Category Archives: alternativestoindependence

The United Celtic Republics

As I've said many times before, the reason I don't believe in a federal UK is because England is so much bigger than all the other parts put together that it would need to be split into two or more separate nations for it to work (and each part would need to have its own legal system, NHS, education system and football team in order for federal symmetry to be achieved), but the English clearly don't want to see their nation chopped up any more than the Scots would, so there is no practical way forward.

However, if the Republic of Ireland was willing, I would have nothing against being part of a federal country called the United Celtic Republics. I guess Ireland and Scotland would form it, but I reckon Northern Ireland would join soon afterwards, and I wouldn't be surprised if Wales joined eventually, too.

Crucially, none of the constituent parts would be able to dominate the federal parliament, which together with a proper constitution would be the best way to ensure that the country works for everybody.

One obvious advantage would be that it could inherit Ireland's EU membership, so there wouldn't be any worries on that front.

There might be some disagreement about the location of the federal capital, but there's really only one city that is both Irish and Scottish, so I think Glasgow would be the obvious choice.

Of course I don't really believe the United Celtic Republics will ever be formed, but I honestly think Scotland and the other Celtic nations could all thrive within it. The problem with the UK is that England is far too large compared to the rest, and the lack of a codified constitution makes the situation even worse. It's not being part of a union that makes me fight for Scottish independence, it's being part of an unequal and badly designed one.

Home rule if we let the dream die

Driving into Scotland after 2014
Driving into Scotland after 2014.

Alun Evans, the former director of the Scotland Office, has used the upcoming anniversary of the referendum to issue a call for home rule:

The time has come for the United Kingdom to make a big, bold, generous and mature offer to the people of Scotland. That offer needs to be – whatever people choose to call it, full fiscal autonomy or devo max plus – “home rule within the United Kingdom”, to use the language of Charles Parnell and William Gladstone.

What would that look like? It could be: full devolution of tax and spending to the Scottish parliament and government, except for reserved areas; full responsibility for domestic policy and spending; full responsibility for energy policy and activity on and offshore; agreement on certain shared responsibilities within the UK; a framework of the continuance of the UK as a constitutional monarchy; a shared economic area with monetary policy set by the UK central bank’s monetary policy committee on which Scotland’s views should be represented; defence and the overall conduct of foreign policy to be run by the UK but with full consultation.

Well, that's cool -- exactly what the SNP has asked for every day since the No vote. However, Mr. Evans has three conditions:

But there would need to be three broad conditions. First: economic. This arrangement would, by definition, spell the end of the Barnett formula for public spending as it is applied to Scotland – needing a new and fairer formula to apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

That's fine, so long as the price agreed for shared UK services (such as the military) is fair.

Second: political. Giving a far greater degree of independence within the UK to Scotland – home rule – should have a quid pro quo in terms of reduced political power for Scotland within the Westminster parliament. The best, and fairest, answer to the West Lothian question is that home rule should coincide with a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in return for home rule. That would imply a cut of perhaps 50% in the number of Scottish MPs.

That, on the other hand, is ridiculous. I'd be very happy for Westminster to split into two parliaments -- an English one and a federal one -- and of course Scotland should only have seats in the latter. However, in the federal parliament Scotland should count for more, not less. As I've argued before, the Penrose formula should be used, which would give Scotland roughly 1/6 of the seats in the UK Parliament, rather than the 1/20 that Alun Evans seems to be advocating. Otherwise Scotland simply wouldn't have as much influence on the international stage as it would as an independent country.

Third: constitutional. This issue has to be put to bed for a generation, not for a year or for five years. There may be something to be learned from the experience of Canada with Quebec. After its second referendum in 1995 – when the separatist movement failed to gain independence by only 1% – the government reached out to Quebec and sold the benefits of remaining within Canada much more strongly and passionately, to the extent that the pressure for separatism has subsided.

Those who believe in Scotland remaining a part of the UK now need to do the same to ensure that agreement on home rule is not immediately unpicked. And so a long-term agreement must stipulate that it is for the long term – even if that needs to be enshrined in a new treaty of union.

It might be a good idea for the SNP to agree to a decade-long referendum moratorium in return for home rule, but I don't like the sound of Mr. Evans's last sentence at all. It sounds a lot like he would make it illegal to call another referendum, and that simply wouldn't be acceptable. Some people might have swallowed this on 19th September last year when everything was dreich and thrawn, but now that most people feel that another referendum is just a few years away, I don't see why anybody would accept these terms and conditions.

Home rule is fine, but only if it's a stepping-stone towards full independence for Scotland.

Making Scotland a British region

Day 150
Day 150 by Matt Preston, on Flickr.
Effie Deans (a.k.a. Lily of St. Leonards), who is well-known for suggesting last year that Unionists should vote tactically to keep out the SNP, has written a long article about how to defeat the independence movement and the SNP.

It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's the main argument:

There’s only one good argument for an independent Scotland. But it is a very good argument indeed. It can be stated in the following way:

  1. Scotland is a country.
  2. Countries ought to be independent.
  3. Therefore Scotland ought to be independent.

[...]

In order to defeat an opponent it is necessary to put forward his best argument and then refute it. The only way to refute an argument is by either refuting the reasoning or the assumptions. [...] In order to defeat the SNP we must defeat their assumptions. The initial assumption “Scotland is a country” must not be allowed, for if we do allow it, the rest of the argument follows as a matter of course.

[...]

We must attack the SNP at their roots. I have tried to outline how to do this in the past few weeks. First, accept that the UK is one nation, that is indivisible. Therefore, cease treating the parts of the UK as if they were really countries. [...] It has turned out to be a long-term historical mistake that in a number of respects the parts of the UK have been treated as if they were independent countries. No other nation state in the world allows its parts to have separate money and separate international football teams. [...] Secondly, rule out any further referendums ever. No-one would allow Aberdeenshire a referendum on independence. Well, on the same basis we should say that Aberdeenshire is to Scotland as Scotland is to the UK. Because it is an indivisible part of the whole, there is no right to secede. [...] Thirdly, don’t make any sort of deal with those who have only the goal of destroying our country. Don’t work with them even if they pretend to be our friends. They are nothing of the sort. They are the greatest threat to the UK in over 300 years of history. Treat them as such. [...] Fourthly, we must find a way to bring about more unity into the UK and promote a feeling of common identity.

Effie Deans is not very explicit here about what exactly will need to happen to stop Scots from perceiving Scotland as a country, but I reckon it will include the following:

  • Abolish Scottish separateness in sports, such as the Scottish national football and rugby teams and the Scottish football leagues.
  • Abolish Scots law and introduce English law in Scotland.
  • Abolish the Scottish education system and introduce the English curriculum, GCSEs and A Levels in Scotland.
  • Force all charities to set up UK-wide bodies (outlaw Scottish charities).
  • Merge the Scottish NHS with the English NHS.
  • Remove all powers from the Scottish Parliament that wouldn't be granted to an English regional assembly (if these are ever created).

In my opinion, Effie Deans is both right and wrong. She's right that only by making Scots think of Scotland as a British region (like Yorkshire) would the dream of independence ever die. However, she's wrong to think that a plan such as this could ever gain widespread support in Scotland. I reckon only a very small part of Scots (perhaps 10%) think of Scotland as a region of the UK, and the rest of us agree that Scotland is a nation within a political union called the United Kingdom -- we just disagree whether this union is a good or a bad thing.

Unless I'm completely mistaken, any plan to execute Effie Deans's plan would cause opinion polls to show at least 80% support for independence within a fortnight, and Scotland would become independent soon afterwards.

Perhaps her plan could have been implemented successfully in the 1980s, when Scottish self-confidence was at a historic low. Not today.

That said, many leading Unionists -- both in Scotland and in England -- might quietly agree with Effie Deans, and we should watch out for any threats to Scotland's status as a constituent nation of the UK. They'd probably start with small things and only deal with the highly symbolic areas (such as the education system) after many years.

Finally, I'd like to quote her request that many more Scots should join the SNP:

Some people who voted No in Scotland will object to what I write here. My answer is as follows. If you think that Scotland is a country in the same sense as France is a country, you should join the SNP. If you don’t feel particularly British, you likewise should join the SNP.

I very much agree, but how she can possibly think that'd help the Unionist cause is beyond me.

Letter from a No future

We can imagine many different futures. Here is a letter from a future where Scotland voted No -- not the only such future, but a possible one. Please read it in conjunction with this letter from a Yes future.

Abandoned building
Abandoned building by Paul Macrae, on Flickr.
I'm writing this during the 2034 independence referendum campaign.

After the No vote in 2014, many people thought things would revert to how they had been before the referendum was agreed on, but this didn't happen.

The popular Yes movement had become an important part of Scottish life, and BBC bias demonstrations in Glasgow and independence marches in Edinburgh became a part of Scottish life. This really scared the stock markets because the future of Scotland and the UK remained uncertain, and lots of money was removed from the entire British economy, but especially from Scotland.

Scotland got a few new devolved powers, but it quickly became clear they didn't make any real difference, and most Scots started to realise they had been conned into voting No. The Herald for instance published a heartbreaking mea culpa editorial where they lamented their naïve optimism about the prospect of federalism being implemented after a No vote.

An opinion poll five years after the referendum showed that 75% of people claimed to have voted Yes in 2014, and fully 85% now supported independence, helped no doubt by the exit from the EU implemented by the new Conservative-UKIP coalition in Westminster.

However, Westminster had now learnt its lesson and blocked a new referendum.

At the same time, the repeated cuts to the block grant meant the SNP government had to introduce tuition fees and privatise part of the NHS, and they lost the subsequent Scottish Parliament election. The new Labour-Tory coalition imposed legislation to make it even harder to call another referendum.

In the years after that, the independence marches grew and grew, and recently we formed a human chain from the West Coast to the East Coast, consisting of three million people.

The pressure was now incredibly strong, and the Scottish Government is now organising a new referendum, although it's not approved by Westminster, so it's anybody's guess what will happen afterwards.

Also, Scotland has suffered a lot under austerity and repeated recessions since then, and the new Treaty Against Fossil Fuels will enter into force soon, meaning that the remaining Scottish oil will be worthless.

If only we had voted Yes back in 2014!

The impossibility of UK federalism

Bundesrat - Festival of Lights
Bundesrat - Festival of Lights by Stadtlichtpunkte, on Flickr.
I had decided to stop talking about federalism, for the simple reason that it's not on offer and is a distraction from the much more urgent independence debate.

However, today Labour started talking about replacing the House of Lords with a regional chamber:

[Labour leader Ed Miliband's policy team] are looking at proposals for a radically reformed second chamber made up of representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. The body would be "indirectly elected", possibly by elected politicians from the different nations and regions of the UK.

Whereas this proposal would probably be better than the currently unelected mess, it wouldn't be federalism.

Federalism is at heart a symmetrical system (there are some exceptions, such as India, but what I describe here holds true for the best-known examples such as Germany and the US). What this means is that the states (Länder in Germany) all have the same powers, and it's well-defined which powers are reserved to central government. Countries with federal systems often have a bicameral parliament: One representing the people, with one vote per citizen (e.g., the American House of Representatives and the German Bundestag) and one representing the states (e.g., the Senate and the Bundesrat); the latter sometimes give equal representations to the states (e.g., in the Senate each state has two members), but sometimes big states have slightly more votes (e.g., in the Bundesrat each Land has between 3 and 6 votes, depending on size).

Federal countries normally have states that are similar in size, but it's not a requirement. However, England is huge (53m inhabitants, while the rest of the nations have only about 10m together), and this makes it hard to establish a federal system.

Firstly, the English Parliament would be hugely influential -- it's quite possible the best political talents would go there rather than to the UK Parliament, and it's probably all the BBC would be talking about most of the time.

Secondly, a proper federal parliament would allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to block legislation desired by England. For instance, using the Bundesrat scheme, the three smaller nations would have 3 votes each, so they could easily outvote England (with 6 votes).

This is of course where Labour's devious invention comes into play. By resurrecting the English regions (which aren't popular in England -- let's not forget how people voted No to regional assemblies when they were asked), they can overcome this problem. By splitting England into nine regions for Senate vote allocation purposes, they can ensure that England will never be outvoted by the small nations of the UK.

However, of course Labour aren't proposing to give the English regions powers like the real nations. There won't be an East Midlands legal system, there won't be an independent South West NHS, there won't be a separate Church of Yorkshire and the Humber, there won't be a distinct London education system, and the North West won't start fielding its own football team in international tournaments.

