Friday 13 March 2009

Scotland's Future

Whatever may have been the situation in the past, the European Union now provides the legal framework for relations between states in Europe. This applies not only to the member states but to others as well. Norway and Switzerland for example have both signed bilateral agreements with the EU. As a result these countries gain some of the benefits of the EU while at the same time they are also in large measure bound by the rules and regulations of the EU. Thus for member states and those outwith the EU but bound by its agreements, the notion of independence has changed from the traditional one of full national sovereignty to one of interdependence and shared sovereignty. What does this mean for Scotland? One thing it must mean is that Scottish independence can no longer be credibly equated to separation or divorce.  
With the creation and continuing development of the European Union the key and fundamental basis for Scotland’s economic development lies with the legal framework provided by the EU. The four freedoms – movement of goods, services, capital and labour are at the heart of the EU and over the years they have become embedded in practice throughout the member states. Through its membership of the EU, all Scottish firms have access to capital and markets and if necessary, skilled labour throughout the EU, including England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am unclear as to what additional benefits accrue from membership of the UK.
An independent Scotland would on the other hand have two very concrete and very practical advantages. Advantages that could benefit individuals and businesses in Scotland. The advantages are the economic and financial powers that a Scottish government would have and the right of Scotland to be represented directly in all the decision making forums within the EU and in the wider world.
In relation to the economic and financial powers that would at the disposal of an independent Scotland, these would include the ability of a future Scottish government to make small, but nevertheless important changes to taxation to promote investment. Within the EU, the economic and fiscal powers of all member states are to some extent constrained. However whatever margin for manoeuvre that is allowed would in my view be better used by a Scottish government answerable to the Scottish electorate than the UK government which of necessity cannot prioritise the needs of Scotland.
The other advantage, that of direct Scottish representation in international bodies is in my view of equal if not greater importance. With so many economic, social, environmental and other decisions now either taken or co-ordinated at the EU level it is vital that Scotland and the Scottish perspective is directly represented as of right. At present of course only the UK is represented and the UK government is answerable to the UK parliament, not to the Scottish parliament. Therefore the Scottish position on a whole range of vital issues is either not voiced at all or if presented, it is only as part of a wider UK presentation. This I would contend is simply not good enough. It is claimed by yourself and others that because the UK is a “big hitter” within the EU, Scotland gains from having the UK go into bat for us. However this “advantage” only happens if the UK government happens to agree with the Scottish government’s position. Where the Scottish position on an important issue is different then the Scottish position does not get past go, it remains in London. Not much good having a big hitter if he or she doesn’t actually go out to bat for you. In these circumstances an independent Scotland would have the right to put its position forward. While it may not have the support of England the Scottish position may find support elsewhere in the EU. Like all the other small countries within the EU Scotland will not have the same clout has the larger countries. However, again like all the other small countries it is surely better to have the right to represent yourself directly rather than depend on the good graces of others. It is interesting to note that none of the other small member states, some of whom are considerably smaller than Scotland, want the alleged advantages of union with some providential “big hitter”. It can of course be claimed that in practice the Scottish and English position on many issues will be either identical or very similar. In these circumstances it can only be of advantage to not just Scotland but also to England to have two delegations arguing and voting in favour of their common position. To the extent that there is a common British interest then the existence of an independent Scotland can only be seen as an advantage to both Scotland and England.
In sum it seems to me that there are small, but still tangible advantages from independence, namely the increased room for decision making and the right to be represented directly in international forums, especially the EU.
It seems to me that the main motivating factor for those who favour the Union is in fact an emotional attachment to Britain. This emotional attachment is often linked with the number of Scots who have family relations in England. While obviously true this is not really much of an argument in favour of a political union. The personal and social links among people in Scotland and England will continue anyway and as mentioned above the basic legal framework is now provided by the EU. Furthermore not all Scots have family links with England. In my case my elder daughter now lives in Switzerland, legally thanks to one of the bilateral agreements signed between Switzerland and the EU. She is now married and has a son, born in Switzerland. Despite having a daughter and a grandson living in Switzerland it had never occurred to either my wife or me that Scotland should therefore become part of Switzerland. My son-in-law is Italian and he of course has many relatives living in southern Italy, but again it has never occurred to him that this is any kind of reason for Switzerland to become part of Italy, even though Italy is also a “big hitter”.
The above was originally written in May 2007 as part of a letter I wrote to the then leaders of the main political parties in Scotland – Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats. After further writing, I got a brush off from a Labour party hack and a copy of the Steel commission report – the Liberal Democrat's attempt to convey the virtues of something they call fiscal federalism, and nothing from the Conservatives, which probably sums them up as a force in Scottish politics. I am always amazed – horrible optimist that I am – that leading politicians are so unwilling to engage with members of the public. At a time when all and sundry bemoan the low rates of voting and the supposed lack of interest by the public, you would have thought that any MP or MSP, let alone a party leader, would jump at the chance to explain their views and stimulate debate. Yet as I have discovered, both at Westminster and Holyrood, politicians refuse to engage with mere individual members of the public. Write an article for a newspaper, appear on TV or radio – no problem. But actually engage with the public and be forced to answer specific questions – nae chance. Perhaps Iain Gray and Scott Tavish will be more receptive to my next letter.

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