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Scottish Independence: A Worthwhile Experiment

I live in a country of 60 million people, and like most of them, I do not really care if a small sub-group wants to be independent. Whenever the English are polled about Scottish Independence, most of them would prefer to maintain the United Kingdom as it is. But such polls are meaningless. Questions only test an audience when they feel something of importance is at stake. Asking the English whether they want to maintain a 300 year old union with Scotland is a bit like asking them if they would like another jar of peanut butter in their larder. Even if they are not fans of peanut butter, and rarely consume the stuff, most will say yes on the basis that an extra jar might prove to be useful, and is unlikely to do them any harm. Ask the same people if they immediately want to go out and spend £1.79 on a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter from their local Morrisons, and you will get a more useful answer, which will probably be no. Hence why free markets provide more useful data about people’s needs and desires than aimless, costless questions asking what people fancy. It is only when the respondent is conscious of costs, as well as benefits, that questions ask something meaningful. If nothing had to be sacrificed, we would all choose to have jam today, and jam tomorrow. But if asked to choose between preserving the union and winning the 2014 World Cup, the average Englishman would cheerily wave goodbye to the Scots, as the price for seeing Roy Hodgson’s team ending 48 years of hurt. English women tilt the other way, preferring the union to footballing glory, though it is unclear if this indicates love for their Scottish cousins, or dislike for an all-consuming and predominantly male sporting event.

The Scots, in contrast, are faced by much sharper questions when asked about independence. For them, the associated costs are much more evident. They would lose the pound. The rest of the UK would not help to bail out their banks. They would have to leave the European Union, then renegotiate entry, which might be vetoed by the Spanish.

All of these costs are repeatedly underlined by the overuse of a single word: ‘forever’. Alistair Darling, head of the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, put it thus:

One of the things to remember is that this is unlike a general election, where you vote in a government and if you don’t like it, you can vote them out and get another lot in.

The decision we make in September will be forever.

There is no going back. Young people will not just be voting for a ‘Scotland’ for the rest of their lives, but for their children, and for generations to come.

The message is clear: if you walk down this road, you had better be sure, because there is no turning back. Which is total tosh, of course. Scottish independence may be a total disaster, but it is not irreversible. Countries merge and split all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Scotland used to be independent of England, as far as any two countries can be independent whilst sharing a border, trading with each other, speaking each other’s languages, and periodically invading each other. What was once independent can be independent again, and then can be unified again.

The assimilability of nations has been demonstrated across human history and geography. Germany used to be 39 separate states, which joined together under the rule of Prussia, was split between East and West after World War 2, then joined together again. America’s United States have progressively increased in number, from 13 states to 50, though the Confederacy went their own way for a while, and some Texans would still like to. Stalin’s Soviet Union attached a lot of nearby countries to Russia, without asking their consent, whilst Khrushchev’s Soviet Union transferred the Crimea from the Russian Soviet to the Ukrainian Soviet. Whilst the Soviet Union has since dissolved, Putin’s Russia has shown itself adept at taking some of its old territories back. Even the poorest student of the Middle East will recognize how often nations have come together, then been split asunder, in that part of the world. And much more peacefully, we find most of Western Europe has signed commitments to ‘ever-closer union’, even if millions of ordinary Europeans are opposed to the idea. The idea of independence as an immutable permanent state is laughable. South Sudan is the newest country after gaining its independence, the Falkland Islanders desperately want to avoid absorption into Argentina, half of Ukraine wants to join the European Union whilst a minority would rather embrace Mother Russia, and the UK Independence Party won 10% of the vote in Scotland. Whatever independence might bring, it will not be maintained forever.

In this debate, as with all others, the governing elite speak one language, whilst the rest of us speak another. They speak the language of the mass media, a one-way language where they are the speakers, and we are expected to listen. Most of us speak a much humbler, but more purposeful language: that of practical concerns, daily routines and personal ambitions. It is inevitable that the elite’s language will be peppered with words like ‘forever’, when the truth is that they are more like us than they care to admit, and none of them know what will happen next week. Whilst the elite like to make grand predictions about the consequences of various decisions, and employ a technocratic army of modern-day soothsayers to lend credibility to their guesswork, they have no idea if Scottish Independence will prove to be a good thing, or a bad thing. Economists, think tanks, academics, journalists, civil servants and other worthy people all share something in common: they are almost as clueless as we are. They are no better at predicting and controlling events than witchdoctors, fortune tellers and alchemists. That is why they rely so heavily on the magic of words, using them as spells to frighten or enchant us.

The discrepancy between the elite’s self-belief, and its real degree of insight, is never more apparent than when JK Rowling bungs a million pounds into a campaign pot. She writes popular children’s books about wizards. To her mind, this qualifies her to evaluate the risks associated with Scotland’s ageing population, saying it could be a “historically bad mistake” to leave the UK. And those who disagree with her may be ‘death eaters’, a kind of racist wizard who wants to oppress all humanity. Phew. Thank heavens that we have Rowling to explain how the world works in language that can be understood by stupid muggles like us. But remember that Rowling also bunged a million pounds to help Gordon Brown keep his job as Primeminister, even after he (wrongly) predicted the end of boom and bust. That million pounds was, thankfully, wasted. Which tells us all we need to know about Rowling’s foresight.

