Why Scottish independence and federalism within the UK could have similar practical outcomes – Joyce McMillan
Given that politics is generally about setting out the rules by which people can live together in communities, it’s perhaps not surprising that those peddling fantasies of total freedom are among the most dangerous snake-oil merchants in the whole political game.
As the long neoliberal experiment of the past 40 years has shown, fantasies of total individual freedom, as a legitimate goal of politics, tend to destroy communities, reward sociopaths, and create societies notable for their heartless prioritisation of wealth over all other measures of value.
And fantasies of total national freedom are, of course, at least as dangerous, disrupting the ordinary trading and human relationships that enable neighbours to work together in harmony, and often leading directly to conflict.
If Scots need a vivid example of those dangers, they need look no further than the shambolic conduct of Britain’s exit from the European Union, an infantile fantasy of freedom from all European ties now playing itself out in the waters off Jersey, as two near neighbours and allies waste time and money bickering over fishing and power supply arrangements that were operating without difficulty until the Brexit disruption.
The Daily Mail may be delighted to be able to quote a French official declaring himself “ready for war” over the fisheries dispute. To many Scots, though, this kind of absurd and tragic sabre-rattling between friends represents yet another reason why Scotland now urgently needs to get out from under the rule of an increasingly jingoistic UK Conservative Party, for which we have not voted since the 1950s.
If and when it finally opts for independence, though, Scotland needs – unlike the Brexiteers – to be clear-sighted about one thing; and that is that independence in the 21st century world is always limited, and highly dependent on negotiations with neighbouring nations. It’s much to the credit of Scotland’s independence movement that it long ago accepted this truth in relation to the European Union, and other European trading blocs.
Interdependency with England, though, is a harder pill for some independence supporters to swallow, as is the idea that the disentangling of our 314-year union would probably take many years of negotiation, if it is to be completed in the kind of good order that has been so lamentably absent from the Brexit process.
Despite apocalyptic predictions to the contrary, there are plenty of examples of mature negotiations over these matters in the history of the UK itself, not least in the negotiations for Irish independence, a century ago this year, which resulted in free trade, a common travel area, and even mutual voting rights, never challenged to this day.
However irritating such complicated arrangements may be, though, to those elements in the independence movement that simply want to cry “freedom!” and be gone – the Alba faction, if you will – these are the real options and possibilities that will have to be confronted, if and when Scotland votes for a radical change in its relationship with the rest of the UK.
And the truth about all of this negotiation – if it goes well, and is not rushed – is that its likely outcome is some kind of new confederal arrangement, among the countries of these islands, not vastly different in its practical outcomes from what could have been achieved at any time in the last 30 years, by a full-blooded federal reform of the United Kingdom’s antiquated political system, and its doctrine of absolute Westminster sovereignty.
Even now – with Wales and northern England growing ever more restless – the Labour Party is setting up a new Constitutional Commission to propose radical change, with Gordon Brown, who is to advise it, talking of a “constitutional revolution”.
In the end, though, there are two profound problems with the idea of further constitutional reform initiated by the UK government. The first lies in the politics of England, which is still – with a few exceptions – profoundly uninterested in any such project. And the second lies in the politics of Scotland, which has heard these assurances of further UK reform before, notably in the flagrantly broken Vow of September 2014, and is increasingly unwilling to give them credence.
The Brexit debacle has made it increasingly clear to at least half of Scots voters that the relationship between Scotland and Westminster urgently requires renegotiation; and most of those voters are now likely to conclude that the only way to kick-start that negotiation, on something resembling an equal basis, is for Scotland to vote for independence and assert its legal sovereignty, and then to take it from there.
It is all a far cry, of course, from the politics of Braveheart, or the oft-repeated image – since the good ship Brexit set sail – of Scotland simply paddling off in its own little lifeboat, towards the bright lights of the European Union.
For our own peace and prosperity, we will always have to move in convoy with England to some extent, and to maintain powerful links with all the millions there who share same needs and aspirations as most ordinary Scots; my own trade union, the National Union of Journalists, continued to organise across the UK and Ireland after 1922, and would do the same in the event of Scottish independence.
Yet so far – and whatever the outcome of yesterday’s vote north of the Border – there is little sign of English politics changing in a way that would make that Scottish assertion of independence less necessary.
And unless the UK government stops treating Scottish opinion with evident contempt, and using the vagaries of the British constitution to impose its will on a dissenting nation, the chances are that that moment of Scottish self-assertion will continue, little by little, to become more likely; and increasingly difficult to avert.
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