Scottish Independence is Intellectually Objectionable

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Scottish Independence is nothing less than intellectually objectionable. The political justification for independence is internally contradicted; the rhetoric and economic arguments are flawed; and when the Scottish people vote on independence, they will most likely vote based on what are objectively the wrong criteria for such a decision. I recognize these sweeping statements reek of arrogance, but bear with me.

At the most basic level, independence is about full political control. Scotland’s parliament has many devolved powers; the remaining economic and political powers are vested in the UK parliament, to which Scotland contributes 59 of the 650 members. Scottish grievances such as the English ‘theft’ of North Sea Oil Money and forced Scottish involvement in distasteful affairs such as the war in Iraq for the most part boil down to Scotland being more liberal than the rest of the UK. The logic then goes that full independence will allow Scotland to establish a rosy liberal Utopia with its oil revenues, as various Scandinavian countries have done. What is wrong with this thinking? Firstly, it is exceedingly undemocratic and illiberal to secede from a democracy because the rest of the democracy is not voting the way you want them to. Secondly, by asserting that secession is the best solution to these perceived problems one is inescapably saying that political dialogue has failed (or is too much effort?). This is significant because dialogue (and the belief that you can change people’s minds with civilized debate) is the foundation of democracy. Thirdly, arguments for independence on the basis of how much more liberal Scotland will be, generally ignore the corollary of how the political balance in the rest of the UK will swing in favour of the conservatives in equal measure. How do the liberals advocating this justify such a transformation except on the grounds of “screw them, they aren’t Scottish”? Overwhelmingly in this respect, Scottish Independence is a long-term illiberal method of achieving short-term liberal political goals.

Do these political issues surrounding Scottish independence even matter? Polls show that:

“Just 21% of Scots would favour independence if it would leave them £500 ($795) a year worse off, and only 24% would vote to stay in the union even if they would be less well off sticking with Britain. Almost everyone else would vote for independence if it brought in roughly enough money to buy a new iPad, and against it if not.”

So apparently the only thing the voting public at large cares about are the short-term economic effects. It seems to me unethical for political leaders to push for a political decision with long-term wide-reaching repercussions when they know it will be made on the grounds of extremely short-term economic factors. It is also undercuts all the flighty rhetoric about Scotland as a nation bound together by history and a shared accent, yearning to be free; when the majority of the voting public would merely like to be told which side will give them the cash payment for a new iPad so they can get back to watching cat videos on YouTube.

The economics of Scottish Independence have been investigated in detail by real journalists, who for the most part agree that Scotland will not be radically better or worse off in the foreseeable future, but that things become very ambiguous in a couple of decades when the oil money runs out, the cost of decommissioning oil wells kicks in, the nuclear power plants get decommissioned, and generally shit gets real. The SNP paints a much rosier picture, but their forecasts depend on a rather ludicrous program of economic revanchism by which:

Scotland gets all North Sea Oil revenues; RUK pays to decommission them all.

Scotland gets all the power from the nuclear plants, RUK pays to decommission them.

Scotland assumes no toxic assets; RUK takes care of £187 billion of RBS’s toxic assets.

This continues in the direction of “having your cake and eating it too”. The counter-argument the SNP employs is that all the bad things (such as the economic policy which resulted in RBS’s toxic assets) are the result of the government in London. Ignoring the 59 MP’s from Scotland and denying that Scotland had any agency in these decisions is disingenuous. What is even more disappointing about these economic arguments is how they appeal to base prejudices. Inherent in all these demands for a bigger piece of the pie is a belief that the Scottish possess some innate national superiority to the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish, which is just contemptible tribalism.

There is also the problem that the “they stole our oil money” type argument makes a lot more sense in the mouths of people from Shetland, which existed outside of the UK for a lot longer than Scotland, and would have a better claim to be a distinct political entity if only they put more effort into historical mythmaking. Yet the Shetlanders must watch in horror as their local natural resources are used for the benefit not only of people from Shetland, but also a bunch of Scots hundreds of miles away, and a bunch of English imperialists yet more hundreds of miles away. All this aside, the notion that a person is entitled to something because they happened to be born in a place where oil happened to be found, is at its core a very blinkered one of entitlement, which shares much of the asinine logic of upper-class entitlement (I happened to be born rich, thus deserve to inherit everything untaxed and never work).

