The Unionists’ plans for an independent Scotland

Scottish Parliament III
Originally uploaded by Graeme Pow

The SNP are often asked to provide detailed plans for what to do after independence — which currency would Scotland use, would there be passport controls, would Scotland be a member of NATO, etc.

To a certain extent that is right and proper – the SNP is the main proponent of independence, so it reasonable to expect that this party will also be able to suggest some answers to these questions.

However, there’s a limit to it.

The day after Scotland votes Yes to independence, the unionist parties will have to stop working to prevent independence and start working to fight Scotland’s corner in the independence talks with the rUK.

Furthermore, the next elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2016, roughly 18 months after the independence referendum. It is entirely possible that the SNP won’t win these elections, and it could therefore quite feasibly be a Labour politician who would be the first prime minister of an independent Scotland, and in this case it would be Labour and not the SNP that would be making many of the crucial decisions about NATO, the currency and the other crucial questions.

In short, I’d like the Unionists to acknowledge that they too need to have a vision about what an independent Scotland should look like, because they might be the ones who’ll have to implement it.

How to minimise the number of students from England after independence

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia. Denmark in theory has to treat Swedish students the same as Danish ones, but this is not the whole truth.

Denmark used to have a big problem with too many Swedes studying medicine in Copenhagen and then going home after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefitted Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who are either Danish citizens, have lived in Denmark for five years prior to starting university, or who have parents that are EU citizens and have moved to Denmark for work reasons. Other students don’t get a penny.

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence. There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers to provide opportunities for tweaking the entry requirements to make it harder for English students to get into Scottish universities (the brilliant ones would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway), and Scotland could introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and long-term residents.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Update (May 2013): Denmark’s rule about only giving grants to long-term residents has been found unlawful by the EU Court of Justice. Now everybody who has moved to Denmark in order to work (even if only for the summer holidays before starting university) has the right to get Danish grants when studying in Denmark.

Independence for Shetland and Orkney?

Originally uploaded by image_less_ordinary

Tavish Scott and some of his unionist friends have been having fun recently suggesting that Shetland and Orkney might separate from Scotland in the case of Scottish independence.

As far as I can see, there are theoretically four options for Shetland and Orkney if Scotland becomes independent:

  1. They can remain part of Scotland.
  2. They can become part of Norway (or Denmark) instead.
  3. They can become part of England.
  4. They can become independent.

Option (1) is of course the most straightforward option. Although option (2) would perhaps tempt some of the islanders temporarily, I’m not sure they’d really want to learn Norwegian as their first foreign language, introduce Norwegian law, go to university in Norway, and so on. Option (3) would possibly appeal to some of the islanders, especially those of them who have moved there from England; however, would the majority of the population really want to be flown to England for complex hospital treatments, or by default go to university in England? Also, the islands have never in their history belonged to England, so it’d be a somewhat strange outcome. Option (4) is of course a possibility, but they have a very small population and don’t even have experience with devolution.

I think it’s a good idea for Shetland and Orkney to get some degree of autonomy within Scotland. Perhaps this would over time develop into full independence, although I’m doubtful. However, to leap from being a full and integrated part of Scotland to becoming an independent nation overnight would be a complete shock to the system, and I’d be very surprised if the islanders themselves would go for it, especially as there is no established independence movement on the islands as far as I know.

I can therefore only conclude that Tavish Scott is just trying to spread uncertainty and fear about the prospects of Scottish independence – he’s not really advocating separating the islands from mainland Scotland. I would have hoped the unionists had some positive arguments in favour of the Union, but that might have been too much to hope for.

Scottish independence as seen from London

Kilt man
Originally uploaded by thecnote

As far as I can gather, we are currently seeing a divide opening between London-based media (the big newspapers and many of the BBC’s flagship programmes, such as the Andrew Marr Show) and Scottish-based media (including Scottish blogs).

The London-based media are acting as if the independence referendum has already been won by the No side, and they’re almost blanking out the SNP. For instance, Andrew Marr seems to have completely ignored Scotland for the past few Sundays, and Fraser Nelson reported that the Unionists won easily at a debate in London.

In the Scottish-based media, on the other hand, there’s definitely no feeling that the independence referendum has been decided yet, and I think it’s fair to say that the Yes side are doing better than their opponents at the moment.

