All posts by thomas

Fisking Lord Robertson’s cataclysmic speech

Gustave Doré's illustration of Lord Robertson's preparations for the cataclysmic events he has predicted.
Gustave Doré’s illustration of Lord Robertson’s preparations for the cataclysmic events he has predicted.
I thought I would do a quick fisk of Lord Robertson’s Brookings speech. The following is based on the partial transcript supplied by Brookings. (I haven’t corrected the typos.)

The loudest cheers for the breakup of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies.

This is an interesting use of ‘our’, because it makes it sound like they’re the same for everybody. But are America’s enemies always the same as the UK’s, and are Britain’s enemies also Scotland’s?

For the second military power in the West to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms.

I think the noble lord might be overestimating the UK’s military might somewhat here. If this list is correct, the US spent $732bn on their military in 2011, while the UK spent $64bn and France $53bn. Given that the rest of NATO will still be able to act normally while the rUK and Scotland divide the UK military, I would have thought Scottish independence would feel more like a mild annoyance to NATO than a cataclysmic event. What exactly is it that Lord Robertson expects that the West won’t be able to do without the British PM jumping up and down with excitement next to the American president?

If the United Kingdom was to face a split at this of all times and find itself embroiled for several years in a torrid, complex, difficult and debilitating divorce, it would rob the West of a serious partner just when solidity and cool nerves are going to be vital.

Although he says ‘the West’ again here, this time he must mean ‘the US’ for the sentence to make any sense. In other words, he’s warning the American establishment that their British poodle might be less keen to take part in military adventures for a while. Sounds good to me.

Nobody should underestimate the effect all of that would have on existing global balances and the forces of darkness would simply love it.

I had no idea that the global balance was dependent on the UK to such an extent. I would have thought rogue states were more afraid of the US, or of the combined military might of NATO, or of the EU’s soft power, but it turns out I was wrong all along. Silly me!

The geostrategic consequences don’t stop with what happens in the United Kingdom on the 19th of September.

The 18th, Lord Robertson, not the 19th.

The ripple effects will go much wider than our own shores. The United Kingdom is not alone in having separatist movements.

True, and they’re likely to continue their fights whether Scotland votes Yes or No.

In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque country have declared that they want independence. Catalonia where million and a half people marched in the streets demanding independence – and remember that the SNP have never had more than 10,000 people in any demonstration — Catalonia says that it will have its referendum from Spain even if it’s in breach of the constitution of its country.

This doesn’t sound like he expects Catalonia to back down if Scotland votes No, does it?

The Basque extremist have only in the recent past have backed away from terrorism, but they are watching Catalonia and Scotland with quote undisguised interest.


Then there’s Belgium, a country which is held together by a thread. The Flemish nationalists see Scotland as breaking the mold. We’re next if Scotland breaks free and becomes a member of the European Union, they quite openly say.

And why would this be such a bad thing, so long as Flemish independence is achieved by peaceful means?

And as if to underline what this means for Europe, despite its manifest claim to nationhood, Kosovo still finds itself unrecognized by a handful of European Union countries worried about the implications of breakaway for their own separatist movements.

Yes, that is true. Just as Catalan independence will probably not be immediately recognised by all other countries. Such is life.

So I contend that it is far from scaremongering to use the term Balkanization to predict what might happen if Scotland were to break from its 300 year old union. The fragmentation of Europe starting on the centenary of the First World War would be both an irony and a tragedy with incalculable consequences.

So long as Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Countries, Flanders and all the other areas of Europe contemplating sovereignty are allowed to achieve independence through peaceful means (we shouldn’t forget that the Spanish military has already been making threatening voices), and so long as the EU adopts a pragmatic approach rather than playing silly buggers, I don’t see why these new countries should cause any negative consequences for Europe.

The UK has adopted a sensible approach to Scottish independence, and Lord Robertson should recommend this as the way forward to Spain, Belgium and other countries that might fall apart, rather than trying to insinuate that the UK will go the way of Yugoslavia.

There is some significance in all of we Scots speaking here in Washington and in New York and the major cities of the United States of America. Because the possible independence of Scotland maybe resonates with some who were involved in great battles of the past over here. And some people with no real grasp of history make a tortured comparison with the American bid for independence from Britain in the 1770s. Something that was pioneered by the Scots of course who had a lot to do with that.

Why is this a ‘tortured comparison’? Just because Scotland has political representation in Westminster? We also want to create a fairer and more democratic country, just like the American founding fathers did.

but if [those] who make this facile comparison understood the history of this country they might look more relevantly at the Civil War where hundreds of thousands of Americans perished in a war to keep the new Union together. To Lincoln and his compatriots the Union was so precious, so important, and its integrity so valuable that rivers of blood would be split to keep it together.

Is this a thinly veiled threat that Westminster will spill rivers of blood to keep Scotland if we dare vote Yes? Somebody should ask Lord Robertson exactly what he meant by this.

[…] We have, indeed, as Scots, got the best of both worlds.

So what possible justification should there be for breaking up the United Kingdom? What could possibly justify giving the dictators, the persecutors, the oppressors, the annexers, the aggressors and the adventurers across the planet the biggest pre-Christmas present of their lives by tearing the United Kingdom apart? … I fear from time to time that we Scots are living in a veritable bubble in this debate and outside of that increasingly fractious bubble, we’re losing sight of the fact that our decision on the 18th of September will have much wider and bigger implications that any of us yet grasp.

Again, Lord Robertson seems to be overestimating the UK’s current power. The Empire is no more, and most of the world will probably just shrug their shoulders and get on with other things.