I am fully aware that nationalism is in no way a politically discredited idea, but I would like to believe that nationalism is an intellectually discredited idea. To recap: prior to when Nationalism became fashionable, Europe tended to believe that confessional identity should be used to delimit political states, but eventually figured out that religion was not the most important political identity. Nationalism was the next experiment. The human race spent the last century or so figuring out self-determination is no panacea either, and in the long run often made things worse than they were to start with. Let us not forget that the logic of Nationalism and self-determination is that every cultural group needs their own state or otherwise will inevitably be oppressed by the majority group in any multinational state, because everyone is racist. This is sadly still true in a lot of places, such as Sudan, but is it true here in Scotland? Moreover, is this oppression/anti-Scottish prejudice on a scale that the democratic institutions of the UK are powerless to confront? Scotland has its own parliament; lots of devolved powers, and the UK parliament even stood by and let Alex Salmond be in charge, despite science proving him to be a Tomato.

The other purely nationalist argument is “Scotland for the Scots”; the argument that other “nations” of people have their own nation-state, so why shouldn’t Scotland? It is true that most political states are demarcated primarily along national lines, but this is because of the racist milieu in which these states were formed. The SNP goes to great pains to say that “it’s not about disliking England/Wales/etc., but rather about liking Scotland”. But such a statement is contradictory; one cannot say Scotland is better without saying the other nations are inferior. I recognize in practice that humans care more about the people they actually know than the ones hundreds of miles away, but to assert this base emotional truth as the basis for a political transformation is misguided. By arguing for “Scotland for the Scots” one is inescapably saying that there is something wrong with the rest of the UK, and Scotland is worse off for associating with those ‘undesirable’ people.

Scottishness is a tribal identity, the same as every other national identity. Nationalism is not a rational concept; the intellectual foundation for the concept of the “nation-state” is bigotry. I believe it is the duty of all forward thinking peoples to transcend petty national identities and embrace more cosmopolitan ones, I believe that to do otherwise is to deny that all humans are inherently equal. By advocating for Scottish independence, one is advocating for a step backwards into an even more restrictive and illiberal tribal identity, which is just as artificial and superficial as the notion of being “British”. I find it disappointing that it is often the most liberal of Scottish Politicians who are advocating this, placidly papering over the illiberal heart of the issue for the sake of short-term regional political gains. I furthermore believe that Scottish Independence sets a counterproductive precedent by which any region/city/village with oil reserves, a political persuasion slightly different from the national norm, and a convenient historical myth can justify secession.

Update: Fergus Halliday responds.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Comparing Adam Smith and James Wilson to anybody from the SNP is a perfect example of how, during the era of nationalism you so despise, the word ‘liberal’ has been defiled beyond belief.

    More comment on this required; otherwise great article!

  2. Michael,

    Your characterisation of the Scottish Government’s position on asset division is simply wrong, but more importantly the basis of your attack on the arguments for independence is flawed.

    Independence isn’t just about ‘getting rid of the Tories’. This is an oversimplification. It’s about what sort of society we want to create, and realising the communitarian consensus amongst Scottish people. Devolution has shown we make the best decisions for Scotland in Scotland, without the need to take into account conflicting rUK priorities, interests and attitudes, an independence can complete this process.

    The thing I find most ‘objectionable’, ultimately, is the very premise of your article – the idea that Scottish nationalism is ‘bigoted’ is simply wrong. Scottish civic nationalism is an inclusive movement, representing people of all backgrounds provided they want to contribute to Scottish society. The SNP were the first party in Scotland to have an Asian MSP and an ethnic minority government minister and many English-born and Scottish-based voices speak out for independence, recognising the many benefits it can bring – including from the SNP cabinet.

