Unexpected anger

HMS Astute Arrives at Faslane for the First Time
HMS Astute Arrives at Faslane for the First Time by UK Ministry of Defence, on Flickr.
I used to think that Coulport/Faslane would be an amazing negotiating chip in the independence negotiations with Westminster.

The Guardian’s recent scoop about a currency union not being ruled out after all reveals a similar stance:

“Of course there would be a currency union,” the minister told the Guardian in remarks that will serve as a major boost to the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, who accused the UK’s three main political parties of “bluff, bluster and bullying” after they all rejected a currency union.

The minister, who would play a central role in the negotiations over the breakup of the UK if there were a yes vote, added: “There would be a highly complex set of negotiations after a yes vote, with many moving pieces. The UK wants to keep Trident nuclear weapons at Faslane and the Scottish government wants a currency union – you can see the outlines of a deal.”

Various non-Scots that I’ve talked to over the past few months also clearly expect that the Yes campaign’s insistence that Trident must go is surely just an attempt to build a strong basis for the negotiations.

However, having spoken to many Scots about this topic over the past couple of years, both on social media and in real life, I have to say that all the non-Scots (including my younger self) are mistaken.

Most Scots seem to be so strongly opposed to Trident for various reasons that I don’t believe any real negotiations are possible. The nuclear weapons will need to be moved away or destroyed (and most Scots would prefer the latter). The Scottish anger at having these weapons stored on the Clyde, just outside our largest city, is simply too strong.

The Scottish negotiation team might be able to give the rUK five years to remove Trident from Scotland, but I’m doubtful the Scottish public would accept any more than this. Ten years would probably lead to riots.

If Scotland votes Yes, Trident will be gone before 2020. The sooner Westminster get their heads round this fact, the better.

European independence movements

Active separatist movements in the European Union (from Wikimedia).
The map of Europe has started changing again. I had expected Scotland to be the first European border change of the 2010s, but Crimea beat us to it.

Scotland will also not be the first former country to vote Yes to independence in a referendum — Veneto got there first (although it was an unofficial referendum with no legal force).

As I’ve discussed before, we might have reached one of those points in history when the equilibrium is punctuated and a whole wave of new countries will appear.

Of course the size of the wave might vary a lot. If Scotland votes for independence, Wales and/or Northern Ireland might follow. An independent Catalonia will probably lead to other nations leaving Spain, at least Euskadi (Basque Country) and Galicia. The recreation of La Serenissima (the Republic of Venice) will most likely lead to an exodus of new countries from Italy, such as Lombardy and Sardinia. And although I’m not aware of any significant independence movement in Baden-Württemberg, that could change quickly if Bavaria left Germany.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any really good list of independence movements. There’s one on Wikipedia, but it includes “movements” that are really just the dreams of a few individuals, which makes it hard to work out the number of likely new countries.

While we’re on the topic of independence movements within the EU, there were some rather interesting ideas in an article by Graham Avery entitled Independentism and the European Union:

The EU has no preference for bigger rather than smaller states, or vice versa; one of its principles is to ‘respect the equality of member states’. However, in its system of decision-making the EU does have an inbuilt bias in favour of smaller states. For seats in the European Parliament and votes in the Council by qualified majority, smaller states are over-represented in terms of population; they also have relatively more voting power than bigger ones. This ‘degressive proportionality’ is designed to give smaller states the reassurance that they will not be dominated by the bigger states.


These aspects of the EU’s structure and functioning evidently create an environment in which independentism can be more credible.


In considering how to deal with independentism today, member states of the European Union are fully entitled to insist that the principles of democracy and constitutionalism should be respected. They should also accept that – in relation to the EU – independentists are entitled to follow the logic of the structure that member states themselves have devised.

To be fair, it’s not just because of the EU. The existence of a whole network of international organisations (the UN, NATO, the EU, the IMF, the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and all that) creates a situation where countries have rights and obligations, and the application of international law means all countries are equal. This arguably favours small countries over large ones because the former are more homogenous and quicker on their feet, but vulnerable to being bullied by big countries (as Georgia and Ukraine have recently discovered).

It was tough being a small independent country three hundred years ago (and it still can be outwith NATO and the EU), but these days it’s really not very obvious any more how Scotland benefits from being part of the UK.

The city upon a hill

London Skyline from Greenwich
London Skyline from Greenwich, a photo by smokeghost on Flickr.
What is Labour’s vision for Scotland and the UK? They spend most of their time criticising the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England, but it’s often hard to figure out what they’d do if they couldn’t just oppose their opponents.

