The Deserted Village

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If Caledonia should become a stranger

A general commentary on the upcoming referendum in Scotland. At the time of writing, I await an update on possible syndication in a newspaper or two. 

Glasgow_bridgeSome international commentary contains a tone of incredulity that a component part of a large EU member states would seek secession in 2014. In reality, the present shockwaves running through the British body politic are indicative of a much broader impulse that is reflected elsewhere too. Part of this amazement is based on a notion that the world has (or ought to have) moved past the petty nationalisms of bygone days, that the onslaught of global capitalism has vastly increased economic interdependence and moved the locus of real power and decision-making away from the nation-state. The simultaneous erosion of economic borders and growth of institutions of regional and global governance would appear to push the nation-state into further decline. In the European context, this would appear to point to greater EU integration to consolidate the member states’ positions in the 21st century.

Yet this has not been the case. Montserrat Guibernau, argues that, contrary to received cosmopolitan wisdom, such globalising phenomena actually encourage nationalist movements to recast their traditional nature to meet contemporary challenges. This has taken on a number of guises. One has been an alarming rise in populist, and sometimes xenophobic, nationalism. These groups operationalise fears surrounding globalisation to target immigrants, blaming them for the suppression of wages, increasing unemployment and penury to native populations.

Another has been an increase in an appeal for “nations without states” or regional nationalism such as in Scotland or Catalonia. While both forms appeal to a divide between an elite focused on transnational issues and a people still concerned with local matters, the resulting standpoint is markedly different. The Scottish nationalism of the independence campaign is inclusive and civic in character, eschewing any of the essentialist ethnic rhetoric of its neo-populist counterparts.

Still, the debate in Scotland has vacillated between the spiritual and the mundane as identity politics and financial concerns mix and muddy the waters. The pro-independence campaign advocates a progressive, social democratic economy and sees greater opportunity of achieving this within and independent Scotland. This has greatly appealed to many voters at an emotional level too, and the turgid financial arguments of the “No” campaign have failed to inspire. However, there are still very important questions for the “Yes” camp to answer. It has been said that Scotland would keep the Pound Stirling as its currency. However, the maintenance of such an arrangement would greatly limit the extent of independence, as it would require a currency union to be operable. The travails of the Euro have proved this point. An alternative could be a Scottish Pound pegged to Stirling, as was the case with the Irish Punt in the decades after independence. This provides little fiscal flexibility and undermines the extent of economic independence that can be achieved. For example, lowering corporation tax while pegged to the Pound would never be accepted by the Bank of England. There is a worry that, in order to be competitive, Scotland’s only means of buoying its economy would be through downward pressure on wages. The result is a race to the bottom far removed from the aspirations of progressive Scots. Of course, oil revenues can be used to sustain some of the adjustment but will this be enough?

Politically, the Westminster elites who are alleged to have become so removed from the realities of the British public will end up having their own counterparts in Holyrood. The pressures that currently exist in the United Kingdom will still have to be faced by an independent Scotland. There is no room for self-indulgence or complacency. Drawing on the Irish experience (perhaps the most pertinent historic comparison for the current Scottish debate) Fintan O’Toole warns: “What a free country quickly discovers is that the better Us of its imagination is not already there, fully formed, just waiting to blossom in the sun of liberation. It has to be created…”

This implies moving beyond old misty-eyed nationalism to something that addresses significant constitutional and democratic issues. In this sense, the Scottish debate represents a stark contrast to the jingoism of UKIP and the more Eurosceptic Conservatives when discussing a potential British exit from the European Union. Rather than discussing sovereignty in an outmoded Westphalian tone, this debate has avoided essentialist and exclusionary discourse. Instead, it has drawn on social, economic and demographic trends that have affected the UK in recent decades.

British social mobility is in poor health and wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated in London and the south-east. This has had a detrimental impact on certain parts of Scotland, but also Wales and the north of England. In a sense, this week’s referendum opens up questions about the whole constitutional design of the United Kingdom. People in England and Wales are also talking openly about methods of governance rather than simply alternating elites in an unresponsive system. There is some talk of further devolution to the regions, with Greater Manchester mooted as one possible seat of a regional assembly.

It is also instructive for the overall debate on Britain’s place in the European Union. Arguments between Europhiles and Eurosceptics sometimes descend into displays of competitive romanticism as the aspirational internationalism of the former meets the nostalgic patriotism of the latter. The Scottish debate has shifted the ground for identity politics so that the basis of such debates must be quality of life. This will have a ripple effect throughout Europe. Whichever way the Scots vote, even if it upsets their English and Welsh cousins, it will raise significant issues about how they govern themselves. With over 93% of eligible adults now registered to vote, it represents an unprecedented moment of democratic participation.

Across the water, Ireland represents the closest example of both the dangers and potential of going it alone. Thankfully for Scotland, the bloodletting of the Irish War of Independence has not been a feature. It is interesting the Dublin government has not issued a single statement either in favour or against Scottish independence. Ultimately, the Republic of Ireland will be able to work with either administrative set-up. It is probably wise in this light to keep a neutral silence and let the Scots decide for themselves. There may be some cause for concern in Northern Ireland, however. The peace agreement is a product of a delicate balance of constitutional, cultural and social concerns. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland has much closer ties of kinship to Scotland than to either England or Wales. There are fears in some quarters that this community would feel more exposed to drives for Irish unification in a post-Scottish UK and that a backlash might ensue.

In the European Union at large, the potential outcomes are mixed. There is much stronger pro-EU feeling in Scotland than south of Hadrian’s Wall and it is certain the Holyrood government would seek EU membership for Scotland. While there are no democratic impediments to this, there are fears that Scotland would face a veto from other countries with strong regional nationalist movements. Spain has been the most vocal in this regard and the outgoing European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso indicated the accession process would not be plain sailing by any means. Even Deutshce Bank has issued warnings regarding market reactions.

Ultimately, if we share the values on which the European project was built, it serves nobody to adopt coercive positions from a distance. Scotland will make up its mind on Thursday based on the judgement and self-determination of its citizens. The United Kingdom and broader European Union will have do deal with it in a manner that is realistic, pragmatic and neighbourly. If they stay, they will have enriched the United Kingdom and its democratic discourse. If they go, we can only hope that the split is an amicable one.



  1. Interesting analysis. Keep up the good work !

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