Scottish independence? What’s the point?

This post was written by Owen on November 29, 2009
Posted Under: Communities,Scotland

Tomorrow Alex Salmond is due to present a White Paper to the Scottish Parliament, setting out plans for a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional position. Independence isn’t going to be the only possibility it suggests, (there’s also going to be an option for what Nick Robinson refers to as ‘independence-lite’ – giving the Scottish Executive powers over everything bar ‘defence, foreign policy and macroeconomics’) but obviously full-blown independence is the choice favoured by Salmond and his party.

Image: Scottish Government/flickr

Image: Scottish Government/flickr

Robinson claims that Scottish public opinion is against Salmond (Wikipedia’s a bit less sure), but suggests – very plausibly – that if (when) the Tories win the general election in 2010, this could well change. ‘The election of an old Etonian English Tory prime minister who will be said to have no Scottish mandate’, as Robinson puts it, probably won’t be popular North of the border, and this in turn might push Labour and the Lib Dems into being a bit more sympathetic to the cause.

So, independence for Scotland is a serious possibility, though perhaps some way short of probable. But why bother? And why is it so often assumed that there’s something inherently good and democratic about devolution (whether it be for Scotland, Wales, or Ireland) and/or independence? I can definitely see the case for national self-determination when a larger nation is clearly oppressing the smaller one with which it’s in political union – the case for Tibetan independence is pretty clearcut (even if  life under the Dalai Lama before the Chinese invasion was pretty bad too), and history is littered with any number of other independence campaigns worthy of sympathy for this reason – those in pretty much all the former colonial possessions of the European powers during the 20th Century, for a start. Much the same could have been said about Scotland in the days of Edward I or the Highland clearances, but now? I don’t think so. English domination of Scotland nowadays is pretty much restricted to the tourist invasion of the Edinburgh Fringe.

The SNP’s arguments for independence seem mainly to rest on the premise that Scotland is a ‘nation’, in some sense separate from the rest of the UK, and that therefore it should be allowed to run its own affairs. I’ve always been a bit hazy on how a ‘nation’ is even defined, let alone what their significance is (and two years’ study of political philosophy hasn’t really left me any the wiser). However, the basic idea seems to be that there’s something special which unites the inhabitants of Scotland in a way which doesn’t tie them to the rest of the UK. Well, what? A shared history? Well, that rules out those Scots who are recent immigrants (and their children). Shared values? Like what? Are there really any uniquely Scottish values? How about a shared culture? A pretty vague notion, (is someone who can trace their Scottish family back 500 years magically not really Scottish if they prefer cricket to shinty and think Rabbie Burns is boring?) and sails alarmingly close to BNP territory. Not that I think the SNP are bigoted, but it seems hard to arrive at a definition of ‘nation’ that doesn’t end up sounding unsettlingly exclusive. The whole idea of ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’ having a politically significant identity over and above that of their individual citizens is one I find quite troubling. That it’s an ostensibly liberal idea (as in Rawls’ Law of Peoples, for example) troubles me even more.

And as for Nick Robinson’s point about Cameron potentially becoming Prime Minister with no Scottish mandate, so what? It is possible that the Conservatives might end up with no seats in Scotland after the next election. They do already have one MP, and they’re surely far more likely to win seats than lose them on present form, but upsets do happen. But even if there was such an upset, and Scotland became a Tory-free zone, so what? I fail to see why it follows from there being no MPs of a particular party in a given geographical area that that party therefore has ‘no mandate’ in that area. Winning a general election gives you a mandate to govern the whole country, not just the bits that voted for you. That’s kind of how democracy works. I can certainly sympathise with feeling disenfranchised if your party of choice doesn’t get elected – I’d probably have been calling for London to declare independence in the days of Thatcher and the Livingstone-led GLC if it hadn’t been for the fact that the former abolished the latter a few months before I was born – but the fact that a reaction like this is understandable doesn’t make it right. Labour doesn’t currently have much of a mandate in the Home Counties, but that doesn’t magically mean there’s a good case for the region to declare an independent Republic of Surrey.

To be fair to it, the SNP does have a number of sensible policies, listed in that link to their site two paragraphs up: increased investment in renewable energy, adherence to international law, increasing development aid to the UN target of 0.7% . But an independent Scotland doing all those things wouldn’t stop the rest of the UK, let alone the rest of the world, from polluting the planet, participating in illegal wars or neglecting their obligations to the global poor. Assuming that what the SNP really wants is a habitable planet made up of law-abiding states with comfortably-off citizens, (as opposed to a mere smug sense of self-satisfaction that at least Scotland is doing its – in the grand scheme of things, probably fairly insignificant – bit) it’s hard to see how Scotland striking out on its own will be very effective. The SNP would probably be better served trying to raise consciousness of and building grassroots support for these issues, across the UK and internationally. And if you want to persuade other nations, the UK has far more clout, even within the EU, than an independent Scotland would.