    Further, your emphasis of nationalistic arguments does not reflect current thinking or rhetoric, except that from the Unionist camp. Within the modern independence movement, identity politics take a back seat to the persuasive arguments for an opportunity to better serve the interests of the people who live here, whether they consider themselves Scottish, British, European, or whether they identify with any people. I myself subscribe to all three of these identities.

    You attack independence as regressive, but to do so suggests that to seek union with other countries is progressive. Would you advocate us joining a union with Ireland or France, or Bolivia? That would not be desirable for anybody, due to the differences in economic interests, social priorities and political practicalities – just the way that the Union is not working for Scottish society. If Scotland were independent today, would people really choose a union with rUK?

    You apologise for your arrogance in the opening paragraph, and that is certainly the attitude you adopt throughout your article. While I disagree with your critique of specific positions of the SNP or others in the independence movement, at least this is an attempt at constructive debate. Your dismissiveness of the independence movement as bigoted and civic nationalism as racist is ill-thought out and without basis and lowers the standard of debate.

    • You’re saying politics is like Ice-cream: the English can like Chocolate, the Scots can like Vanilla, and they can both be right.
      But politics is not ice-cream, and political questions have a right answer. Scots want no fees for higher education, English want fees, but actually they just want the same thing which is economic growth, full employment and innovation. Politics, when you actually break is down is all about best practice, because all humans want the same things at the end of the day.

      The year is 2012, when we disagree about the best way to get to a common goal, we solve our through political dialogue, not secession.

      • Edmund, you are right in saying that everyone wants the same thing – prosperity, fairness, security – according to their perceptions of what these qualities are. That is true of pretty much everyone in the world.

        But we have different ideas about what constitutes fairness, or security, and in Scotland we are going in a direction that is totally different from rUK. This is not just about Coalition policies, or tuition fees, it is about two (increasingly) distinct societies that have differing ideas on how they should be structured and how people within them should interact with government and each other.

        Your argument that political dialogue is the way to achieve this is flawed – political dialogue exists, but distinctly Scottish interests are drowned out by the dominant rUK consensus. If the main vehicle for political dialogue is political parties, then who will make an effective case at a UK level to advance the general position of Scots? Labour? They were once the traditional party of Scotland and they used to propose policies and use rhetoric broadly in line with Scottish thinking, but now? Not since before Blair, and the shift to the right to pursue southern votes, continued just last week with Scottish Labour’s attack on universality and adoption of the ‘something for nothing culture’ rhetoric.

        This does not make me bitter, that is natural – any state should try to reflect the interests and priorities of as many of its citizens as possible and parties will seek to appeal to as many people as possible within that state. But in Scotland we have an opportunity to realise the society that we desire, to pursue distinct Scottish economic interests and to advance the benefits that devolution has demonstrated we can achieve when we make decisions here in Scotland, to better serve people who live in here. Independence is not an ejector seat, but a way to fulfill Scotland’s full potential economically, socially and within the world.

  3. I was reluctant to dignify this inane, ill-informed and insulting rambling with a response – bizarrely comparing the First Minister to a piece of fruit best reflects the concerningly poor level of debate and leaves me wondering whether the author is perhaps a piece of fruit, fruit cake that is – but I couldn’t help myself.

    Scotland becoming an independen nation means that the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh will be responsible for all decisions concerning Scotland and not just some of them- the completion of the process of democratic empowerment which began with the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. (That’s 1999, not early 20th century Europe)

    To accuse those who support this transfer of responsibilities from Westminster to Holyrood of being racist, bigoted ethnic supremacists is not only wildly ill-informed, but also highly offensive to the many thousands of those across Scotland and further afield campaigning for an independent Scottish Parliament, myself and many of my close friends and family included.

    In attacking the campaign for Scottish Independence as a narrow-minded, jingoistic and bigoted band of tribal extremists Michael leaves himself open to two interpretations.

    1) He is completely oblivious as to the nature and values of the campaign for Scottish Independence

    2) He is fully aware of the inclusive, modern, democratic, peaceful and progressive nature of the campaign and tries portray it otherwise in a cruel and calculated attempt to discredit it.

