CONFUSION over what independence will mean has done a disservice to Scottish voters. For America’s founding fathers, independence was a last resort, reluctantly taken, writes David Miles
The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott observed that “the rationalist does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge that would save him. He starts by destroying it.”
Seismic political change of the type advocated by the SNP in this September’s independence referendum has normally only occurred as a result of devastating war or bloody revolution. That has been the experience in America after 1776, in France after 1789 and in Germany both in 1918 and, more successfully after 1945.
With the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn upon us and the referendum date getting ever closer, the blue and white surface froth of the independence campaign has obscured the essential constitutional question of what independence will mean.
In 1776, Americans decided to declare independence from Britain because the 13 colonies were being taxed but had no voice in how they were governed. The cry ‘no taxation without representation’ became the central demand of their cause.
But independence was an action that Americans took with regret. As late as 1775, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote: “I [...] would rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation on earth.”
Separation was a final step, reluctantly taken. But once taken there could be no going back. Independence was literally a matter of life and death and, according to Professor Akhil Amar of Yale University, no American who opposed separation from Britain ever held high office again in the United States. This point is relevant to the debate in Scotland.
‘Rejecting common sense’
In attempting to draw Labour voters to the Yes cause, Alex Salmond has claimed that in an independent Scotland, Scottish voters would be able to throw out the SNP and elect other parties. But the effects of independence on Scotland’s stability and on its political culture will be unpredictable. It seems rather improbable, however, that the SNP which refers to the other Scottish parties as “the London parties” would ever let voters forget that Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats campaigned against independence.
Samuel Johnson’s comment that “we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies,” is as true a description of our common humanity today as in the eighteenth century when he and James Boswell were breaking down barriers between England and Scotland. This is the common sense which Scottish nationalism rejects as it seeks to establish political and social barriers between different parts of this island. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
Objective language and common sense have often been toxic qualities for political parties pursuing radical goals. Clarity illuminates the fallacies that politicians want us to believe. When George Orwell wrote that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” he wasn’t just warning about fascism. Orwell recognised the danger of political language in turning groups within a society against one another.
With terrorists rampaging across Iraq, Syrians dying in their tens of thousands as they fight for the rights we hold already, and Ukrainians who played host to football fans in Euro 2012 now killing their fellow countrymen, it is not unreasonable to ask whether we are just a little bit spoilt on our tiny island after centuries of domestic peace and stability. Confidence in our democratic and legal institutions has allowed us to become complacent in believing that this domestic tranquillity will continue forever.
This does not mean that our constitutional configuration is perfect, as I have argued previously. But we have a duty to future generations for whom this decision will be irreversible to ask what added value independence might possibly deliver when weighed against the clear risks of separation.
Scotland’s future according to Mr Salmond is to embrace EU membership, and with it, the European vision of an “ever closer union” stipulated in the Treaty of Rome while he dissolves the 300 year old union with England.
Forget for a second the questions surrounding whether and on what terms Scotland could join the EU, and whether Spain and other EU countries would want to give Catalan separatists the green light by agreeing to Mr Salmond’s demands. The bigger problem with the YeSNP position is believing that the challenges of creating economic growth and reducing unemployment and social inequality can be solved by breaking the 300-year-old political union with our neighbour to the south and joining an economic union with 26 other countries across the North Sea.
With one in five Scots employed by UK-owned businesses and Scotland selling more to the UK than to all other countries in the world combined, the belief that problems can be solved at the European level that cannot be solved within the UK is incomprehensible.
My Glasgow-born grandmother took her nursing qualifications at Manchester’s Withington Hospital in the late 1920s so I feel confident in saying that a nurse in Glasgow is likely to have far more in common with a nurse in Manchester than with a lawyer in Edinburgh or an agricultural worker in the highlands. This diversity within Scotland should be a cause for celebration, just as the similarities between people in Scotland and the rest of the UK should make us recognise that our common experiences and individuality are more significant than crude nationalist stereotypes. It takes a perverse form of reasoning to argue that the complex social and economic problems facing families across our small island and in other countries in this increasingly interdependent world can be solved by creating a sovereign border between Scotland and England.
‘What can independence mean?’
This is why Scots need to ask not just how ‘independence’ is being defined by those who are enthusiastically asking us to tick ‘yes’, but also what independence can ever mean in 2014. Autarky hasn’t been an option in modern states for at least two centuries. It is testament to the moderation, stability and maturity of our consent-based political system that the UK government agreed to the Scottish government’s request for a referendum on the question of Scottish independence even as the Spanish government tries to prevent Catalonia from holding its own independence referendum in November.
Much like Michael Oakeshott’s rationalist, Alex Salmond’s nationalists begin not by declaring “the causes which impel them to the separation” as America’s colonists did in 1776 or a demand to fix what is wrong. In fact, there is no problem facing Scotland that the existing and promised powers of devolution cannot remedy.
Instead, the nationalist rationalist argument begins with utopian visions based on contradictory plans which tell us how everything will be better once Scotland is independent. The nationalist rationalist, as Oakeshott would put it, “turns out the light and then complains that he cannot see.”
The strangest piece of information to emerge from recent polling is that Scots would be slightly more likely to vote for independence if there was a Tory government at the next election. Ignoring the obvious point that we won’t know the result of the 2015 election in September 2014, the more salient point is that in the colonial type relationship which a currency union would create between the rest of the UK (rUK) and Scotland, Scots would lose the vote in the UK but would still be subject to UK interest rate decisions and fiscal policy. And with Scottish voters no longer contributing to a more left of centre influence on UK general elections, such policy is more likely to be set by Conservative governments. It’s independence Jim, but not as we know it.
So, the ‘taxation without representation’ situation which drove the American colonies to seek separation is one which the SNP is willing to inflict on Scotland to further its own strange vision of self-determination. Jefferson would be confused.
• David Miles is a Carnegie Scholar at the University of St Andrews researching Anglo-American and German constitutionalism. He is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Global Constitutionalism.