One thing stands out, however. They seem to be very fond of is London and the wealth it’s creating. For instance, here’s what Lamont said in her David Hume speech (PDF, my emphasis):

I believe in something called redistribution. I believe wealth should be redistributed to where it is needed. I think that one of the best ways we do this is through the United Kingdom. Let me be clear. I think that the UK is not just made up of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that we live in a union of five – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the remarkable international city state of London. The UK is the machinery by which we redistribute wealth amongst those five constituent parts. And we all benefit. I don’t believe we should give that up lightly since it represents in essence the sense of community we regard as a Scottish value.

I read this as “London makes a lot of money, and the UK is the machinery by which we take it away and give it to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. If Labour members still harbour some socialist dreams, they only have any currency outwith London. In the city on the hill, different rules apply. As Peter Mandelson once said: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

It’s probably in this context that we should understand the bizarre stuff about devolved tax rates in Labour’s Devo Nano proposal (PDF, paragraph 362): “This would mean a power to set the new Scottish Progressive Rates of Income Tax applying in the higher bands only, which would be able to secure 40p and 50p rates in the event that the United Kingdom Government proceeded unfairly to reduce them. This system will ensure also that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create damaging tax competition within the United Kingdom by arbitrarily reducing the higher tax rates in the hope of attracting well-off taxpayers from England.”

In other words, Scotland must never be able to outcompete London. It’s OK for Scotland to shoot itself in the foot, but there must never be a good reason for businesses to move from London to Scotland. As they write in section 54: “[T]axes on tax bases, which can freely be relocated to a lower tax jurisdiction, are not appropriate for devolution.”

However, I don’t think they want everybody outwith London to be on benefits, so logically it follows that they’d prefer everybody else in the UK to be public-sector workers. That would explain why they’ve been so angry about the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and all that, because they have the effect of making the public sector more efficient and potentially reducing employment there. Johann Lamont confirmed this back in 2012 when she said that “[if] we need free personal care, we need an honest discussion about what it costs with a well-managed, well-trained workforce.”

Is this really what Labour wants? A UK that is split into two parts: A wealth-creating capitalistic London containing the vast majority of the country’s businesses, where people go to become filthy rich or perish in the process, and the rest of the UK, where everybody has safe, well-paid public sector jobs. Was this their reaction to the collapse of communism? To fix socialism by adding one wealth-creating bit to each country? Do they not worry that London might get fed up with paying for Labour’s socialist nirvana?

There’s almost a religious tone to Labour’s adoration of London. It makes this son of the manse recall the city upon a hill in the Sermon on the Mount, and I also wonder whether they’ve been inspired by Blake’s English anthem (but rather misunderstanding it):

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The inherent volatility of devolution

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.
Pre-1999, the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament seemed like a great idea. Scotland hadn’t had a way to express its identity for nearly three centuries, and creating a forum for developing genuinely Scottish solutions seemed like a good way forward.

However, as times goes by, it’s becoming increasingly clear that asymmetrical devolution (the construction we have in the UK, where there is no English Parliament and Westminster consequently has to act as the parliament for the UK and for England at the same time) is fundamentally flawed.

Proper federal systems (good examples are the US and Germany) work well and seem to be stable. No matter where you live, the local state handles specific issues (e.g., education) and other things are dealt with by the federal government. You don’t feel any less American just because you live in Wisconsin instead of New York.

Centralised states (where there is only one parliament with law-making powers) can also work well (especially when the country isn’t too big). Again all citizens are equal no matter where they live.

However, in the UK there are huge differences. If you’re Scottish, your elected representatives have a say in both the education policies of Scotland and England. On the other hand, your Scottish fisheries minister cannot deal directly with the EU but has to use their English counterpart as an intermediary.

If you feel Scotland is different from the other nations of the UK, why wouldn’t you want to opt for full independence and get the powers to control everything? And if you feel Scotland is just a region of the UK and not really any more different than Yorkshire, why do you need a Scottish Parliament making laws that gradually make Scotland more and more different from the rest of the UK?

When I look at Scottish Labour’s hopelessly unambitious Devo Nano proposal (PDF), I really don’t understand what it is they want to achieve. They probably thought the Scottish Parliament would be a great way to kill the SNP stone dead and keep Scottish Labour in power when the Tories ruled Westminster, but they now know they were wrong.

In their heart of hearts, I suspect Scottish Labour would like to roll back devolution and implement a proper One Nation vision for the UK. However, they know that would be political suicide in Scotland, so they opt for the smallest possible incremental change to devolution in the hope that the Scottish people will reject independence.

