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Tak tent!

May 25, 2011

Now the post election stoor has settled and the Scots Parliament is about to get under way again, it’s maybe time to reflect and look forward. It’s been a strange three weeks or so since the unexpected majority was won by the SNP.

Ardent Unionists, who spent the whole of the last parliament blocking an Independence referendum, have suddenly decided it’s a matter that deserves express attention and it should be held as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the media have gone crazy in Pepsi-fying the whole constitutional issue: we’ve had Devo Max, Indy Lite and, for all I know, Diet Fed. Dictionaries are being thumbed, treaties perused, and in a welcome development, even those outside the twitterati have been moved to start seriously considering the future constitutional arrangements in these islands. Paxo and his southern colleagues have had a whole epiphany of sneery comments about passports at the Border and subsidy junketing.

So what of this parliament, and its approach to the national question? Have we been witnessing the kind of fire and wind you tend to get after an unexpected election result, or this time, are we ready for a serious, grown up discussion about how we in Scotland want to be governed?

It’s possible to deal with the timing of a referendum with fairly glib cynicism: the Unionists, showing perhaps touching faith in the pollsters, given the election result, are confident that a referendum held this year would result in a ‘no’ to independence, and the issue would be sidelined for a generation. The Nats, unsurprisingly brimming with confidence, are of the opinion that, towards the end of this parliament, people will be able to look back on 9 years of SNP rule and conclude that Independence would be A Good Thing. They hold the reins, so, as you do, they will hold the vote when they think they have the best chance of winning. It’s just everyday political strategy.

Except it’s not. It’s the future governance of our nation and the unpicking of a union that has lasted, for better or worse, for 300 years. In my view, the Scots people deserve a far more serious and sophisticated approach to the whole,business – and time, effort and inspiration must be utlised to make sure they get these just desserts.

Much has been made of the definition of Independence ‘in these modern times’ – as if the word changes semantically over the years. Of course, this is nonsense. The definition of independence, or, if you prefer, sovereignty, is quite clear, and there’s no debate about it – except perhaps in the fevered minds of sub-editors desperately seeking a strap line. Sovereignty is the preferable term, as ‘Independence’ suggests the question ‘ independent of what?’ – and I think Scotland has spent quite enough time defining itself in terms of its southern neighbour. But, let’s not quibble.

Simply put, sovereignty is full control of all decisions affecting a country’s governance; no more, no less. That definition is not what’s up for debate. The question for the Scots is: Do we want full control of our affairs? The supplementary – and for many the more important point is – if we gain that control, how will we use it, in fairness and equality, in the best interests of the nation?
This should be at the root of discussions over the next four years. What will an independent Scotland do with its returned capacity to govern itself?

A serious discussion makes demands of our political parties. Clearly the SNP and Greens are in favour of independence. Now is the time for them to state clearly how they see that being achieved and how they would want it enacted. Similarly, the LibDems, long proponents of a federal solution in these islands, should divert themselves from internal warfare and put meat on the bones of their policy. Just as many SNP voters, we are told, do not favour independence, so too, according to our psephologist chums, there are Labour voters who do favour it. Despite recent decline, the Labour Party clearly has a history with the people of Scotland and, I would say, has a duty to debate sovereignty seriously, resisting the temptation to politically point score. Even the Scottish Tories have shown a remarkable ability to come to terms with the hitherto detested devolution, and what might be termed a Progressive input to discussions would represent a train of political thought that still exists in Scotland despite the party’s recent dismal showings.

What a chance then for the political parties of Scotland to come together, show leadership and maturity, and involve the people in a serious consideration of our future. It is, of course, nonsense to maintain that such a debate is somehow a distraction from the urgent business of managing the economy and enacting policies. It is the means of governance that will enable our government to put in place the best strategies for jobs, growth and development. To suggest constitutional change is not important enough for discussion – yet – is akin to the crew of the Titanic ignoring navigation training, as swabbing the decks and serving meals is of more immediate importance.

Evidently the parties will come to various conclusions on the issue of independence; their discussions should inform the content of the referendum, the burden of which should be – do we want full autonomy, and, if so, which of the powers should we fully enact and which would we hold in reserve till their full use was in Scotland’s (and the rest of the UK’s) best interests. The Referendum would then in essence be a number of questions, all of them reflecting various party positions. Voters could choose not just Independence – but at what pace they would wish to endorse it. So, we could have Yes to Independence and Yes to establishing initially a Federal set up. Unionists have talked for so long about ‘separation’ and ‘tearing the UK apart’ that we need to remind ourselves that the process of assuming independence is not necessarily a sudden and violent action. It is possible, maybe even desirable – for all concerned – that the reins are fully taken up over a period of time. One could note the distance between Free State autonomy for Ireland in 1921 and Republic status in 1947. Many Scots may be scared of immediate separation but confident in voting for a ‘win win’ in the extension of powers as and when they are appropriate. Gain the powers and then let the people vote on how and when you use them.

