own flag, it has an awe-inspiring geography of its own, it has produced the next thing to sliced bread – namely single malt scotch whiskey and frankly, if there is one nation which can lay claim to having a separate independent country, it is Scotland. And then they go and produce pap like this? Makes one cry, it does.

Besides being a mind-numbingly boring dishrag of a document, it suffers from some core issues which indicate to me that their thinking is very incoherent or they have not understood what democracy means in Chapter 1 itself.

The first complaint is that the UK Parliament is geographically remote from Scotland, but that will be the case with every Parliament. Until and unless you actually have a tiny island with everybody on it within shouting distance, the parliament will always be remote. What makes the SNP think that the Holyrood Parliament will be close to the Outer Hebrides’ Islands?

  1. Decisions are made via a majority across the United Kingdom. Again, nothing wrong with this, as if Scotland is independent, then decisions for every part of Scotland will similarly be taken based upon majority voting
  2. “Democratic Deficit”, as the overall country was being ruled by a party which may not have much electoral support in Scotland. This happens in almost every democracy. See the USA, where President Bush was elected by the centre of the USA. Does that mean that there is a democratic deficit in the mid western states? The fact that a republican governor has been elected does not mean that the democrats can say that there is a democratic deficit. The ministers take an oath to serve the entire country without bias and without favouritism. To take an example, in the Highlands and Islands, the SNP got its lowest vote; so does that mean that there is a democratic deficit in the Highlands and Islands area?

If they are now making such elemental mistakes in their basic formulation of democracy and independence, it does not bode well for the later chapters where they will try to define what Scottish Independence actually means. And so it proved in the second chapter. I do agree with their point on 2.12, that there should be fiscal autonomy down to the lowest level possible/feasible. In other words, money should be raised closest to where the source is. So for example, local councils should raise the majority of their funds from their municipal areas, counties from their county areas, etc. unlike now, where the local financing is minute and there is a fiendishly complicated grant system from the central government. So, yes I agree that Scotland would like to have tax raising powers rather than rely on the central government to send money. So insofar as the concept of proportionate taxation for proportionate representation is concerned, there is definitely a democratic deficit in over-centralised United Kingdom. Just look at the mess of local council financing for example. But remember that this situation will also arise when Scotland becomes independent, the difference being that people will moan at Holyrood rather than Westminster.

Section 2.18 seems to be talking about a desire to join the Euro. Now I do not understand why they would want to do it, but fair enough, if they ever wished to join the Euro and England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not, then they would not be able to do so. But given the fact that the United Kingdom has prospered by being outside the Euro area seems to have gone past these chaps. And they seem to have forgotten that if they do join the Euro area, they cannot run a large deficit (which they WILL have to do, if their spending plans are anything like what I suspect), and the monetary policy of one size fits all will impose far greater constraints on Scotland but more about the European angle later.

Section 2.19 says that if independent, Scotland might be safer, as it can drive its own, say Firearm policy, but no proof that that will actually happen. And local police can impose locally calibrated anti terrorism and crime policies.

Sections 2.22 onwards till 2.29 talk about Scotland being a fairer Scotland with Scotland taking responsibility over employment and trade union law, health and safety, equal opportunities, consumer protection, post office, social security, pensions, etc. Now my basic question is, just what is the UK doing that is unfair to Scotland? Are the British health and safety laws less stringent than what Scotland desires? Each point is intellectually incoherent and only a vague argument is made of why that point justifies Scottish independence. It sounds like, well, there is actually no problem right now, but still, we would like to do it. And as we will see towards the end, this “we” is a small section of the populace.

Then 2.30-2.32 talks about a healthier Scotland. And they want to increase health service funding. Well, nothing stops them from doing it right now and they are doing it under the current law anyway, so what makes them think that the current situation is wrong? Also, typically they prefer to throw money at the problem rather than try to educate the populace about non-clinical and non-medical ways such as diet, anti smoking and prevention of eating those deep fried mars bars! Sections 2.33 to 2.38 are vaguely saying that if Scotland is independent, then it will be greener. Again, there is no argument about why this would be so, or why is belonging to the United Kingdom making Scotland brown or less green. A smarter Scotland is proposed under sections 2.39 and 2.40, without any argument about why this will suddenly change, because the minister for skills and education will be sitting in Holyrood rather than Westminster. In any case, this is already devolved down to Scotland, which is why they have different rules for say undergraduate student funding.

Scotland is supposed to be a stronger Scotland post independence because they will have control over foreign policy and can deal with Europe directly and can control immigration and citizenship directly. But again, there is no reason given why the current situation is bad or how they will make improve it, just a vague, statement, see this (emphasis and commentary mine), “The United Kingdom Government’s policies on immigration and citizenship must reflect the situation across Britain, especially in the south east of England and London. In Scotland, there are very different economic, demographic and social issues relevant to population and immigration (LIKE WHAT?). Within the United Kingdom, it might (MIGHT? YOU WANT TO BE INDEPENDENT AND YOU AREN'T SURE?) be difficult to devolve responsibility for immigration and citizenship to Scotland, but increased powers to attract new migrants could (COULD? AGAIN. YOU WANT TO BE INDEPENDENT AND YOU AREN'T SURE?) allow the Scottish Government to address Scotland’s needs in an appropriate way.”

I am afraid this is not really up to scratch and the rest of the document is also similar in its intellectual and emotional level.

The last comment, section 3.25 and 3.26 states that the Queen will remain the head of state and as far as I can make out, most of the other links will remain. “On independence, Her Majesty The Queen would remain the Head of State in Scotland. The current parliamentary and political Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would become a monarchical and social Union – United Kingdoms rather than a United Kingdom – maintaining a relationship first forged in 1603 by the Union of the Crowns.” So they want the same head of the state, the same kind of financial, economic, social links with England, want to be in the EU and share defence, communications, infrastructure and other links. So please remind me again why they want an independent country?

And another thing, they think that they will get European Union membership by virtue of the fact that they are ex-members of the United Kingdom. I am afraid it does not work like that and the EU lawyers are saying that Scotland has to go through the entire process of membership all over again. And that, my friends, will raise the cost of independence all over again. More to the point, the membership of Scotland will be held hostage to referendums in countries like France. Let us not even talk about the severe economic dislocations that will happen to Scotland which is too tightly entwined with England if Scotland wants to go to the Euro, while England stays with the Pound Sterling.

But I am sure they must have judged that the Scots want independence with a deep seated desire, a burning feeling for independence. But not so. Support for Scottish Independence seems to be vacillating wildly. A poll in November 2006 found 52% of Scotland wanting independence and 56% of English voters wanting Scotland to be so as well. But a Scotland wide poll in August 2007 showed a huge drop in support for independence with only 31% supporting Independence. And delving deeper into the poll, not even a single region showed a majority in support, with the highest support being only 43%.

The debate for Scottish Independence has degenerated into a car-boot sale bargain session. And it is mainly based on economic grounds, like how much money for the North Sea Oil, or the European subsidy, or the tax raising powers, or the level of investment in public sector or stuff like that. That is so disappointing and boring! It is like negotiating a contract for sewerage services or recycling service level agreements. Puke! Puke!

Where are the poets? Where are the story masters? Where are the people who can sing the songs, write the epics and sagas of how wonderful Scotland will be when it finally becomes independent? Where are the national feelings? Where is the emotion in this document? Where is the call for a national coming together of shared patriotism? Where is the mark of the Scots? Where are the town criers and short pithy slogans? Where are the martyrs and where are the hoarse voices? Where are the processions and demonstrations?

Take a leaf out of the independence movements of Ireland, USA, India, Pakistan and other countries. Where are the missing giants such as Jefferson, Collins, Nehru, and Jinnah? Where are the stirring words such as “tryst with destiny” uttered by Nehru? See what the US Declaration of Independence says in its first paragraph, “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Now that is a declaration of independence, not this cockamamie bureaucratic wishy washy, vague, boring, intellectually incoherent document. It is passionless, emotionally stunted and is as exciting to read as reading the wallpaper pasting instruction sheet. Very disappointing! If this is the level of political leadership that Scotland has, then no wonder that the English want to get rid of Scotland and the Scots do not want to be independent.

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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The Idea of Scottish Independence - Work in Progress

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Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

 

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