The Edinburgh Agreement, signed today by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon on the one hand and David Cameron and Michael Moore on the other signals the end of jostling for position of the hows and wheres of process for a referendum on Scottish independence. It’s about time. For, though there are two years to go before any vote is expected, this is such a major decision that considerable debate on the pros and cons is not just welcome but necessary.
For most of us who believe that Scotland would contribute more—not just to Britain but to the world—by running their own affairs, ongoing language about ripping things up and tearing things out and generally wringing hands at the supposed dire consequences of such a major move are unhelpful.
This move is not against anyone; it is about a country that everyone recognises has all the qualifications to be a country in every sense making a choice whether it wishes that future or to remain in political union with England and therefore administered by Westminster for many key issues, including taxation, foreign relations and defence.
What this is most certainly not about is to create social or economic barriers with anyone, especially England. Virtually all Scots acknowledge the stirring history, the wide spectrum of culture and other contributions to civilisation that our two countries have shared down the centuries. But this debate is about our future, about how England and Scotland can provide the best for their respective citizens going forward.
Those who believe the Scots would be better as a normal country in control of its own affairs must render that so evident to a majority voters that they vote accordingly. But those who prefer the status quo must make an equally forward-looking, positive argument that wins by enthusiasm and example. The worst of all worlds is surely one where a vote to stay in the union is won by fomenting fear on baseless uncertainties, leaving the Scots with wounded psyches, such as did so much economic and civic damage from the 1970’s into the 1990’s.
Since then, the transformation of Scotland into a more vibrant, confident, affluent country than England has left many of our English cousins either puzzled or wholly unaware of the transformation here. Whereas the English appear to have moved more reluctantly to accept the end of empire, of world domination, of glorious isolation and of world-beating technology, the Scots, always the junior partner seem to have happily adjusted to a secondary role in the world, particularly when the best quality of life seems to be attainable by more modest-sized countries from Switzerland to Singapore.
If the English wish to rediscover their world-leading role in any field from politics to production, it’s not our job to dissuade them. But where this independence debate will pivot is on the divergence of ambition by the Scots, as an active, developed country with no extra-territorial ambitions beyond trade and tourism.
A major divergence has surfaced just this week with the announcement by Michael Gove that “the Conservative-led government will walk out of the EU unless Westminster is handed back its sovereignty from Europe“. Such an oafish intransigence is anathema to good relations with neighbours and speaks volumes for how little Gove and a significant section of the English public understand its main trading partners.
For centuries, Britain behaved as if it were not part of Europe. Its ‘glorious isolation’ of the 18th and 19th centuries served it well, building world-leading affluence on a huge trading empire made invulnerable by the global policing of the Royal Navy. Yet 100 years on from Sarajevo and the brutal wake-up to reality Britain suffered in WWI, major English parties are acting as if we can dismiss the market 300,000,000 people of which we are a members and try throwing our political toys out the pram to get our way.
And how can unionists keep a straight face and insist on keeping Scotland tightly bound while they reject any external control on themselves?
This is not Scotland’s future. Not having been threatened by neighbours (other than the English) since Haakon got his jotters at Largs in 1260, Scots are actually more curious than hostile towards foreigners—just look how Glasgow’s huge Pakistani community has kept their identity, yet become integral to the landscape. No wonder the Scots look to Ireland or Denmark, Norway or Iceland and see them thriving, even as they make their own mistakes. Consider this:
- Ireland had a property bubble and is suffering for it. Cranes all over Dublin are still idle. And yet, compared to the dirt-poor backward 3/4 of a country that left Britain in 1922, it is a model of modernisation and relations with Britain are unrecognisably better than they were 100 years ago. Dublin is a vibrant city (with working trams) that attracts boatloads of British tourists. And, meet one of the many Irish immigrants here and they’re more likely to be a doctor than a labourer. “Irish national debt is down to the same as Germany’s at around €25,000 per head (better than UK’s)” Ask any Irish if they want to return to the UK.
- Iceland had a long history as a Danish colony before its independence came as one of the few good things to come from German occupation. Visit and you are struck by unending blackened heaths of volcanic debris, constant eruptions, hot springs and a climate worse than Scotland. Add in that their banks overextended themselves prior to the 2008 come-uppance and you should have Zimbabwe on ice. In fact a population 2/3rds the size of Edinburgh has rewritten the constitution to deal with fiscal problems and they are building a fishing industry that Scotland can only envy. “By mid-2012 Iceland is regarded as one of Europe’s recovery success stories. It has had two years of economic growth. Unemployment is down to 6.3% and Iceland is attracting immigrants to fill jobs.” They also have no interest in being taken back under Denmark’s affluent wing.
When people like Jim Murphy deride such countries as ‘The Arc of Insolvency’ they are not only completely underestimating the ability and resolve such countries display in adversity, they are showing dangerous oblivion to the fiscal idiocy with which the UK economy has been steered since Brown borrowed like a drunken sailor to prop up a social programme Britain couldn’t afford that even hard-nosed Tories like Osborne have found impossible to reign in.
Add to the above this ludicrous belief that Britain can still “be at the top table” or the conviction that nuclear weapons have any place in the 21st century UK or that the UK has any business in dubious foreign wars like Afghanistan and you can catalogue the divergence of opinion between the Scottish people and the governments that England keeps choosing for them. This divergence of interests has accelerated since 1999.
Left to themselves, Scots would be part of Europe and NATO; they would develop green energy sources as well as the rest of its hydrocarbon reserves; they would inherit their share of the UK debt but be in a better position to pay that off; they would develop much closer links with other neighbours and join the Nordic Council.
But they would also be part of Britain, with Queen as Head of State and the pound as currency—exactly as Australia did for its first half-century of independence. It would keep building ships for England, allow NATO exercises, keep an open border and make the trains that cross it run on time—that is, unless Westminster makes any more huge messes with the East AND West Coast main line rail franchises: we are not our English brothers’ keepers.
At this time next year a White Paper similar to the process by which devolution was arrived at will be published at Holyrood. This will answer many questions to help those needing detailed data to make a hard-headed, pragmatic decision. We get one shot at this: pro or con, it behooves us all to get it right.