Monday, 11 August 2014

Independence or Devolution?

Last week saw the first TV debate between Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling the leader of the pro-Union "Better Together" campaign in the run up to the referendum on Scottish independence. Salmond is known across the UK for being a shrewd politician and a great debater, whereas Darling, a former Chancellor, is seen as competent and dependable, but dull. So much was made of Darling's victory in the debate (according to the snap polls immediately afterwards), particularly with the Yes (pro-independence) side behind in the polls.

Darling won the debate largely because the independence campaign has stuck to a highly optimistic view of the transition to independence, so in a debate it comes across as if the Yes side aren't taking the concerns of the No side seriously (hardly a way to woo swing voters with similar concerns). And there are issues with the transition to independence: EU membership won't be automatic (though it hardly be a complicated process for a country that already complies with EU law), and creating a suitable currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK will doubtless be a complicated task.

But the real question is whether Scotland is not only different to the rest of the UK (read: England), but different enough that full independence is necessary to properly express that difference. From education to healthcare, there's no denying that Scotland is more social democratic than the rest of the UK (though it may just be more in line with the rest of Europe than England), and the political gulf between Edinburgh and London can be seen in the lack of Tories North of the border. But does devolution (with more powers to be shifted from London to Edinburgh in the event of a No vote) not enable Scotland to give voice to those politics while also retaining the benefits of union? The fact that the independence plan would keep so much of the union, from the monarch to the currency, suggests that the "best of both worlds" argument might have some attraction yet.

Looking at how the debate has played in Westminster and how the main UK parties have dealt with it, I can see it only being a matter of time before Scotland leaves. More devolution to Scotland is great, but the asymmetric nature of the union is a big problem for its future survival. Without any debate about what the union should be about and how it should work together apart from occasional devolution to the constituent nations, the union ends up on the wrong side of history. The momentum will stay with Scotland's drift towards independence, and the central institutions of the UK will not be reformed to reflect how the UK is developing. The UK needs to stop acting like a unitary state - really, the UK should take a federal approach to empower English regions as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, re-balancing the UK away from London and the South-East and making devolution and union part of the same political narrative.

That's not going to happen. England famously doesn't like to debate constitutional reform, trusting in a flexible, "unwritten" constitution (which underestimates the danger of bumbling through decisions and undervalues the virtue of democratically facing up to such decisions rather than leaving them to a cosy elite to sort out amongst themselves). A political atmosphere where the union is increasingly an English space that the Celtic fringe gets exemptions from is not a union of equals and this leaves very little in the way of common institutions or political narrative to justify sticking together.

Scotland's social democratic vision is a very attractive one - it's one that it can achieve as an independent country, and probably also as part of the UK. Independence will give Scotland something more indefinable than what Salmond promises: the freedom to reflect on, debate and shape itself. The real weakness of the UK may not be that it isn't giving Scotland the tools that it needs to forge its own path while staying inside the union, it's that it struggles to be about more than the London-centric Westminster bubble.

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