Scottish independence

Tue 22 July 2014

On September 18th 2014 people resident in Scotland will be asked "Should Scotland be an independent country?". I am not in favour of independence as currently proposed, partly because I am concerned that it is really driven by nationalism, but also because I think the possible benefits are not (yet) worth the risks. This post sets out my thinking around two key questions: what are the main benefits and risks; and who and what will shape a newly independent Scotland?

Before going further, let me first explain my background. I was born in Glasgow, moved away, and later chose to return to the city so my wife and I could raise our children here. However, my mother was from Iran and my father was born in London and his parents were Irish immigrants. Perhaps this mixed ancestry is why I have almost zero sense of national identity. Not only that, I also struggle to see how national identity adds much to progress of humanity through history. In fact, I see it as a limitation that needs to be overcome.

The onus is on the people pushing for independence to set out their plans, and, for the most part, this has been done by the SNP - the Scottish Nationalist Party - who currently govern in the Scottish parliament. They published their white paper in November 2013.

This brings me to my first problem: if Scotland does become independent, it will mainly be shaped by people with nationalist sentiments. (Please note 'mainly', I'll address this qualification later.) Many of my yes-voting friends are clearly motivated by their sense of national identity, and some will openly admit that they are going to vote yes with their hearts and not their minds. I don't dismiss it as the "Braveheart" vote, but instead respect such honest and acknowledged irrationality, because, like it or not, we are not rational beings and it's hard, sometimes impossible, to overcome subconscious influences. For myself, I make no claim other than I attempt to be rational in certain arenas, and root out my own contradictory beliefs. But, to return to the point: since I'm not the least bit nationalist, there's very little for me to engage with here, even with those who claim not to be motivated by nationalism. Their arguments are designed to justify what they already believe: Scotland is great, and would be greater if independent.

But it's hard to ignore nationalism in Scotland. Over the last decade or so there's been a surge in support for the SNP. The most striking result of this is that the SNP won enough Scottish parliamentary seats (MSPs) for a majority government in the 2011 election. If you don't know Scottish politics, you might be tempted to conclude that this means that the Scottish population now favoured independence. Numerous polls show this not to be the case though, with support for independence going from its historical 30% average to peak at about 40%. Recent polls show it sitting between these two values. [EDIT 12 Sept 2014: the poll data in those links have been updated since this post was written.]

The SNP should be given credit for running a tight ship under its leader, Alex Salmond, who is a good orator and an experienced player in the party political mainstream. But, their success was also due to the Labour party's support reaching a natural nadir after 13 years of government, and because the Liberal Democrats, to whom some Labour voters might turn, went into coalition with the Conservative (aka Tory) party after the 2010 Westminster elections. Since the Tories are unpopular in Scotland, this meant Labour and Lib Dem votes went to the SNP, even from people who don't favour an independent Scotland.

The key point here is that many people in Scotland feel that the UK parliament in Westminster is more irrelevant to them than ever before. I feel that too, and baulk at the policies and rhetoric that come from the coalition ruling in Westminster, especially from the larger Tory contingent led by Prime Minister David Cameron. However, the Scottish Nationalist Party government led by First Minister Alex Salmond over in Edinburgh is equally unappealing to me. I know that the issue of independence goes beyond just the SNP, but it's important to take a close look at them because they are clearly dominant in proposing what an independent Scotland will be like.

The Scottish Nationalist Party have historically been what their name suggests: Nationalist and Scottish, and a mainstream political party. They present themselves as centre-left just now, but go back a few years and they were cheering on the banks escape from state regulation into the land of mythical success (specifically the Royal Bank of Scotland and their ex-CEO not-Sir Fred Goodwin), basing their independence economics on big oil money (renewables came later) and saying that Scotland could be a "Celtic Lion" economy like Ireland's Celtic Tiger. If you think I exaggerate please read this 2008 speech by Alex Salmond at Harvard. The mainstream media obsession with "now" mean that views of various political leaders tend to be forgotten all too quickly and the SNP have, like other mainstream parties, used this to their advantage. Notice that the link I provide is to because that speech has disappeared at least once from the official Scottish Government website. It's also worth noting that prior to his successful political career, Alex Salmond was an "oil economist" for the Royal Bank of Scotland.

