Who’s afraid of Scottish independence?

Saltire - St Andrews Flag - Scotland - Some rights reserved by byronv2The last month has seen the ‘Yes Scotland’ independence campaign take a battering.

First, Mark Carney raised doubts about Alex Salmond’s plans for a post-independence currency union between Scotland and the remainder of the UK.

This warning was echoed when, with more naked partisanship, George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls teamed up to state they would each refuse to form such a currency union.

And then last Sunday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hammered in another nail when he said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.

Alex Salmond knows the risks if voters don’t feel safe voting for an independent Scotland. Collectively these interventions undermine both the economic and political case for Scotland to go it alone.

We don’t yet know what impact, if any, they have had on voting intentions for the referendum; and besides, there’s still a long way to go until September. I’ve not shifted from my view that the status quo will win and win handsomely. It usually does.

Personally, I’m much more ambivalent about the case for Scottish independence than most Lib Dems. (I’m afeard my co-editor Caron Lindsay may not speak to me again after this…)

I start from the simple principle of national self-determination. It’s up to Scots to decide if they want to remain within the UK. Just as it’s up to the people of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands to decide for themselves.

On the economics of it, no-one in truth knows how an independent Scotland would fare. It would certainly be a risk. A nation of five million is more vulnerable than a nation-within-a-union of 63 million to sudden economic vicissitudes. Similarly-sized Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden manage, though. Aren’t we liberals champions of the small- and medium-sized enterprise?

As for the currency, my guess is that – should an independent Scotland emerge – all three major parties would be more willing to negotiate than their noises-off currently indicate. After all, Scotland would remain our neighbour.

And even if they stuck firm to their pledge to veto currency union, Scotland could, if it wished, continue to use the British pound, as Sam Bowman has highlighted here.

Then there’s the politics of it. Barroso’s early move to check an independent Scotland’s ambitions to remain within the EU were inevitable. Why? Because he has to keep Spain sweet, and its right-wing government is anxious of any nationalities re-claiming their sovereignty. If Scotland can vote for independence and remain within the EU, then why not Catalonia or the Basque country or Galicia?

Such arguments are far more politically charged in Spain – a brutal civil war is likely to do that to you – than they are here, and the Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy won’t accept the principle of self-determination.

As a result, liberals should, I think, be wary of welcoming Barroso’s comments. They are made not in the interests of Scotland nor even of the UK. And, if the reality of an independent Scotland happened, then I expect not even Spain would stand in the way of Scotland joining the EU.

Devolution has worked for the Scots. As Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, has highlighted with a touch of envy: “Seven of the top 15 areas for economic growth in the UK between 1998 and 2008 were in Scotland and saw growth of over 70%. These include rural, urban and deprived areas.”

The latest ScotCen research indicates that 32% of Scots favour an extension of these powers (‘devo-max’), just short of full independence, including control of foreign and defence policy (31%). The distinction between ‘devo-max’ and full independence is far less than the rancour between the rival ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ camps would suggest, especially if an independent Scotland were to retain the pound and stay within the EU.

If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?”

Perhaps the biggest reason to oppose independence is the often unpleasant fervour of its proponents, including the notorious ‘cyber-nats’. But I don’t think we should entirely define what we are for by who we are against.

I believe in power being as close to the people as possible. Is ‘devo-max’ or full independence the best way to achieve that? That’s the key question Scots need to be able to answer by September. Ironically, it’s the one not on the ballot paper.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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33 Comments

  • Sadie Smith 23rd Feb '14 - 2:23pm

    Not sure whether the Ludovic Kennedy quote was during his SNP phase.
    I would so much regret a vote for independence. I have no vote but spent a few years of my childhood there, beginning my education there. We made many memorable holidays as adults. It would be a great loss.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Feb '14 - 2:26pm

    I love honest debate, but I disagree that this is a tough choice. Although I think independence should always be on the table, I think the timing is just all wrong. There should have been a proper negotiation with independence as a final straw, but making your mind to leave before the negotiation, like the SNP have done and like UKIP have done, strikes me as unwise.

    As I have been banging on about on other threads, I feel the left and liberals do not fully grasp the downsides of localism. Too much localism can lead to a trapped people, trapped businesses and trapped politicians.

    Regards

  • jedibeeftrix 23rd Feb '14 - 3:04pm

    “I’ve not shifted from my view that the status quo will win and win handsomely.”

    Agreed.

    I consider the Scots my familiy, rather than mere neighbours, and at the end of the day I believe the sentiment will be returned.

