16 October 2012

Scotland May Leave U.K. As Soon As 2014

The prime minister of the United Kingdom has agreed in principle called the Edinburgh Agreement to allow Scotland to hold a referendum whose precise details would be legislated by the Scottish parliament in consultation with ministers from the parliament of the United Kingdom, on whether or not it should become a country independent of the United Kingdom by the end of the year 2014. 

While the agreement doesn't say so in so many words, the implication of the agreement is that the unilateral determination of the people of Scotland in the referrendum would be honored by the United Kingdom without giving people in other parts of the United Kingdom, i.e. England, Wales or Northern Ireland, a say in the matter. 

The United Kingdom was created when England annexed Scotland in 1707.  Scotland has had considerable regional autonomy since 1999, thirteen years ago and this has generally worked quite smoothly.

Opinion polls at the moment suggest that independence as opposed to mere continued autonomy does not have majority support among the Scots.  But, this sentiment may change now that achieving independence no longer carries the threat of intense diplomatic or legal protests from the British parliament, or the risk that a violent insurgency might break out.  An independence that can be peacefully and cooperatively secured in an undisputedly legal manner (and hence is also more likely to lead to easy separate admission to the European Union) may be more attractive to the average Scotman than independence in general.  Fear of unknown future perils is usually one of the biggest barriers to independence movements.  So many places that secure independence or try to endure extreme misery in the process of trying to do so, as the example of their neighbors, the Irish, made clear.

Why Is Cameron Offering This Deal?

Why would conservative party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron (who leads a coalition government that also includes the Liberal Party) agree to the Liberal Party's platform position supporting this referrendum?

One big reason (other than the fact that Cameron had to give away something to get a majority coalition government that he could lead) is that geographically, the conservative party has come to become almost an English nationalist party, given that its electoral performance outside of England (and in English immigrant populations) is so dismal.  The Conservative Party's strength in England and weakness elsewhere is something of a mirror of the American Republican Party's strength in the South and Great Plains and relative weakness in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific states.  Granting Scotland independence greatly increases the likelihood that the Conservative Party will be able to secure majorities in the parliament of the rump United Kingdom in future elections. 

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, after not receiving a share of representatives in parliament commensurate with its electoral support and given its deep intellectual support for ideals of good government, is sympathetic to other underdog minorities in the British political system like Scotland.  And, if the referrendum results in Scotland staying in the United Kingdom anyway, as seems most likely at the moment, the Liberal Party's efforts on behalf of the Scots will still be remembers fondly there and may lead to a long term expansion of the territory where the Liberal Party has strong political support.

Of course, allowing the Scottish people to vote on the issue also effectively sucks the air out of any insipient group advocating violent or even merely illegal and disruptive means to advocate for Scottish independence, even if the vote goes against them.  It is hard to mobilize people to get angry at a "colonial overlord" who is willing to let you hold a public vote on whether you want independence on terms you personally put into writing, and is then willing to respect the decision of the voters in that referrendum.

Reasons To Think That England Might Act In Good Faith

The Scots have many precedents to reassure them that their independence might be achieved smoothly if they vote for it now that the Edinburgh Agreement is in place.

While this hasn't always been the case (both the United States and Ireland fought long and bloody wars to secure independence from England, and the annexation of Scotland came only after roughly a century of near continuous massive bloodshed in the border region between England and Scotland), in more recent history, the United Kingdom's has had ceded sovereignty and/or broad grants of highly autonomous self-rule to a great many of its possessions in a relatively graceful and civilized manner.  Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and many of the United Kingdom's colonial possessions were granted autonomy without a serious fuss. 

The United Kingdom's grant of independence to India, while secured in the face of local protests and not bloodless, did not take a full fledged civil war or decades of victious insurgencies (the vicious and bloody civil war would come later to India when Pakistan split itself off from it, and Kashmir would provide India with its prolonged insurgency after it had been granted independence as well).  This is one of the very few cases where a grant of independence to a European colony did not lead to a coup, a one party state, or some similarly anti-democratic result and England in the case of India was the first European colonial power that I can recall to grant independence to a colony that was not ethnically European.

The Greater European Context

This comes at a time when movements for regional independence are bubbling up in Belgium, Spain and probably other places in Europe as well.  The willingness of the U.K. to strike a deal may embolden other populations seeking independence.  Flemish Nationalists secured large numbers of seats in local election in Belgium yesterday.  Catalonians are demanding an independence referrendum of their own and have marched one and a half million strong (20% of the population of the entire region) in the streets within the past few weeks.  And, any decision to let Catalonians vote on independence would be met with a powerful cry of "me too" from the Basque autonomous region.

All three populations, like the Scottish people, already have their own regional elected legislative bodies, organized nationalist movements, a history as a sovereign region of their own at some point, and considerable autonomy to enact at least some kinds of legislation on their own.

For the Catalonians, even if independence with the consent of the Spanish parliament isn't granted, greater autonomy for the regional government may be granted to it.

Catalonia wants to be able to collect its own taxes and send a share to Madrid, rather than the other way around. That would make it different from most of Spain's other 16 regional government, but similar to the northern Basque country.
The more that governmental adminstration is performed by a regional government, the easier it would be for it to unilaterally declare its independence while carrying on the ordinary business of government without interruption.


While this may be somewhat of an overgeneralization, many of the most vigorous regional independence movements seem to have their roots in ethnically distinct regions that are more affluent or prosperous economically who are motivated by a desire to not have to subsidize or be held back economically by poorer and more backward parts of a multiethnic country.  This applies to the Northern League in Italy as well.

Scotland, however, does not fit this mold.  The GDP of Scotland about $33,680 U.S. per capita per year is lower than, but not all that much different from the GDP of England, which is about $35,000 U.S. per capita per year. 

On the other hand, however, Scotland is much poorer than London ($50,600), and has centuries of experience with absentee landlords in London non-governmentally sucking all of its fortunes away from it.  To the extent that this is still the case, a desire for independence may be rooted more in an effort to find a way to prevent private sector flows of funds out of the country than the desire to keep local tax money local that has fueled many other secessionist movements.

Another key distributive economic issue in the event that Scotland wins its independence is how the United Kingdom's North Sea oil revenues would be shared.  The Scottish, who are geographically closer to these oil fields may feel entitled to this, but nothing in the Edinburgh Agreement implies the the United Kingdom would be ceding complete ownership and control of these resources.

Of course, unlike the Flemish, the Catalans, and the Basque (but in common with the Northern Italians), both the Scots and the English speak the same language, even if there are regional difference in dialect.  So, there may be less of a cultural impetus for the Scots to break away than there is for some of its secessionist European peers to do so.

It is also interesting that all of the countries with really active secessionist movements at the moment: the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Spain, have constitutional monarchies (another thing lacking in Italy where the Northern League has been relatively quite lately despite a severe economic crisis in Italy as well). 

Could it be that symbolically placing sovereignty in a person, who can personally remain the sovereign of a country (or have a child or relative to the current sovereign become their monarch continuing the constitutional monarchy in that way) even after it gains independence from its existing government if the region seeking independence wishes, reduces the symbolic attachment that people have the the sovereignty of the the unified bureaucratic institution of the nation-state itself?

No comments: