Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Listen to Spock...

If you want to comment on Scottish Independence and the forthcoming referendum on September 18th, there are plenty of forums, blogs and chat rooms where such discourse can be found.

Obviously, the issues of the virtues or otherwise of Scotland voting for Independence won't be available for discussion as the debate has long since devolved into a slanging match between those who loathe Alex Salmond and want to give him a good kicking and those who loathe David Cameron and want to give him a good kicking.

The increasingly mutually antagonistic atmosphere has allowed the doom-sayers and provocateurs on the Right to use their blogs to conjure up all manner of apocalyptic scenarios for an independent Scotland whether it be one of a dystopic Britain conjured up by the Right's favourite counterfactual historian, Dominic Sandbrook or the "promised land" of an eternal Conservative England.

The truth, as someone needs to tell these half-witted Cassandras, is that life isn't like soap and we don't lurch from crisis to crisis (or at least we shouldn't). The priority for all sides should be to tone down the rhetoric because even if Scotland votes YES on September 18th, the world isn't going to come to an end - in fact, very little is going to happen at all.

The vote is the start of what will be a lengthy process of a negotiated separation and the creation of a new independent Scottish State by some time in 2016. This won't be easy but the wrangling will be the work of officials behind the scenes who will be more interested in compromise then the activists on both sides of the current Referendum campaign.

Yet, I come back to the central question - what will independence really mean for Scotland ? In a globalised world, the ability of any state to have freedom of action over its domestic, foreign and economic policies is extremely limited. Yet, that seems to this observer to be the central definition and tenet of an independent state - a state with control over its finances, its society and its defences. In truth, most countries aren't independent - economic and defence sovereignty is widely pooled - Britain does this through its membership of NATO and the European Union while also being a signatory to a raft of international treaties promoting collaborative action on a range of issues.

Britain has not run its own foreign policy since, arguably, 1914 and our economic policy has been effectively controlled by others since at least 1945 and arguably before that. Britain's attempts at an independent economic policy were checked in 1967 and 1992 respectively by the financial markets and in 1956 our attempt (with the French) to carve out a separate foreign policy was blocked by Washington.

In truth, there is no pot of Independence at the end of the Referendum rainbow since, whether as part of a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom or as part of the Euro, an independent Scotland would have key levers of its economic policy decided and determined outside its borders. In terms of foreign policy, Scotland can either join NATO or stay completely neutral (like Ireland) but effectively it would still be considered part of Britain and as vulnerable to attack as the rest of the UK.

Of course, domestically, there's much to be said for devolving power and accountability from Westminster to Holyrood and beyond but a lot of that has already happened and with the promised Devomax (agreed by three of the British political parties) Scotland would have more control over its internal domestic policy than ever before and would, in a sense, operate as an autonomous region of the United Kingdom raising its taxes and spending its money as it chose and rightly so.

In essence, clearing away the undergrowth of vitriol, abuse and personal rancour which has polluted the debate, we are left with two visions of the future Scotland - one is of a politically autonomous (certainly in domestic terms) part of the United Kingdom (and with defence and economic policy controlled as such from Westminster) and the other has a politically autonomous Scotland possibly as part of the European Union (and with defence and economic policy controlled as such from Brussels and Frankfurt).

In the end, it's like the prisoner getting to vote for his or her jailer - at the end of the day the chains are still locked but it might be done with a smile rather than a scowl. That's why this vote is and should be considered to be far less important than some of the provocateurs would assert - talk of capital flights, checkpoints at Castle Bar and the Queen firing David Cameron is profoundly unhelpful though perhaps symptomatic of an argument which has nowhere else to go but fear.

On the other side, however, clarity has been replaced by confusion. It's still unclear how an independent Scotland would work and its relationship to the UK and Europe remains perilously undefined. The one hope the YES campaign has is the inate reasonableness which will flow once the vote has been decided. It is no one's interests for instability to reign supreme - both the political rhetoric and the economic reality will dictate a reasonable route.

To paraphrase a certain Mr Nimoy - "It's Independence, Alex, but not as we know it"

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