  • I have a dog in this fight. My mother was a Scot. My father was a Welshman and just for good measure I was born in Belfast. The one thing I am not is English. If the Scots vote to go, I shall feel as though I have lost a significant chunk of my identity. Stupid, I know. I understand I shall be able to apply for a Scottish passport if I can prove my Ma was born in Glasgow. I can also claim a cousin, James Cockburn, who was Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Family folklore claims that, upon being introduced to me aged two, he told Ma: “Never mind, Mary, I expect she’ll improve.” None of this makes me feel better.
    I’m actually quite ambivalent about the place. Well, you should try being a podgy, unathletic child at the sort of school that played games all afternoon, every afternoon and the final of the Scottish Schools Lacrosse Tournament was our First Team against our Second Team. And they told me firmly I was English. But I don’t want them to go.
    I fear they might. The tide seems to be flowing that way. The trouble is we’ve been assuming those Rational Choice eejits are right and the Scots will vote with their pocketbooks. We’ve told them the oil’s running out. They know that. We’ve told them we won’t let them build our warships if they leave. Well, Duh. We’ve told them they’ll be too little to cope with another banking crisis. They don’t believe us. We’ve told them loftily they needn’t think they can keep the pound. Well what’s wrong with the Poond anyway?
    I think the Scots will vote with their hearts. They will vote tribally. They will vote on their history. And they may well go.
    Please don’t.

  • “The last month has seen the ‘Yes Scotland’ independence campaign take a battering.”

    Although Anthony Wells doesn’t think there has been any clear movement in public opinion as a result:
    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/8640

  • It is a relief to read this article, I was beginning to wonder whether a more questioning attitude could be found amongst Lib Dems.

    A couple of thoughts: what has anyone considered might happen after the referendum? Assuming the NOs win, given the scaremongering tactics, there is likely to meet a big backlash that could primarily affect both Labour and Lib Dems in Scotland. 2015 could see the biggest contingent of SNP MPs yet.

    I am mystified at the Scottish Lib Dem position; perhaps it is clearer to those living in Scotland, but I do not see why they are not more independent of the NO campaign. An example would be Barroso’s extraordinary comments. Imagine that the Scottish Indpendence advocates had presented leaving the EU as an advantage. Who thinks Barroso would have said the same words? Isn’t it obvious that he would very likely have said the precise opposite? Scottish Lib Dems could have been critical of Barroso and pointed out the nonsense of any suggestion that Scotland would be excluded from the EU.

  • I hope the Westminster politicians will now retire from the fray, and stop encouraging Salmond by threatening disaster if Scotland goes it alone.

    What the English should do is make clear that:

    – we value our union with Scotland, our common history, our commercial ties and our kinship, and would be very sorry if Scotland were to go its own way, but ultimately the decision is a matter for the Scots;

    – if the Scots reject independence, we will explore ways to give Scotland more home rule and an anhanced sense of nationhood, while still providing the economic and democratic advantages of membership of a United Kingdom;

    – if the Scots vote for independence we will work with them to help establish a free, fair and open democracy, to help protect them from tyranny at home or abroad, and minimise the inevitable damage to our economies and our relationship.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Feb '14 - 4:08pm

    Thanks Andrew. By the way I agree with those who don’t think the Lib Dems should be a unionist party regardless.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Feb '14 - 4:14pm

    Quite so. But the Westminster establishment seem to be more and more divorced from real life.

    @ Sadie Smith “I would so much regret a vote for independence. I have no vote but spent a few years of my childhood there, beginning my education there. We made many memorable holidays as adults. It would be a great loss.”

    “Loss?” Does Scotland really belong to England to lose? Perhaps this kid of attitude south of the border and most of all in London is why the question has arisen. Surely Scotland is not a colony?

    I have many good memories of holidays in Scotland (not to mention three successful by-election campaigns!) But in what way will future holidays in Scotland be ruined if there is a YES vote? We have even more good memories of holidays in the south of France in a valley with an old ruined castle which the English once occupied. Is that a reason for a new imperialist adventure in the Pyrenees?

    I have for some time thought that if I lived in Scotland I would probably quietly vote YES. The activities of Cameron, Osborne et al would probably get me out on the streets actively campaigning. But perhaps as someone from the neglected and increasingly colonialised North of England, I share some of the frustrations of many Scots with the London/South East England establishment that wants to rule everything and take everything, then hand out a few goodies to keep us all quiet.

    Tony

  • I have a somewhat different view of things. On the one hand, I have considerable sympathy with purely localist sentiment, and I agree that the present relationship between Westminster and Edinburgh is sorely defective. Scottish independence would solve many of those problems; yet at the end of the day, Scotland and England occupy a single island, and have a shared fate whether they like it or not. If England and Scotland were separate nations today, there would be a strong and convincing case to be made for, if not union, then some sort of federation with open borders, a common currency, and joint citizenship for many people.
    So instead of Scotland becoming independent and then having to negotiate its way back into quasi-union with England again, let’s do this: 1) Scrap the 1707 Act of Union, with the proviso that it will remain in effect until a new arrangement is finalised; 2) Let Edinburgh and Westminster negotiate (as equals) a new Union which will safeguard aspects of Scottish sovereignty that are important to Scots, while retaining those common institutions that both governments agree are valuable.