However, I hope that Scottish independence will have much wider and bigger implications that any of us yet grasp. I hope Scotland will become a democratic beacon and become famous for the reinvention of the welfare state (which is under threat in Scandinavia at the moment).

So the next few months, the people of Scotland have to properly and soberly examine the impact of their decision on the stability of the world. And in that time the rest of the ordered world needs to tell us that is actually cares.

Ah, so the world needs to tell the Scots what to vote. In other words, because we’ve stopped listening to Westminster, Lord Robertson thinks the solution is to get the American government to lecture us on the right way to vote.

I’m sure that would work wonders, because Scots just love to be told what to do, as you would expect from people living in a place that has no language or culture or any of that.

English newspapers in an independent Scotland

The Guardian | Billboard (A)
The Guardian | Billboard (A) by observista, on Flickr.
When I moved to Scotland twelve years ago, I had to find myself a daily newspaper to read. I tried out most of the broadsheets before settling for the Scotsman in the first instance, and later the Herald.

While I was still evaluating the newspapers, one of the easiest decisions was to discard the Independent and the Guardian, although they were my favourite UK newspapers when I still lived in Denmark. This was simply because they sold their normal edition here instead of producing a Scottish edition (like for instance the Times does), and the result was that they almost ignored the Scottish Parliament and the devolved policy areas from a Scottish perspective.

However, I had many English colleagues who were still reading for instance the Guardian after many years in Scotland. I guess they didn’t feel they had moved abroad, moving from one part of the UK to another, so why should they change their newspaper habits of a lifetime? The result was that their knowledge of Scottish affairs was minimal, however. They would assume the Scottish NHS worked in the same was as its English counterpart, for instance, or they would be utterly surprised at the differences in the education system when their first child started school.

Would my English colleagues have done the same if Scotland had been independent at the time? Would they really have moved to another country but not changed their daily newspaper? Would the Independent and the Guardian even have attempted to sell the London edition in Scotland after independence?

Basically newspapers fall into three broad categories in Scotland: (1) Scottish newspapers that are written in Scotland, such as the Herald, the Scotsman and the Record; (2) Scottish editions of English newspapers, such as the Times and the Sun; (3) English newspapers that aren’t changed for the Scottish market, such as the Guardian and the Independent.

Once Scotland is independent, the first group will of course continue as before, and there’s no reason why the second one would need to change their model fundamentally (although it’s likely they’d need to change more contents than they do at the moment). This is indeed what we see in Ireland, where for instance The Sun produces a local edition in Dublin.

However, what will happen to the last group? Will they start producing Scottish editions (e.g., the Scottish Guardian), will they quietly disappear from most shops, or will they just continue to sell their rUK editions in Scotland as if nothing has changed?

New word needed: Englandic

Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG
Two Flags (2012), by Miss GG by Katy Stoddard, on Flickr.

Andrew Lilico has written a piece on Conservative Home about his confused sense of identity and about his independence angst:

I am a Scots Briton from New Zealand. […] When I came to live in Britain as a boy, I was not eligible for a British passport (though I have one now), as my family had been in New Zealand for many generations, but there was no doubt that I was British and that this was the Mother Country. […]

I was raised in Chester, near Wales not Scotland, but as a Scots Briton from New Zealand that seemed no less natural a way to “return to the Mother Country” than living anywhere else in Britain. I have never thought of myself as “English”. To me “English” has always been a racial designation, and the English a tribe […]

If Scotland were to become independent, who would I be? […] As a Scots Briton born in New Zealand who happens to live in England-and-Wales (Northern Ireland would presumably depart to join Scotland in due course), why would I think of myself as English, then, any more than, say, European?

Mr Lilico seems to be using ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ as ethnic labels, in the same way as Americans use European ethnonyms to describe their ancestry even if they haven’t left the US for generations. In other words, ‘British’ is used to denote the citizenship, and this can then be further qualified (e.g., ‘Scots British’, ‘English British’, ‘Asian British’ or ‘Black British’). I presume he would not approve of somebody describing themselves as ‘Italian Scottish’ or ‘Pakistani Scottish’.

However, this is not how ‘Scottish’ is used in Scotland today. For instance, Ruth Wishart recently defined a Scot as follows:

A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

In other words, ‘Scottish’ is now used in Scotland in a similar way to how ‘British’ is used in England (or at least in London), and people do indeed happily describe themselves as ‘Italian Scottish’ or ‘Pakistani Scottish’.

(My beloved wife has a theory that the definition of ‘Scottish’ changed with the influx of the West Coast Italians after World War I, because so many Glaswegians spent their holidays there, and this made them become part of the Scottish family.)

The distinction many people from England make between ‘British’ and ‘English’ reminds me of the distinction in Russian between российский and русский (both normally glossed as “Russian”). The word “российский” rossíjskij means belonging to Russia, as a citizen or resident regardless of ethnicity, while the word “русский” rússkij describes ethnic East Slavic Russians only, but not other ethnic groups in Russia.

I wonder what England will do once Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all left the UK (as I’m sure will happen once Scotland has taken the first step). Will they still call their country (South) Britain to allow themselves to preserve the distinction between ‘British’ and ‘English’? Or will they need to coin a new word to cover a citizen of England who isn’t ethnically English (e.g., ‘Englandic’)?

I don’t think anybody in Scotland feels a great need to introduce the word ‘Scotlandic’ to express this difference. Scotland has always been a country of emigrants and immigrants — a multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious place. A Scot is indeed someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here.

Addendum (12/04/14): Some rather interesting maps have been published by BBC News, which I think confirm what I wrote here.

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.