    Which one is it, Michael?

  4. Interesting. This article presents many arguments against independence but very few (perhaps none at all) for remaining in the union, something that this whole “Independence Debate” has been generally lacking. It advocates the status quo essentially because ‘it ain’t so bad’ and it labels those who wish to leave the union for pretty much any reason as “undemocratic”.

    It seems to me (although I could be wrong) that this article is saying to those of Scotland who are less than pleased with the current situation to ‘stop whinging and get on with it’. Is it not in man’s nature to take action to change a situation they see as sub-optimal? If it is not, shouldn’t it be? That is precisely what has happened – a bunch of people (quite a large bunch, as it happens) don’t like their lot and so are doing their best to try to change it in order to benefit all involved (as they perceive it). I, for one, see nothing “intellectually objectionable” about that.

    If people were as indifferent, even fickle, about the matter as the iPad argument suggests, would the movement for an independent Scotland ever have gotten to its current stage – on the brink of a referendum? There are obviously enough people who care about the issue a little more deeply than so far as it will affect their bank balance to merit the kind of attention it is being given. What has driven the independence movement is the passion and conviction of so many that this is the right thing for Scotland, not the promise of an extra few quid every year.

    Overall, I found this article to be a little bit disrespectful, a little bit under-researched and essentially quite shallow, as arguments against independence go (and I’ve heard my share). What did it have going for it? It was coherent, if lacking flow, and didn’t dwell (for too long) on how anti-English us independence supporters must be.

  5. It seems like almost all the arguments in this article can also be used to demand full political and economic integration of the EU as soon as possible. After all, it’s a democracy, so why don’t we all join together and solve our differences with “political dialogue” later on? Somehow I don’t think the author would agree though.

  6. You use the words ‘secede’ and ‘secession’ without explaining why you believe that they are applicable to Scotland. Try doing some meaningful historical research and you will discover why they are not relevant to the subject of Scottish Independence. The pre-union Scottish Parliament was dissolved by proclamation on 28 April 1707 but it NEVER actually dissolved itself. The last meeting of that Parliament was on 25 March 1707 when it was ADJOURNED. Scottish Independence would therefore be a matter of RESTORATION NOT SECESSION. The decision to enter into a Union with the realm of England in 1707 was anything but democratic.

    • I agree, Scotland is part of a union, and its society has remained distinct as the provisions of the Treaty of Union guaranteed. Independence would dissolve that Union and restore the status quo ante. The UK has never been a unitary state.

  7. “Shetland, which existed outside of the UK for a lot longer than Scotland”

    Actually, Shetland has been in the UK exactly the same length of time as Scotland as it was part of Scotland when the UK was formed.

  8. Michael, the response to your article from supporters of independence has highlighted both its logical deficit and lack of knowledge of Scotland and her politics. I hope that the responses have offered you some comfort and reassurance on your warped version of reality, it must be horrible to think that you are living and studying in a country harbouring an extreme fascist movement – if this were the case I would write impassioned articles against it too. I’d probably make sure that I knew what I was talking about first though. Your concluding paragraph alone highlights the inaccuracy and fallaciousness of your position – Scotland is not a region, it is a nation ; its political persuasion is radically different from that of Westminster ; and it has over one thousand years of distinct and fiercely independent pre-1707 history.

    If you want to broaden your knowledge on the subject and have intelligent discussion on the case for Scottish Independence, may I suggest two books?

    1)Scotland, The Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnusson – a good, comprehensive history of Scotland, it’s in the library.

    2)A Nation Again, Why Independence will be good for Scotland (and England too) – published 2011, a collection of six short essays, each by a different author and from a different angle. On the back cover of the book reads: ‘’If you believe in the Case for Independence, this book will provide you with a stirring endorsement of your view. If you are sceptical, it might well persuade you to convert to the cause. If you are downright hostile, this book could be dangerous – it could prompt you to rethink’ 

    As insulting and frustrating as your article is, I can only hope that it prompts you to rethink (hopefully without having poisoned the mind of any others in the process)

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