Independence is not the point
The debate around Scottish independence often seems to miss something: there is no such thing as an independent country. Britain, for example, is a member of the EU, the UN, and NATO, and is a signatory to countless global or bilateral treaties. If the nation state began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, then it has in the last 50 years increasingly atrophied.
No, the point is not some abstract idea about freedom and independence. The point is about powers, and power. Which powers should be held by Holyrood, by Scottish local authorities, or by communities in Scotland? Which powers should be held by Westminster, and which powers should be held by the EU? Who should have the power to decide where these powers will lie?
Because the question is this – at what point does a nation within the EU become a state? Once Scotland adds to the currently devolved powers control of its own fiscal policy, is it independent? Well, no. But it does have many of the levers the SNP (and I) would like. Once the welfare system has been devolved, and power over the energy supply is handed to Holyrood does this mean the country is in effect independent? Again probably not. But this is a significant set of powers. If politics is about people’s lives, and if we believe that government is better when it is closer to people, then what matters most of all is the question of which powers we can secure for Holyrood.
And there are some powers that even I don’t think should be held at Holyrood. I would like a nationalised train to take me on my regular trips between London and Edinburgh. Such a train company would have to be owned by a company held by both governments.
And so the question becomes one of autonomy – who is it that gets to decide which powers lie where? In the modern age of an increasingly interdependent planet, and an increasingly integrated EU, a state is autonomous if it has the right to determine which things it retains control over. Westminster can hand vast powers to the EU if it so chooses, as it does. The point is that it has the power to choose.
And so it is that David Cameron has, in one quiet weekend in May, handed this power to Scotland. Until yesterday, it was the Westminster Parliament alone who had the power to determine Scotland’s constitutional future. The Scotland Act (1997) was the sole constitution of the Scottish Parliament and government. But, by accepting the right of the new Scottish government to call a referendum on independence, Cameron has effectively handed that power to Holyrood. As of yesterday, Scotland has more implicit autonomy than it has had for 300 years. Because the people of Scotland now have the power to determine our own future in a way that we haven’t had before.
But that autonomy – that power to decide – is only one of many powers that the SNP seek. Alex Salmond himself understands only too well that an abstract notion of independence is not the holy grail some consider it to be. What was remarkable about the interviews he gave on Friday morning as English journalists lined up to quiz him about Scottish independence was his refusal to emphasise this cherished aim of his party. Instead, though committing to a referendum, he emphasised that his immediate priority was securing increased powers for the Scottish Parliament – in particular, key economic leavers.
But it is not just this week that has seen Alex Salmond demonstrate his belief that Scottish nationalism is about more than independence (whatever that means). In 1982, Salmond was thrown out of the SNP for being a leading member if the ’79 group – which argued that an abstract freedom should not be the only aim of his party, that they should be a party of the left, representing the interests of working class Scots.
No, while Salmond has always of course supported independence (by which I suppose I mean all of the powers that are currently held at Westminster being held at Holyrood instead), his politics is about much more than that. And he understands that while this is his key chance for a referendum on independence, his political legacy is likely to be something else. Because, while the result of the inevitable referendum is not certain, Salmond has already this week secured significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament. As well as the power to hold a referendum, Cameron has also granted the power to borrow for capital expenditure – allowing Scotland to avoid at least some of the cuts that Westminster will impose next year. And it now seems likely that the SNP will secure further new powers too, with a storm already brewing over the significant question of the crown estates which are key to the vision of renewable wealth, and over corporation tax, which Salmond wants to cut (he is not the socialist he once was).
For what Alex Salmond knows is that the next 5 years are his key chance the change Scotland’s constitution. He could gamble all on a referendum he may well lose (though I wouldn’t write it off yet). Or he can bank as many changes as possible, before attempting that final leap. He has made clear that his strategy is the latter. Because Alex Salmond understands that independence is not this abstract notion of freedom. It is about which key powers are held in Holyrood, and how they can be used to improve people’s lives. And the more he can secure now, the more he can do for Scotland and for people in Scotland. It was always said that devolution is a process. With borrowing and constitutional powers, the next stage is already here. Where the end of the road lies, we shall see.