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.
I should be clearer – my point is not that I am against independence. I will vote yes in the referendum. And this is largely because, as you say, I want power over foreign affairs to be held at Holyrood.
My point is that by talking about independence as though it is binary, we fail to acknowledge all of the stages in between. In doing so, we risk failing to make short term gains. And so it is good to see the SNP securing more powers now, and these powers are pretty significant. So let’s celebrate that, and work out which step is next. Not because I’m against making the leap, but because I think we are more likely to secure changes one at a time, and because I think the devolution of each of the more significant powers will be more significant in most people’s lives than the final point that we give up on sending MPs to Westminster.
Anthony makes a good point about autonomy as opposed to ‘separation’.
But this is so much hair-splitting Adam. The statement “there is no such thing as an independent country” is just not true. All nations are to some extent interdependent but so what. That reality actually strengthens the case for independence as we leave the bosom of the British State.
One of the strongest cases for this departure is the British obsession with imperial rule. If there is a defining way in which sovereign states DO have independence it is in war and peace.
I’d argue that it is probably Iraq, Afghanistan and Trident which will prove to be the death knell of Labour, the hinge that once connected British social and constitutional politics.
Surely not “autonomy” which is a geek term but self-determination and self-government within the wider world. Not a withdrawal or narrowing (implied by ‘autonomy’) but a freer way of engaging more strongly from Scotland with the many parts of the planet. This is why, as you say, it is not about independence meaning becoming an island to itself.
I think Adam what Salmond believes and what the many members of the SNP believe are two very different things. I think that will be a major sticking point for him. Many in his party have the idea that Scotland will become this completely independent nation and somehow then everything will be alright.
Personally I think devolution of more powers to Holyrood is a good thing. It gives greater degrees of accountability and responsibility to the parliament. I think the “full” independence … ie going it alone … is not possible in the current world with countries and economies being so intertwined. Personally I am a unionist in so much as I think Scotland is better off in the whole as part of the UK but I do firmly believe that there should be more powers in Edinburgh.
I think the dust needs to settle to see how Alex steers his new ship. To see how he manages the factions within his own party. At my local count already there were a number of local SNP activists who seemed to think that Salmond was dodging the independence question
I’m not sure what powers an independent Scotland would share with England- this would be subject to interminable horsetrading and negotiation… although currency, military bases, and infrastructure/telecoms spring to mind. The north and Republic of Ireland co-operate like this. however, to use an imperfect comparison, the velvet separation between the Czech Republic and Slovakia meant complete separation, albeit with a transition period of compromises to ensure mutual stability.
Buses are deregulated in Scotland (note Brian Souter’s major donations to the SNP to ensure this remains the same)- try catching a non-privately owned bus here in Glasgow- you’ll be waiting a long time!
The European train network has both state and private rail operators, with a generous helping of EU funding too. A nationalised Scotrail could operate seamlessly cross-border (and ‘English Rail’ vice versa), it works fine in Europe. Although yes, I would take a nationalised British Rail- with European levels of service, speed and price- too!
Luke – you miss my point. I want an ‘independent’ Scotland, but even an independent Scotland will share some powers with Westminster. So, Lothian Buses are mostly owned (I think 92% or something) but City of Edinburgh Council. The rest is owned by the other councils in the Lothians, some of whose towns are served by Lothian buses. I imagine the trains between European countries might be owned (I don’t know) by holding companies in which more than 1 country has shares. An ‘independent’ Scotland would still share lots of powers with the English government. It’s just that the Scottish government would get to decide which ones, and on which terms.
Adam: take a trip on any reasonably priced, comfortable TGV high speed train between independent European countries, and see if you still want a Unionist British Rail experience…!