The problem is that if there is a debate in Labour's second chamber about the NHS, for instance, the three nations with their own separate health systems will be outvoted by the nine English regions that not only share an NHS but also have no direct influence over it, given that it's controlled by Westminster.

The only way I can think of to create proper federalism in the UK is to split England into two or more nations, each having the same powers as Scotland. However, this will never happen. The English feel their nation is England, and it would be an abomination to destroy England in order to save the UK. The consequence is that the UK will never become a federal state. It's impossible.

The weakening of the Scottish institutions

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Downing Street, on Flickr.
It might come as something of a shock to people who know me, but for once I agree with Gordon Brown (in his recent article in The Guardian):

It is also a mistake to think what's new is Scotland demanding its own national institutions and the freedom to run them. From its churches and law to its schools, universities and hospitals, Scotland has had its own distinctive national institutions throughout all those 300 years of union. [...]

Perhaps surprisingly, what is also new is the recent loss of a million members from Scotland's churches and the weakening of the Scottish institutions – religious, legal, educational and even sporting – which expressed our Scottishness. They provided an anchor that made us comfortable with being part of Britain. The delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism has been ruptured [...]

I think this analysis is spot on. For centuries, Scotland effectively had cultural autonomy within a political, economic and monetary union called the British Empire. Because of this autonomy, and because almost no Scots spoke English as their native language until recently (Scots and Gaelic dominated for a long time as spoken languages, and English was only used in schools and churches and some other formal settings), their was no threat to Scottishness at all.

However, these days it's getting harder and harder to define what it means to be Scottish. The TV programmes young people watch the most are British (X Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, Britain's Got Talent and so on), the churches are dying out, and Scots increasingly speak standard English with a slight accent -- and even that is dying out (my kids are struggling with pronouncing the 'ch' in 'loch' and the 'w' in 'whale'). Gordon Brown even created a UK-wide football team for the Olympics.

I'm surprised how Gordon Brown can see these issues so clearly and yet fail to provide any solutions for them. His article doesn't suggest any concrete measures -- he doesn't suggest splitting up the BBC into four national broadcasters, he doesn't think the UK should field four separate Olympic teams, he doesn't draw up a plan for revitalising Scots and Gaelic.

Because Unionists don't seem to want to do anything to create new distinctive Scottish institutions to repair the "delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism", I cannot help but conclude that they're happy to see Scotland merging gradually with England until eventually it becomes just another British region like Yorkshire or Devon.

I agree with Gordon Brown's analysis, and so far as I can see, the only practical solution to the problems he raises is independence. Surely he can see that too?

What devo-max really means

It seems to have become a popular Unionist pastime to devise schemes for slight changes to the devolution settlement, thinking that Scots will mistake them for devo-max and vote No to independence as a consequence.

However, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that "the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else" (in addition to the 31% who want all decisions to be made in Scotland). A few cosmetic changes to the status quo are clearly not enough to create a viable alternative to independence.

Public spending Scotland.
Public spending Scotland (from this report [PDF]).
If we look at public spending in Scotland (the graph on the right), it's clear that more is already spent by Holyrood (the blue bits) than by Westminster (the red bits). To achieve devo-max, the remainder of the "social protection" spending would have to be moved from London to Edinburgh.

Interestingly, the rest of the non-devolved public spending adds up to peanuts (about £8bn), which means that it could all be paid for by VAT (which raised £9347m in 2012-13). As a consequence, all taxation apart from VAT could be devolved to Scotland, and all block grants and other fiscal transfers could be abolished.

There would obviously need to be a federal parliament to deal with foreign affairs, defence and VAT. Because it would have so little to deal with, it could be much smaller than the current House of Commons, and the seats should be allocated according to Penrose's square-root formula, giving Scotland about 18% of the seats, ensuring that Scotland wouldn't get less influence than it would have as an independent country.

In addition to the changes above, we'd need a proper constitution, preventing Westminster from ever rolling back devolution against the wishes of Scotland, and enshrining Scotland's eternal right to self-determination.

There's no reason why all of the above couldn't be signed into law before the referendum to ensure that the Unionists don't suddenly change their mind afterwards.

Sadly, it's probably more likely that pigs will fly. Unionist politicians are showing absolutely no signs that they'll ever agree to something as simple and reasonable as this.