Wednesday 17 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 23: Yes or No

We are close to the end of the road, where Scotland must turn one way or another. It's been more than three years since the SNP's election victory paved the way for this referendum.

It has been a long, exhaustive, and sometimes ill-tempered campaign. It has been commendably peaceful. Scotland has had a valuable, enthusiastic conversation about what sort of country it wants to be. No matter which way the vote goes, the Scots have given thorough and serious consideration to the question before them.

Source: Freefoto

I tried to go into this with an open mind. I'm from Canada, and I have no problem in principle with small, independent northern nations. I've followed the arguments closely. On balance, I do not think independence would make Scotland a better place.

If I still lived in Scotland, I am about 90% certain I would vote No. If I was 99% certain, then I might come out for the No side and be done with it; but I can still sympathise with the Yes campaign.

Some time ago, I promised to write posts making the cases for Yes and No. As it happens, I've been distracted writing about foxes and hedgehogs. Others have put the opposing cases as well as I could and probably better. The best personal accounts I have run across are by Alex Massie and Irvine Welsh for No and Yes respectively, and well worth reading.

For my part, I'm going to give five brief points, which strike me as the most powerful reasons to vote for each side.

The Case for Yes

Peace: An independent Scotland would not indulge in the UK's destructive posturing as a great military power. Scotland has its own militaristic traditions; it re-elected the Labour government responsible for the Iraq war by an overwhelming margin; the SNP intends to remain in NATO; and even virtuous, socialist Denmark sent soldiers to Iraq. All the same, Scotland would cease to spend money on nuclear weapons and be less likely to invade distant countries for no good reason at all.

Protection: Specifically, protection from what Tony Blair once called the forces of conservatism in England. The banks in the City of London are toxic in their effects and barely accountable to anyone; the Scottish financial sector is large and influential, but not nearly as harmful. For now, Scotland is only slightly further left than the rest of the UK (rUK) and the Tory threat is limited. However, one can argue that cruel and bigoted forces are rising, in the form of UKIP and the deranged right wing of the Conservatives, and Scotland should get out while it can.

Small government: All else being equal, a government for five million people will be more accountable and less remote than one for 65 million.

Written constitution: There is no other modern democracy where a political party can casually repeal a major guarantee of civil rights if it wins a single election. A written constitution puts certain rights and freedoms beyond the passing whims of political parties. It would also sweep aside other indefensible aspects of the UK system. It is absurd that a democracy in the twenty-first century has legislators who hold their seats by right of birth, or position in the hierarchy of the state religion.

Distinctiveness: Scotland is a distinct nation within the UK, but it is much smaller than England. Inevitably, England carries much more weight in UK decision making. Devolution goes some way towards addressing this; but it has its own disadvantages, such as the West Lothian question of Scottish MPs voting on English laws. Meanwhile, there is little or no prospect of a federal solution with powers given from the UK Parliament to England. Maybe the UK is simply too imbalanced, and Scotland would be better served by making its own decisions.

The Case for No

Law: The UK offers long-term stability and commitment to the rule of law. It has not had a violent transfer of power since 1688; only a handful of other countries can say the same. There is more to freedom than a constitution; that is demonstrated by abuse of rights in the USA, in the name of war on drugs and war on terror. The wider political and legal environment matters too. On this point, the UK has often proved flexible and enlightened; for example, British women won the vote in 1918, while their French sisters had to wait until 1945.

Disruption: Setting up a new country is difficult and expensive. It would require long, complex negotiations with the rest of the UK, the EU, NATO, and other bodies, with no guarantee of favourable results for Scotland. Dozens of agencies ranging from the DVLA to the Medical Research Council would need replacement. Scotland would need embassies, an intelligence service, and armed forces. This short-term cost must be set against the prediction of long-term gains, many of which are highly uncertain.

Risk: Independence carries major, systemic risks, which would be mitigated by remaining within the UK. Heavy dependence on oil is one of them; even more important is the issue of currency. As I have written at length, I am shocked and angry at the SNP's cavalier handling of this issue. Scotland is likely to find itself with no good options for currency, only a choice of bad ones. More generally, the SNP's unwillingness to face up to risk is deeply worrying.

Achievement: Pride in the UK is deeply unfashionable, but in fact it has a lot to be proud of. It leads in education and research, with 8 out of the top 30 universities in the world (including 4 of the top 6). It is one of only 6 countries in the world to devote more than 0.7% of GDP to development aid.  The UK is diverse, vibrant and creative in music, the arts and literature. The Scots have played a full part in all of this, and it would be poorer without them. In overall quality of life, the UK ranks 16th out of 144 on the adjusted Human Development Index, ahead of France, Japan, and the USA.

Values: I am an outsider who has lived for a number of years in both Scotland and England. In the basic shared values which hold a country together, they are not so very different. England has its share of bigots, but so does Scotland; xenophobia may be less in Scotland, but sectarianism is much greater. On either side of the border, people value democracy, fairness and the rule of law; they are tolerant, easygoing, open to new ideas, and ready to help those less fortunate than themselves.


Some people will find this decision easy. For them, something is powerful enough to sweep aside all this careful assessment of pros and cons, and make them declare for one side or the other.

For others, perhaps the majority, it is a difficult choice. The issues are complex and of very different kinds. How does one compare constitutional factors to economic ones? How does one measure the difference in values between Scotland and the rest of the UK?

There are no guarantees. Staying within the UK has disadvantages and dangers, but so does leaving. No matter what happens, I am optimistic for Scotland. It is a great country with talented, kind and capable people, and will do well whether it votes Yes or No tomorrow.

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