Tuesday 21 September 2010

What does independence mean for Scotland?

This post has been prompted by an interesting post in a new blog on Scottish politics - Better Nation.  The post there takes as its starting point the following quoted from Iain Macwhirter’s Sunday Herald column last week:  “But  then I’ve never really understood the point of having a referendum on independence anyway because no-one really knows what independence means any more.  Flags and armies?  Hardly.  Border posts and a separate currency?  Definitely not.  The minimalist definition of independence would be the Scottish Parliament plus tax powers - and that’s likely to happen anyway.  Scotland already is a nation.  It is a question of acquiring the lost accoutrements of a state, and that process is already underway.”
Now I have to say that the above is a pretty pathetic statement and I will return to Macwhirter later.  However Malcolm Harvey, popularly known as Malc, in Better Nation gives him the benefit of the doubt and claims that the question that Macwhirter is really asking is: What does independence actually mean?   Now this is a fascinating question, but I fail to see what relevance it has to the political campaign to achieve independence for Scotland.  
For the background to this debate is the claim by Macwhirter and others that the SNP is no longer in favour of independence, but would be happy to settle for what is termed devolution plus.  There is of course no real evidence that this is now SNP policy, unofficial or not.  The SNP has for decades taken a gradualist approach to Scottish independence and devolution plus would be  regarded by many as a further step along this road.
However minute examination of what independence means in the 21st century is best left to academia.  For in the real world the Macwhirter definition is an exceedingly minimalist one - domestic policy plus some tax powers.  I am not aware of anyone else who would accept this is any kind of definition of what independence means.  While it is true that virtually all independent countries are to some extent constrained in what they can do in certain areas - through membership of international bodies eg the EU, NATO, the UN etc - nobody as far as I know has claimed that this means these countries are no longer independent.  The key is whether or not a country has the power to decide which international agreements to sign or not.  
And it is precisely this power - the right to decide to join or not to join in international institutions, that both Macwhirter and Malc omit.  At present Scotland does not contribute to any of these important international institutions, though we are of course bound by their decisions.  This I would contend is one of the key benefits of independence - we will have the right to participate and contribute directly on our own.
A particularly worrying aspect of this debate is that it is used by some/many as another way to muddy the waters of independence.  As one of the commentaries to Better Nation wrote:  “the promotion of independence is being stymied because of an insistence in setting out exactly what decidions and independent Scotland might reach before we talk about achieving the right make those decisions.”
This I believe is precisely what Macwhirter in his column is hoping to achieve.  For it is important to note the Macwhirter and others like him, such as Gerry Hassan, are not committed supporters of independence.  Formerly closely attached to the Labour Party they have become more and more disenchanted by that party and have seen the SNP as a progressive alternative in Scotland.  But both are at heart deeply committed to the UK.   And just for the record if you are not sure what independence means, just ask some Danes or Slovenians.

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