It seems to me that the SNP only started promoting socially progressive policies after the economic crisis had begun and they realised that the Celtic Lion vision was no longer popular with people struggling with the consequences of the credit crunch. What the SNP currently offer on education and health is positive, and does set them apart from the current Westminster government, but they are also keen on pro-big-business tax cuts and are largely silent on reducing inequality through fairer taxation. Alex Salmond may be a good orator, but I find him inconsistent and shifting in the substance of what he says. I would not trust him nor senior SNP figures to usher in an independent Scotland for the better, either in a social or economic sense. I believe their primary agenda has always been nationalism: what's best for Scotland as a nation, irrespective of what's best for the rest of the UK, or indeed the people of Scotland. History has so many examples where action in the interests of a nation served to degrade the welfare of its own people; such is the paradox of nationalism.

However, as I emphasised above, the call for independence is not just from the SNP and other nationalists. The extra support for independence, and it's somewhere between 5 and 10 percentage points, sending it from about 30% to up towards 40%, comes from some people making arguments I can engage with. Specifically, these people do not want to be ruled by the current coalition of Tories and Lib-Dems in Westminster; they don't want the likes of Tony Blair leading us into futile and/or illegal wars; they want a fairer society in which overpaid fools who run financial institutions can't undermine the wealth and wellbeing of the general population; they want to protect the NHS from privatisation; and so on. The late Scottish author Iain Banks expressed such views very eloquently. I'm concerned about all of these things, but I disagree that it's likely that independence as proposed will improve matters. Why? Because the people that want this kind of change are in the minority (sadly), even amongst pro-independence supporters.

If independence offered a reasonable chance for such positive change, even with a less than 50% probability, I might be persuaded to make the leap of faith. But there are serious concerns that must be properly addressed, and of these my biggest concern is on the currency issue. But understand that my concern is not the superficial one put forth by the likes of the "Better together" campaign. Let me explain.

An independent Scotland as proposed will be using a foreign currency, the Great British Pound (GBP). There's a whole other blog post in this, but, in short, a country that uses a foreign currency is not truly independent. Even a small country can steer itself through an economic storm if it has control over its currency. Look at the last economic crisis. Ireland and Iceland were both crippled by bloated finance industries, but it was Ireland that had to suffer much more post-crisis because it was tied to the strong economies such as Germany via the Euro. In contrast, Iceland fought against the worst effects of the crisis quite ingeniously, and a key part of this was in devaluing its currency which, in effect, made all Icelanders take an equal pay cut. Ireland could not do this and was compelled by Europe to implement austerity which hits the poorest disproportionately. Spain and Greece too suffered the same fate as economies without control over their currency. In contrast, the UK used its control over the pound to create money (quantitative easing), which helped to a degree, but then the Tories tried to implement austerity, even though they didn't have to - there's another blog post/rant in that.

The defences I get against the currency point from yes-voting friends are: a) that it doesn't matter; b) let's not be restrained by fear; c) we can fix it down the road. My answers: a) OK, you're voting with your heart then; b) I'm not, I'm saying let's do independence properly and avoid an unnecessary risk because the root causes of the last economic crisis have not been resolved and will re-emerge in years ahead; c) no, this is something that can be, and definitely should be decided ahead of time - look before you cross the road.

But there's another issue that doesn't get discussed very much, but is of some importance to me. If Scotland votes for independence, I lose my vote for a representative (MP) in a big and influential parliament down in Westminster. It's true that the parliament doesn't currently represent me much, and that mainstream party politics fails to engage me, but that's an argument I can equally make about Scottish politics, including the referendum itself. Both the Yes campaign and Better Together are disingenuous and tedious bandwagons using the traditional and social media to broadcast sound-bite rhetoric with very little logic. The party political system and big business may mean we have a compromised democracy right now, but that does not mean I'm willing to give up on it completely and let go of my vote.

I'll make the same point in a different way. The political and business classes in the US certainly like to meddle in foreign affairs, e.g. dragging the UK into wars in the middle east. So, can I please have a vote for the Leader of the Free World..., sorry, US president? And how about giving it to the people of Iraq whilst US agencies and soldiers do their "work" there? Isn't that democratic? I'm serious, I'd take a vote in US elections if it was ever offered to me. International voters like me could make a difference - I'm pretty sure George W Bush wouldn't have won with an international vote.

So, my position is this: the referendum is to decide independence, not anything else. I want to see a change for a fairer and more equal society, and I wish for a cleaner environment, and want a healthier NHS, amongst other things. Those are causes to fight for in themselves, and I don't want them just for me, and my neighbours who happen to live in Scotland. That line between England and Scotland has little meaning to me and I don't want to be distracted from more important issues by expending too much thought and effort on national and historical divisions. As cellist Pablo Casals said "The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?"