So, after discussion, clarification and consultation, I would want to see a referendum that asked the question on autonomy, but also asked how far the voters would want the powers exercised in the first instance. The important point for independence initially is not what we do with the power to govern ourselves but that we regain that power to choose how we govern. It is not difficult to understand many people’s fear of such enormous change – and that includes members of other political parties who would currently consider themselves unionist. So the message would be – let’s regain the power to rule ourselves, but let us give to the voter the choice of how far we utilise those powers and when we extend them. Sounds like democracy to me.

Hopefully we have progressed from an age when independence is equated with not being the same as the English. From Scandinavia, through the Benelux countries to the Baltic states, there are many examples of neighbours cooperating in the common good. Part of the urge for autonomy is to end separation – for Scotland to be in a position where it can play its part in the world community – as itself rather than as an addendum to a bigger neighbour. That, by implication, means being free to form alliances with other countries and not just within these islands.

Some of the examples trailed in the press have been insulting. If Scottish licenses are issued through the DVLA, does that make us less independent – or is it simply good use of an existing resource? If ultimately such a situation were to prove inimical to Scottish interests, we would have the power, under sovereignty, to change the arrangement. Free passage between countries, as is the norm in EU states, would rubbish all the scare tales about border posts, and, in terms of tax differentials and even time zones, there are numerous examples in the USA and Europe where people live close to others in different zones and ‘border hop’ easily and without any appreciable hardship. Tri-state areas such as Indiana/Illinois/Kentucky cope very easily with the knowledge that different jurisdictions apply within ten miles or so. For a serious discussion, we need to eschew scare stories about how impossible independence would be. It is not impossible – the political argument is whether or not it is desirable in the interests of Scotland, and how it would be attained and used.

Defence and economics are frequently cited as ‘awkward’ areas. Economically, countries all over Europe have had to make decisions about which monetary system is best for their state. An independent Scotland choosing Eurozone or Sterling zone would be in exactly the same situation. It ill behoves Labour activists who have spent a decade under the ‘when the time is right’ mantra to demand an answer to this question in advance of independence being gained.

General Sir MIke Jackson recently said that a Scottish Army would have to ‘start from scratch’. I thought that particularly ill considered from a man formerly in charge of a military which is both over stretched and heavily dependent on Scottish troops. Unionists regularly err in assuming a Scots military would need to try and replicate the scope and influence of the current UK force. I am unclear as to the reasons for this. The Irish Republic has a military population that serves as an effective Defence Force, patrols for Fishery Protection and contributes highly effectively to UN Peacekeeping. There is no reason why a Scottish Defence Force could not aspire to a similar role. Increasingly, the UK’s attempts to appear as a world military power are bringing grief and a sense of impotence to its international efforts. While Scots seem uniformly opposed to Trident, there are also signs in Westminster that the nuclear white elephant no longer weaves such overwhelming magic on the Whitehall mandarins – who may even be secretly pleased at an opportunity to scale it down and base it somewhere else or, indeed, to scrap it. Obviously there is a long shared history of military endeavour between Scotland and England and I have no doubt many families may wish to continue to serve the regiments of the army attached to England – just as currently Irish citizens serve in UK Forces. In addition, though current defence reviews tend to suggest that Westminster is not convinced of the strategic need for a heavy military presence in Scotland, it is not an unusual arrangement arround the world for countries to lease bases to neighbouring powers; it doesn’t denote a particular diminution in sovereignty, if operated in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Similarly, the sharing of diplomatic support in embassies and consulates is a well established arrangement. There are countries in which Scotland would see the need for distinct diplomatic missions and other areas of the world where a shared presence would be sufficient. Where this to be with England, Norway or Ireland is of little import, as long as the arrangement fits Scotland’s needs.

One point that is often made in the southern media is: why would England give Scotland these arrangements. What a revealing approach that is! The Union was made between two independent nations. Should Scots vote for Independence, we are in a position where two equal partners negotiate; Scotland would not be seceding from a greater whole, it would be ending a union between two countries. All would do well to remember that.

These are heady times and change is in the air. It has to be the right change for the Scottish people and their voice had to be heard. All the political parties have to step up to the mark and involve their supporters in good old fashioned debate, with a willingness to listen and reflect as essential ingredients. We have to trust the Scottish people, we have to urge them to their responsibilities, we have to play our part so they will play theirs.

When Independence was lost, it was signed away in a dark cellar off the Royal MIle, while the citizens, devoid of influence but powerful on resentment, rioted in the streets outside. If it is to be regained, it should be in the clear light of day by majority not elite, and as a result of the full, informed, knowledge and support of the Scottish people.

That’s why it’s liable to take four years or so till we are ready for a meaningful referendum.

Tak tent!

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