Just to make clear, I’m not actually opposed to Scottish independence; I just don’t see the point, or find the arguments for it very convincing. If there really is a huge clamour for independence, fine. But don’t pretend it’s upholding some fundamental moral principle; it isn’t.

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Reader Comments

Alex Leonhardt

I’m not denying there’s any easy answer to what is a nation and what isn’t, but your method of quickly running through counterexamples either doesn’t prove anything or proves that the entire concept of nationhood is confused. In which case, why is the nationhood of _Scotland_ a particularly problematic example? You could level the same arguments at the idea that the UK has nationhood, and yet it does.

I think the crucial point re: “mandate” is that they would be _seen_ to have no mandate, not that they de facto would have no mandate. Of course they would. When supports of electoral reform argue that FPtP produces Governments without the mandate to govern they mean not that they haven’t fulfilled the requirements of the (unwritten) constitution, but rather that there is some moral failing in their doing so. I don’t see that it’s a stretch to imagine that a well-defined area of the country with no Tory MPs would feel a little pissed off at being governed by Tories. But regardless, the point is one of practice and not thoery: having a Tory government in Westminster makes the case for independence stronger.

I don’t particularly see the need for the nation seeking self-governance to be oppressed. Obviously there is more pressing need in those cases, but many believe in the principle of localism and devolution for its own sake. Benign dictatorships are just as undemocratic as despotic ones, after all.

PS The Government has a Bill this parliament to commit future governments to increase aid spending to at least 0.7% of GDP. It’s not just an SNP policy!

Written By Alex Leonhardt on November 29th, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

Well, I’d argue that what my series of counterexamples suggests is that the concept of nationhood is at worst incoherent, at best (as you yourself suggest) very hard to define. Either way it seems very dubious to try and employ said concept as the basis for an argument for independence, as the SNP does (‘We do not think it strange that the people of Norway and Denmark run their own affairs.’) And does the UK really have nationhood? If it does, and a State made up of two or more constituent nations can itself be a nation, then surely all the people of the nation of the UK have self-determination by virtue of that and the SNP has nothing to complain about?

Also, I wasn’t denying that a lack of Scottish Tory MPs probably *would* push Scottish independence higher up the agenda, I was just denying that it *should* have any such effect. Well-defined areas of the country with populations who generally dislike the governing party are in exactly the same position as ill-defined areas of the country where the same is true. My point was just that if the SNP does achieve Scottish independence in the wake of a Tory victory, that won’t mean that the Scottish electorate will be any better represented by those they vote for than they are now (or indeed than they were in the days before devolution).

I don’t really see the point of localism, devolution or even democracy for their own sakes. Democracy in my view is the best system of government because benign dictatorships have been hard to come by, historically speaking. If there was a truly benign dictatorship (and its benign nature was sufficiently robust), I wouldn’t have a problem with it. It just happens to be the case that people governing themselves tends to work significantly better in at least most cases. Likewise devolution and localism; if that’s the best way to run things, then great, make that case (and make it more persuasively than just going ‘well, look at Norway’, which is all the SNP seems to do at the moment). I just have issues with building a case based on emotive and ill-defined ideas which sound good but don’t mean very much.

Written By Owen on November 30th, 2009 @ 10:04 pm
hardeep sanji

you are a fucking disgrace and a racist to pakistani scots. how dare you link the SNP with the BNP. you have been reported to the authorities and they assure me that they will track this post

Written By hardeep sanji on December 15th, 2009 @ 1:24 am
Anne England

Hardeep, where did this get you?

Written By Anne England on January 23rd, 2012 @ 10:31 am

Your article seems overly dismissive of the political landscape in Scotland, as though it shouldn’t be considered a valid point. In fact it is THE point, or at least emblematic of it.

The political landscape in Scotland is by default left of centre. This is reflected in both the way the people consistently vote, and therefore in our devolved governance. Where Westminster introduced and raised tuition fees, Scotland abolished them. When the SNP came into government, they eliminated prescription fees, whereas Westminster has sold out the NHS for profit. The way in which the devolved matters are governed suggest a different set of national values to much of the rest of England.

Written By John on June 7th, 2012 @ 1:42 pm


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