But to be clear, I am not taking sides. The elite is on both sides of this argument, as they always are. Whatever happens, they intend to remain in charge. The ‘yes’ camp is as ignorant and fatuous as the ‘no’ camp. And even those elitists who sit on the fence tend to talk a lot of nonsense, inflated by their own sense of self-importance. Take journalist Deborah Orr as an example, though perhaps she is a bad example; any Scot who chooses to live in London with Will Self, in preference to living in Scotland with almost any other man (or woman, or dog) must already be unhinged. Writing in opposition to JK Rowling, she argued that independence would change Scotland (the much smaller country) less than it would change England (the much larger country). On the face of it, this argument is absurd. When we examine the argument more closely, we find that first impressions are correct. Take this pearl of self-indulgent wisdom:

It’s no surprise that Rowling is a unionist. She is a high-profile Labour supporter, and Labour loves the union. Of course it does. Labour supporters are fond of pointing out that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs. Without Scottish seats in Westminster, Labour would find it much more difficult to win general elections in the south. That’s the main reason why many people in England dread an independent Scotland, too.

This kind of argument is often repeated – that leftist Scots might make common cause with the oppressed parts of England, against the really evil bits of England that crush both underfoot. But what’s the really evil bit of England? That would be the City of London. Which is in London. The same London that votes staunchly Labour even whilst the rest of the country swings towards UKIP. When it comes to voting, London and Scotland have more in common with each other than with any of part of the UK, except that nobody campaigns for an independent London (yet).

Is there any evidence that the other bits of England, the ones which Orr thinks are more similar to Scotland, are populated by people who like Scotland? No. In fact, the same poll which showed that Englishmen would rather win the World Cup than preserve the union also shows that support for the union weakens as you travel North. So its seems Labour’s loyal voters in Northern English towns are rather less keen on the Scots than Tory voters in the Southern Shires.

Scotland has long provided a bulwark against English Conservatism, which is why it may look as if the Tories are acting out of principle in supporting the union, rather than their usual self-interest. They are not. Westminster-based, two-party politics suits the Conservatives, because even when they are not in power, their opponent, Labour, only gets in when it has convinced the City of London that it has nothing to fear from them.

Orr succeeds in showing that a kid’s author is better able to construct a robust argument than a professional journalist married to Will Self. Which is not that surprising, when you think about it. Kids notice inconsistencies in stories, whilst Guardian readers cannot spot the inconsistency between their own experience and the facts as presented by their favourite newspaper. And even heroin cannot explain why anyone listens to Will Self. Either people do, or do not, choose how to vote. If they choose how to vote, then the City of London has no power that ordinary voters lack. And if ordinary voters are somehow controlled by the City of London, then we are left with the extraordinary conclusion that the City of London is controlling every Labour supporter who will vote against Scottish Independence, when they vote against Scottish independence, but not when they vote Labour. I would say Orr’s argument is irrational, but it is not coherent enough to deserve that much praise.

Rowling argues that in an independent Scotland, the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland would have bankrupted the country, because it was bailed out by central government. But she forgets that Scotland never voted for Thatcher’s Big Bang deregulation of the City, let alone the vandalistic deindustralisation of Scotland that came hand-in-hand with it. Also, while Rowling may have been an admirer of New Labour, many Scots would rather have voted for a Labour party that didn’t squander its landslide by continuing to leave financial services as a law unto themselves. Yes, New Labour was dominated by Scots. But it was the English the Labour big beasts had to woo, not their Scottish constituents.

So, to be clear, Orr’s argument is that: Scottish bankers, who employed thousands of Scottish workers, and were praised by Scottish politicians, both those in Holyrood and those in Westminster, would not have been allowed to do what they did, if it was not for a tiny minority of English bankers who live in London. Possibly next door to Orr. Is there any evidence to back this assertion? Of course not. Orr pins the tail on a paper donkey because she knows it cannot kick her in the face. There will never be evidence for the ‘what if’ scenario she implicitly relies upon.

What if Scotland had been independent before the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland? Well, maybe Gordon Brown would have have been Primeminister of Scotland, and maybe he would have followed totally different economic policies. Or maybe not. Orr is disingenuous to look for convenient English scapegoats when she has no idea what policies an independent Scotland might, or might not, have followed. The Republic of Ireland has been independent of England for a long while. Iceland and Spain have always been independent. Yet the banks and the governments of Ireland, Iceland and Spain all followed ruinous policies, leading to similarly over-leveraged banks that needed taxpayer bail-outs. What makes Orr so sure that Scotland would have been so abstemious that they would have chosen to forgo the high rates of growth attained by other countries prior to the banking collapse? Are all Scots equipped with a crystal ball, of equal power to her own?

