Thursday, 4 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 16: Scotland is not a colony

One argument for Scottish independence was expressed on Tuesday by George Monbiot in the Guardian:
Imagine the question posed the other way round. An independent nation is asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. It would be allowed a measure of autonomy, but key aspects of its governance would be handed to another nation. It would be used as a military base by the dominant power and yoked to an economy over which it had no control. It would have to be bloody desperate.
This ignores all the practical costs of creating an independent state; but let's leave that aside and move on to the point of principle. In a nutshell, Monbiot seems to be arguing Independence Is Always Good, so it should be taken whenever it is offered.

On the surface it looks plausible, because recent history has seen decolonisation on a vast scale. The empires of Britain, France, and other colonial powers were broken up, and later the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed. The number of independent countries grew from 51 in 1945 to 159 in 1990 and 193 today.

These former empires were created and held together by military force. The colonies on the periphery were not given a vote in the central government. When the overlords in London, Paris or Moscow were unable or unwilling to apply enough violence to keep the empire together, it broke apart. Of course none of the new states created by this process want to go back to being subjugated.

In the heyday of the British Empire, how many seats did Australia have in the Parliament at Westminster? How many Indians or Nigerians served in the British Cabinet? None, and none.

When Britannia ruled the waves, Scotland was
imposing colonial rule, not receiving it.
Image source: Wikipedia

Scotland's situation is very different. It has 8.3% of the UK population, and 9.1% of the seats in the House of Commons. Scots have the same legal and political rights as any other citizens of the UK. They regularly rise to the highest offices of government; less than five years ago, the UK had a Scottish Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Scotland is not ruled by England; they are both components of a larger state, the United Kingdom.

Scotland's campaign for independence has been peaceful. The SNP won a free and democratic election. It wanted a referendum on independence, and that referendum is about to take place with the full cooperation of the UK government. Not a single shot has been fired. This is not the behaviour of an imperial power trying to impose its will.

Monbiot uses the language of colonialism to describe Scotland; but Scotland is not a colony. Pretending otherwise is inaccurate, and frankly insulting to genuine movements for liberation.

Conversely, there are many examples of smaller polities choosing to unite into a larger nation. Often the components have huge disparities of size; in the USA, California has 65 times the population of Wyoming. These unions include some of the richest and longest-lived democracies in the world: Switzerland, the USA, Canada, and the Netherlands to name a few.

The British state undoubtedly has serious flaws. In many ways it is undemocratic, and serves the interests of corporations and the rich rather than ordinary people; but these issues are not specific to Scotland. It would be grotesque to argue that a wealthy resident of Edinburgh's New Town is the victim of colonial oppression, while a single parent on benefits in the East End of London is not.

Is it better for Scotland to stay put and help to reform the UK, or seize the chance to leave? That is a much more interesting question which deserves its own blog post. But it is foolish and historically illiterate to say the UK should not continue to exist, simply because it is a union between nations.

1 comment:

  1. To clarify, Monbiot never uses the word "colony". But his phrase "key aspects of its governance would be handed to another nation" is pretty much the definition of a colonial relationship.