  • Russel McPhate 23rd Feb '14 - 5:39pm

    There has been an almost unchallenged assumption within the hierarchy of the Scottish party that we should be unequivocally Unionist and I have struggled to see why this should be. I believe, and always have done, that there is a perfectly reasonable Liberal argument for independence, in principle. That said I shall be voting ‘No’ for a variety of reasons. One of these is that I can see no prospect of an independent Scotland EVER being the kind of Liberal democracy all of us here would wish for and, ultimately, my Liberalism trumps my nationalism.

  • jedibeeftrix 23rd Feb '14 - 6:23pm

    “For Scots the greater risk in choosing separation is that having blamed Westminster and the English for all the misfortune that has befallen them, who will they blame then if ‘independence’ fails to lead them to the promised land?”

    It’s called growing up, and it’s just as vital that a people (in the plural) achieve this life lesson as it is for for a single person to do so.

    That does not negate the value of free association, particularly when deciding over who you will bind yourself to in accepting the the outcome of collective decisions.

  • Kevin Maher 23rd Feb '14 - 6:54pm

    ‘Who’s afraid of Scottish Independence?’
    Lib Dem Voice judging by all the anti independence propaganda that is published on here. How about an article putting the case for, just in the interests of balance.

  • Am I right in thinking that if Scotland voted Yes to Independance – there would probably never be a Labour government again at Westminster?

  • Toby Fenwick 23rd Feb '14 - 7:53pm

    Stephen,

    I agree with much of this, but @SerenaH speaks with my voice, even though I don’t have her experiences. I was working part-time in Scotland for many years, loved it, and go walking and cycling in the highlands as often as possible.

    On the currency, I think you’re wrong, however. The Currency Union (CU) proposed by Salmond et al would be in Scotland’s interest but it wouldn’t be in the UK’s interest: London would bear about 90% of the risk of bailing out the Scottish financial sector if there was another crisis. Clearly, this is a low probability / high cost event: but why would you put UK taxpayers on the line for it? Moreover, the SNP/Yes have an expansive view of the role of the state, and economic policies would likely diverge surprisingly quickly, meaning that a CU with the same design flaws as the eurozone would soon be suffer the same stresses.

    What we do need is a positive vision for the Union. I laid one out here a couple of weeks ago: https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-use-devomax-to-put-the-positive-case-for-the-union-38215.html

  • Toby Fenwick 23rd Feb '14 - 8:05pm

    @David: No, there could be a future Labour Government in Westminster, but it would be harder.

    The New Statesman claims: ” On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) and in 2005 (43, down from 66).” (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/11/why-scottish-independence-wouldnt-mean-permanent-majority-tories)

    This isn’t quite true, as Tories didn’t win the 2010 election. Minus Scotland, the 2010 result would mean a Commons of 591 seats and would have yielded a Tory Majority of 19:

    Conservative: 305 (-1)
    Labour: 217 (-41)
    LibDem: 46 (-11)
    DUP: 8
    Sinn Fein: 5
    Plaid: 3
    SDLP: 3
    Alliance: 1
    Green: 1
    Speaker: 1
    Independent (Sylvia Hermon): 1

  • @ David-1 “If England and Scotland were separate nations today, there would be a strong and convincing case to be made for, if not union, then some sort of federation with open borders, a common currency, and joint citizenship for many people”

    Equally well both could achieve (most of) these as part of the EU with its current confederal style (i.e. looser) union.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Feb '14 - 10:26am

    Romantically I see and would support the ‘Yes’ campaign in line with James Spackman’s comments about “principle of self-determination,” but thankfully I believe that reality and pragmatism will win through with ‘No’ being the response.

    Being a ‘liberal’ naturally I would still favour greater “self-determination” for Scotland, whilst still a member of the Union if that is what the majority of the populous desired, for it could well also lead to beneficial reforms of Westminster.

  • Here I go again, courting yet more unpopularity by saying that I agree with Lord Greaves, unhesitatingly. My only quarrel with Lord Greaves is that, were I to be privileged to live in Scotland, I would not ‘quietly vote YES’, but would be working for the Yes campaign.

    What does Scotland have to lose by secession from the Union? I suggest that the Scots would be escaping from a corrupt, metro-centric, illiberal state which is run by chinless wonders who want to be Vladimir Putin when they grow up (which they never will), as well as inducing their chums to fill their pockets with unearned wealth (just like Putin does).