I’m no Scottish nationalist. But I am enthusiastic about responsive and democratic government, transparent and accountable, for all people, everywhere. I’d have preferred for that to be achieved, for Scotland, within the union. But it just isn’t happening. The fact that “devo max” was not offered as an option in this referendum (blocked by Cameron) is proof that Westminster simply doesn’t want to improve UK democracy.

Here lies the flaw in Orr’s arguments. She likes democracy. She needs someone to blame, a pseudo-authoritarian force that withholds power from the people. But Orr’s problem is that ordinary people do not care for democracy as much as she does. Most do not vote in the European elections, nor council elections. They had the chance to vote for police commissioners, and they barely bothered. Many cities have been asked if they want directly-elected mayors, and mostly they vote against the idea. In short, Orr is determined to give power to the people, whether they like it or not. This is where her elitism becomes most visible, and most paradoxical. The North of England is castigated by Orr as ‘sleepy’ because its inhabitants do not demand more devolution of power. Hence, she concludes that the only way to wake them out of their ‘slumbers’ is to give independence to Scotland. Thank Heavens for Orr and the Scots, who in wanting to govern themselves will, as a by-product, save many people who are too stupid to want to govern themselves!

After all that egotistical confusion, it is interesting that Orr chances upon a valid conclusion:

Scotland wants to be responsible for its own financial affairs. Finger-wagging paternalists who say we couldn’t manage fail to see, first, that their attitude is annoying, and, second, that it is not about being rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful. It is about standing or falling because of choices you have made yourself, not because of choices that have been imposed on you. It is a psychologically healthy and mature position… It’s about believing you can arrange matters in a way that will be inspirational to others – shine a light in a world that is a bit of a mess. Do I believe that, given the tools, Scotland is capable of making such a contribution? Do I believe it should have the courage to try? I do. Yes.

Orr is right. Scotland should try. But not because it will definitely succeed. Or rather, the people should try, even though they may not benefit. They should try, but not because some London journalist tells them to. She, and the rest of the elite, risk nothing either way. Scottish journalists will still enjoy their London lifestyle, Scottish authors will still sell books in America, and Scottish politicians will still beg Arabs for donations to their charitable foundations. Only the ordinary Scot will be taking a risk, but they should take it. Orr is right, and Rowling is right, because Scotland may fail, but there will always be resentment of England unless Scotland tries to succeed on its own terms. If Scotland fails, it will suffer the greatest indignity of all: being forced to admit that its failings were its own, without the cover of blaming anyone else. But at least, with that, will come truth and self-awareness. The Scottish Nationalists are right, in a way. The campaign against independence is based on fear. Anyone who votes against independence will do so out of fear. Maybe they are right to fear. JK Rowling shows a propagandist’s insight when talking about the ‘risk’ of independence. Being independent, being different, is an inherently risky business. But as with all decisions, benefits can only be imagined, unless people are prepared to take real risks.

Perhaps an independent Scotland would have taken more risks with its banking sector, and be sunk far lower as a consequence. Or maybe it would have taken a different kind of risk: austerely sticking with low rates of growth whilst watching its neighbours profit from the banking boom of the early noughties. All we know now is that Scotland can blame the English for making every bad decision, whilst praising itself for every good decision, but that such blame and praise exist only as words, because Scotland never made the substantial choice to manage its own destiny.

We know that a large minority of Scots want to be independent. They will never be satisfied by devolution of power from a Westminster government. For the health and sanity of the whole community, their risk-averse neighbours should take a chance, and see what happens if Scotland becomes independent. That is the only way to end the divisive, futile speculation about whether an independent Scotland would be better off. Where the Scots succeed, the English will begrudgingly applaud, and learn to follow the Scotish example. Where the Scots fail, the costs will be borne by Scotland alone. Every lottery ticket has a price, though not every ticket can win.

However, even if Scotland fails, they can then merge with the rest of the UK again, just like they opted to be bailed out following the Darien venture, a risky and doomed attempt to found a Scottish colony in Panama. That misadventure led to the 1707 Acts of Union. When negotiating to join a larger state, a heavy price may be paid, as was clear to Britain when joining the EEC, as continues to plague its relationship with the EU, and as frightens Scots when faced with the possibility of rejoining the EU as an independent state. Not all costs may be evident at first glance. Some only become apparent later. This can be attested to by the Greeks, Irish and Portuguese, some of whom harbour resentment for the Germans who kept the Euro afloat. But whilst there are costs to joining a greater union, they are not infinite. If Scotland wants to leave the United Kingdom, it will be able to rejoin it later. The terms of that negotiation cannot be known, but we can be confident that Scotland will always be able to rejoin under some terms. Is it worth Scotland taking the risk of being independent? I think so. Independence will pacify those who currently live in a permanent state of rebellion. It will be an experiment; everyone will learn by observing it. Whatever mistakes Scotland makes, they can be reversed. Of all the possible outcomes, only one might last forever: the eternal regret of never daring to be independent.

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