If this divide continues, the next two years are going to be very bizarre, with media in based in London and Scotland appearing to be based on different planets.

I wonder whether the divide will remain intact for the duration of the referendum campaign. If so, I think the London-based media are going to be very interesting to watch in the autumn of 2014, when they suddenly have to face up to the fact that the referendum electorate are all living in Scotland!

Population growth in independent countries and Scotland

Two weeks ago, the Better Nation blog published an article by Jeff Breslin which contained the following passage:

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Ireland’s current difficulties is the number of bright young things leaving the country for better prospects abroad. One could argue that this isn’t a road that Scotland would want to go down through independence and, yet, that is precisely what is happening now. (I know this from experience as I moved to London strictly because Scotland couldn’t provide the PhD that my partner wished to study. Wales, incidentally, could).

The Irish population in 1961 was 2.8m. The population today is 4.5m.

The Norwegian population in 1961 was 3.6m. The population today is 5.0m.

The Icelandic population in 1961 was 179,000. The population today is 318,000.

The Scottish population in 1961 was 5.2m. The population today is 5.2m.

There is clearly only one stagnant, problem child in the above list and that is because there is an historic, corrosive brain drain taking place in Scotland that is damaging growth from both a population and an economic viewpoint. It is little wonder that ‘London-based parties’, to use an unfortunate phrase, are championing the continuation of the UK when it is London that is the prime beneficiary of this very brain drain.

Kids wanting to get away from it all in Sweden move to Stockholm, kids wanting to get away from it all in Norway move to Oslo and kids wanting to get away from it all in Iceland move to Reykjavik but too many kids wanting to get away from it all in Scotland move to London, and we are haemhorrhaging talent and creativity as a direct result.

I decided to have a closer look at this. Using figures from Wikipedia (look for the articles called Demographics of …), I’ve made two graphs.

The first one (top right) shows the populations of Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Norway from 1900 to 2010. In 1900, Scotland was by far the most populous country of the four, with almost as big a population as Norway and Denmark combined. Scotland and Ireland had almost stagnant populations for the following decades, while Norway and Denmark grew rapidly. A while after Ireland became independent, the Irish population suddenly exploded, and it has now almost caught up with Denmark. Scotland seems to have experienced modest growth after the introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The other graph (on the left) adds Sweden and England, but instead of using absolute numbers, the graphs are relative to the populations in 1900.

The second graph clearly shows a difference between non-independent Scotland and pre-independence Ireland on one hand, and the independent countries (or the dominant part of the union, in the case of England) on the other.

If Scotland had experienced the same relative population growth as Denmark since the year 1900, the population in 2010 would have been around 10.1m instead of 5.2m. Would this have happened if Scotland had regained her independence under Queen Victoria, or are there other reasons why Scotland would never have been as fertile as Denmark?

Britain and Scandinavia

The subject
Originally uploaded by Simon Collison

To what extent is Britain (or the British Isles) the same kind of construct as Scandinavia (or the Nordic countries)?

Both Britain and Scandinavia have a long and complex history, with periods of political unification and others with separate kingdoms and plenty of wars.

Scandinavia’s united period was a long time ago (1397–1523), while Britain only started falling apart when Ireland became independent again less than a century ago. On the other hand, the British Isles are to some extent more heterogenous than Scandinavia – the former is a mixture of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norman French, while the latter consists of the descendants of the Vikings with some Finns, Lapps and Germans thrown in.

In both cases in can be hard to pinpoint exactly what Britishness/Scandinavianness means. For instance, John Major’s description of Britishness – “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’” – is so clearly a description of England that does not apply to Scotland and Ireland. In the same way, it’s very hard to define Scandinavian culture in one sentence. And yet, Scandinavians do recognise the similarities intuitively, and Scandinavians abroad tend to hang out together, for instance at international conferences.

So there are definite similarities. And just as Scandinavia does exist in spite of having been separate countries for half a millennium, Britain will always exist whether Scotland becomes independent in 2014 or not. Actually, Scottish independence might actually lead to a reevaluation of the concept, so that it ceases to be about a political construct and starts being about what actually binds people on these islands together, whether they live in Ireland, Wales, Man, Scotland or England.