    And, by the way, if an independent Scotland needed to reapply for EU membership after leaving the UK, would not the rump of the Union also need to do so? Well, the UK would not, after Scotland’s independence, be the same state which had been accepted into the EU.

  • Keith Browning 24th Feb '14 - 8:47pm

    The tendency for the last 50 years has been for European nations to fragment along ethnic lines – hence the Eurovision Song Contest now has two divisions.

    I cant imagine what problems Scotland would have compared with those giants of Latvia and Luxembourg. The richest countries in the world tend to be the smallest, particularly those with gushings of oil. I dont see many risks for the Scots, but imagine the loss of face amongst the Bullingdon elite, to admit you accidently lost Scotland during your tenure.

    Everything I have seen in the past few weeks will encourage more Scots to vote YES. Today’s Cabinet in Aberdeen and Cameron wearing a ridiculous ‘Oil Man’ outfit – a la Maggie and her Tank Driver attire, are the latest of many.

  • James Spackman

    Hello from Aberdeen. Firstly the Scots do not blame Westminster and England for all their ills. Secondly it is patronising in the extreme to be told that we do. Thirdly, in a world of increasing mutual interdependence why is an independent Scotland a bad thing?

  • Toby Fenwick 25th Feb '14 - 2:46pm

    @David White said “And, by the way, if an independent Scotland needed to reapply for EU membership after leaving the UK, would not the rump of the Union also need to do so? Well, the UK would not, after Scotland’s independence, be the same state which had been accepted into the EU.”

    No, the UK would become the successor state to the current UK, including retaining all of its international memberships. It is for this reason that Russia never had to rejoin the UN after the breakup of the USSR, for example. As the secessionist entity, Scotland would be starting from scratch.

  • There is constitutionally no such thing as “secession.” Scotland cannot unilaterally leave the United Kingdom. If England and Scotland separate, it will be done via a Parliamentary Act that reverses the 1707 Act of Union. Exactly what share of the international rights and responsibilities England and Scotland receive as a result of this “Act of Disunion” would have to be spelled out in the Act, and it *cannot* be assumed that England would retain all of the claims belonging to the UK as now constituted. I presume that an English majority in the Westminster Parliament *could* expel Scotland from the Union on terms totally unfavorable to Scotland (just as they could, for instance, declare Scotland to be an area under military occupation, without representation and under martial law) but that would raise serious questions about human rights.
    The fact is that this is uncharted territory, and if Scotland were to vote for independence, it would require years of negotiating and a series of formal treaties to make it a reality. Nobody can say what the outcome of those negotiations *must* be before the fact.

  • James Spackman

    I was paying attention ( and how patronising was that for a reply from you?)

    Here is what you said:

    “For Scots the greater risk in choosing separation is that having blamed Westminster and the English for all the misfortune that has befallen them, who will they blame then if ‘independence’ fails to lead them to the promised land?”

    No qualification about some Scots in your comment. It is interesting to see how a so called Liberal is so against localism and self determination. Transparently know what I important in everyday life while everyday Scots don’t. Patronising in the extreme sum it up.

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Feb '14 - 9:24pm

    @ James – “It would be good to have a grown-up debate. When will you lose the pseudonym?”

    Why, is that the sum total of grown-up debate?

    Or was anything i said in this thread not grown up…

  • Paul In Twickenham 27th Feb '14 - 10:01pm

    @Keith Brown – the Eurovision song contest doesn’t have two divisions. It has a set of nations that automatically qualify for the final (the host and “the big five” who overwhelmingly pay for the whole shebang) and all the rest who have to go through a semi-final qualification process. However the EBU did change the voting system from a purely popular vote to a composite popular/jury vote, basically to prevent “fraternal voting” from turning the show into a permanent win for the balkans or Russia. Sorry, I’m a bit of a Eurovision anorak.

  • Nick Heller 1st Mar '14 - 11:08am

    I often find it curious the folk furth of Scotland take such personal offence at the idea of Scottish independence. The reflex defence of “Britain” is very often precisely the romantic, nostalgic, nationalistic case which the SNP are so often accused of prosecuting. In fact the Yes campaign stretches far beyond the woad-painted, kilted cybernat fantasy of Better Together. It is filled to the gunnels with greens, liberals, radicals, socialists and even conservatives. It is campaign for those who see a way of changing their country and setting it on a different path from the failed record of Westminster. Of course there are many who have long felt that their Scottish identity outstrips their Britishness but in truth the debate about and the arguments for independence are about democracy, governance, localism, accountability and political culture. The poison in the referendum debate often comes from a tribal hatred for the SNP from a Labour party (unaccountably cheered on by the Liberals) whose baleful resentment at their loss of power has eaten away at their capacity for logical thought.

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