Rob Brown: Why independence is no passport to success

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The possibility of waving a fond farewell to the traditional travel visa conjures up a new set of dilemmas, writes Rob Brown

The other day I did something which brought the prospect of Scottish independence smack bang home to me far more effectively than the “national conversation” which has waxed and waned since the SNP first came to power at Holyrood. I drove down to the British Embassy in Dublin to renew my passport. As I exited the heavily fortified compound I suddenly found myself pondering – could this be my final British passport?

If Alex Salmond’s dream comes true, the document which a DHL courier will deliver to my apartment in the Irish capital in a couple of weeks will only be of use to me for a couple of years. Presumably, soon after the first sitting of a fully independent Scottish Parliament – provisionally pencilled in for May 2016 – I’ll have the glorious privilege of queuing up, with other proud Scottish patriots, for a Scottish passport.

Scottish Passport! Remember when that was just the title of a tacky travel show on STV? Then again, the only Scottish Assembly we had at that time was convened in Cowcaddens by the same cheap and cheerful TV station.

When our real devolved legislature made its faltering, and at times farcical debut on the Mound, how many of us imagined that a national bonfire of British passports would become a serious possibility in Scotland barely a decade later?

I say national bonfire although I suspect such daft ceremonies would be conducted only by the Braveheart brigade. Even many of us who vote Yes in the upcoming independence referendum may well choose to hang on to our old British travel documents if only as a souvenir of the state into which we were born.

Some might never surrender British for Scottish citizenship and in the footsteps of one of Ireland’s greatest writers. Only last year many of his compatriots were rather startled to discover that James Joyce kept his British passport following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

His latest biographer revealed how, in April 1930, when he was required to renew his British passport, Joyce popped along to the British Embassy in Paris (where he was living at the time) and was told by a clerk that he should go to the Irish legation. He resisted and had his passport renewed.

Widely denounced in his beloved Dublin for writing “dirty bukes”, Joyce regarded Eire as a cultural backwater controlled by the Catholic clergy and their zealous artistic censors. He hated crude attempts to resuscitate the Irish language, believing that English had been his passport to a wider world of literature. Until the day he died the author of Ulysses remained a defiant citizen of the Republic of Letters.

Joyce was able to remain British because Ireland remained a dominion until 1948. Even to this day, persons born in southern Ireland before 1 January, 1949 with a parent born there before 31 March, 1922 are still eligible to hold a special type of British passport.

It is hard to imagine that the same status would not be accorded to Scots born, or with a parent born, in this part of Britain before our Independence Day. Nevertheless, even some of those who zealously take a match to their British passport might come to rue their merry act of arson.

Let’s be under no illusions. Being British might not command the international respect it did back in the days when more than half the globe was coloured pink – it might even place you in grave jeopardy if you venture into the ambit of jihadists or other sworn enemies of this state – yet it still makes globetrotting and international trade much easier than being from Botswana or Bhutan.

Britain is rather broke these days, but can still afford to maintain embassies or consulates in every part of the planet. In purely practical terms that is an undoubted plus for all subjects of this realm, as well as for companies engaged in exporting.

An independent Scottish Government could not conceivably afford to fund anything similar. Scotland’s diplomatic presence would probably be closer in scale to that of Ireland, which is currently struggling to maintain its international outreach.

In the last year the department of foreign affairs in Dublin has had to shut down three of its embassies for cost reasons. It could be, of course, that Scotland will proceed to independence, as Ireland did, in a couple of stages. Even if the Yes side pulls off a triumph in 2014 – still a very big if – the outcome of any ensuing Anglo-Scottish Treaty talks might very well be the foundation of a Scottish Free State rather than a fully independent Scotland in the first instance.

In such a scenario we might have Scottish legations nestling under the umbrella of British embassies.

Equally, it is conceivable that the eventual outcome of the current eurozone crisis, which threatens to bankrupt UK plc as much as Ireland and the rest of the so-called Pigs – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – could be a United States of Europe in which we shall have one single foreign and defence policy, and a single, shared network of European embassies across the globe.

After all, we traded our old black British passports for purple EU ones some time back.

In that sense there is already no longer a purely British passport, and there may never really be such a thing as a Scottish passport.

I cannot say for certain what I’ll be when my new passport reaches its expiry date in 2022 – Scottish, British, European, World Citizen? Quite possibly, an even stranger mixture of all the above.

• Rob Brown is a Scots-born journalist and media academic currently based in Dublin