At the end of the day, devolution is probably inherently volatile and unstable. It will either lead to full independence sooner or later, or it will somehow get abolished again. Unless you believe Scotland is just another British region, you might as take the plunge in six months’ time and vote Yes.

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.

Views from visitors

My friend Kakha in the Pot Still
My friend Kakha in the Pot Still, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
In the past months, foreign visits have taken up a lot of my spare time. A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Kakha from Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) visited us for a few days, and now my mother has arrived from Denmark. Both have been political activists in the past, so it’s always refreshing to hear their views on the independence debate.

Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the following year its autonomous region Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia. Later South Ossetia decided to do the same, which led to the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. In other words, Georgia has both positive and negative experiences with independence movements.

It was therefore necessary for me to persuade Kakha that Scotland is similar to Georgia, not to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. However, both Scotland and Georgia experienced many centuries as independent countries before they became part of a political union with a big neighbour, they maintained a distinct identity within that union, and their right to self-determination was never seriously in doubt, so it wasn’t hard to convince him.

Once that had been settled, Kakha spent the remainder of his visit asking how anybody in their right mind could vote No to independence. He simply couldn’t understand how people who consider themselves Scottish could even contemplate voting against independence. I tried to explain the Scottish cringe and all that, but he didn’t get it. The only explanation that he could see any merit in was when I suggested that some people overestimate Scotland’s influence within the UK. Most other potential reasons were dismissed with words too strong for this blog, especially when I dared to quote the “we’re too poor” line. “But you’ve got whisky and oil!!!” cried Kakha.

My mum is less agitated about the independence issue than Kakha, but she keeps repeating that she doesn’t get why people don’t understand that Westminster wouldn’t be bullying and scaremongering if they didn’t have a lot to lose from Scottish independence, and that Scottish independence must consequently be a good idea.

In their own ways, Kakha and my mum both demonstrate that The Herald’s foreign editor was spot-on when he summarised typical foreign views of the independence referendum:

[E]ven in countries all too familiar with the risks and costs that political separation brings, the anecdotal evidence suggests people still think it a cause we Scots should embrace. Viewed through the prism of such people and their experiences, the ludicrous scaremongering that has been a hallmark of the debate within the UK can be seen for the nonsense that it is. If such people are not afraid, why should we Scots be?

More powers evitable

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
We see many headlines at the moment proclaiming that more powers for the Scottish Parliament are inevitable after a No vote.

I believe many of the people saying this are sincere, and it’s true, of course, that there is an overwhelming consensus in Scotland for many more powers. A referendum offering a system whereby the UK government makes decisions about defence and foreign affairs and the Scottish Parliament decides everything else would have been won by an overwhelming majority if independence hadn’t been an option.

However, if we listen to Scottish unionist politicians (for instance Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell who released their separate proposals today), they don’t agree on much. The common subset might consist of as little as devolving income tax, air passenger duty and the right of the Scottish Parliament to control its own elections. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, and much, much less than what a majority of Scots want.

At this point it’s important to remember that Scottish politicians cannot decide on extended devolution on their own. Whereas a nation such as Scotland arguably has the right to seek independence at any point, changing the devolution settlement can only be done by the Westminster (and rightly so — you cannot have a club where individual members can change the rules on their own).

So how likely is it that Westminster will accept the wishes of their Scottish colleagues after a No vote? In terms of realpolitik, this is what we’re likely to see:

  • No urgency: If the Yes side has just lost the referendum, it’ll take years before the SNP can feasibly try to call another one, so nothing bad will happen if further devolution doesn’t happen immediately. This means it won’t be urgent to do something, so it’ll be tempting simply to set up a commission and tell it to spend five years writing a report.
  • No consensus: Whereas there is consensus in Scotland for further devolution, that is definitely not the case in Westminster. For many different reasons, there is a lot of resistance, and many politicians there would probably call for reduced devolution in some areas as well as cuts to the Barnett formula for calculating the block grant.
  • Other priorities: Scottish independence has dominated the political debate in Scotland for the past two years, but that’s not at all the case in England, where topics such as immigration and the EU seem much more important. This means that it’ll be immensely difficult for the Scottish politicians to get their English counterparts to put anything meaty into the manifestos for the 2015 general election.

In other words, more powers are definitely not inevitable. I’m sure the Scottish unionist politicians will waffle for a long time about more powers, and it’s very likely a Calman II commission will be established, but I sincerely doubt anything more significant will happen after a No vote until such a time as a second independence referendum is about to be called. More powers are very much evitable.