17th September 2014
And the blog has been away so long perhaps it may have seemed that it had faded into the past. How remnants from the past have a way of returning for unexpected reasons. Separatism, nationalism, and the whiff of rebellion are such remnants, lots of Rob Roy and William Wallace, retold with an ever greater veneer of artifice and syrup added to make the stories more palatable and exciting, whereas the originals require no embellishment. And they are all back. Scotland votes on the issue of independence tomorrow, Thursday 18th September, and it is a very odd vote in many ways. Independence seems to have a great chance of being accepted or grasped than at any other time since the Union. And then one wonders why? The Scots have a powerful devolved government, good finances from the UK central government, and with the EU we have free movement across most of the continent. Would it matter so much to have a Scottish foreign and defence policy? Or a separate pension system? Really?
It would seem that the one point on which almost all Britons agree is that the financial centre of the UK is protected by political elites of all parties, and that this financial core is corrupt. So the Scots wishing to break away from this is perhaps not only understandable but one that fills many other Britons with envy. However, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Alex Salmond, the head of the Scottish Assembly and the leader of the ‘Vote Yes’ campaign, is determined that he wants Scotland to keep the British Pound, realising that this means retaining the control of the Bank of England (key name) over this currency, and that the BoE is bossed about by the Treasury (in London) and the financial institutions of the City of London. So, freedom for Scotland would mean what exactly? Giving up what small fragment of potential political control Scots might have had over their currency in exchange for no control at all? And plan B is what? An independent currency has been bandied about by the SNP, and roundly rejected by the financial institutions of the City of Edinburgh, a huge financial base in its own right, and second largest in the UK after London. The Euro is less favourably viewed but with that comes some rather complex issues. The Euro is not in a good place right now, and isn’t likely to be for quite a while. It is also only open to EU member states, and Scotland, by leaving the UK will, automatically, leave the EU. To apply for membership is no problem, but the usual time taken to be accepted ranges from five to 15 years. Even with a fast-track application, and with complete agreement of all EU states, an independent Scotland would be created in the Spring of 2016 and the application would probably only be seriously considered after a new state has been created. That is unless the rest of the EU were feeling very kind and cosy toward the new Scottish State.
And that raises another issue. Everyone loves Scotland in Europe. They love it inside the UK. Their views of an independent state might be quite different. Many would surely be supportive, possibly in Scandinavia and Ireland, and some indifferent. But the views of Belgium and Spain, facing strong internal secessionist movements would probably be less than embracing. Germany could possibly fear that the UK economy would be weakened and that the free-wheeling and (outwardly) free-spending Scotland would not be a fine model of post-2008 austerity, the whole austerity movement being under attack in France and elsewhere. Those countries most badly affected by spending cuts, such as Greece, would be unlikely to be overly cheery either, not least as an independent Scotland would be financially incapable of covering their own banks’ potential defaults. The Royal Bank of Scotland was the largest financial institutions of the UK to be bailed out by the government, but Edinburgh would not be able to manage such an operation as London did. So, Scotland would presumably be depending on the EU, in the form of the European Central Bank, to underwrite its banks, and its national budgets, which the SNP claim will be larger per person than in the rest of the UK, due to increases in education and health care budgets. And who will be happy and willing to assume this burden?
This may all seem churlish nit-picking, and possibly it is, but it is important nit-picking. I happen to dislike nationalism, and to feel rather uncomfortable with much patriotism. Parochial prejudice isn’t a good thing, or something to be valued. I lived in Scotland, have family and friends there, and feel comfortable in Scotland and with Scots. I feel I am not Scottish, but that Scotland is very much part of ‘my country’, possibly more so than London, and that my identity is British, so the basis of my opinions is a personal prejudice that I can recognise. I have been in discussion with some friends on this issue and some interesting points arose.
Alan in Berkeley wrote that he sympathised with much of Scottish ire, and one point he made was that “Scotland got pulled into the Iraq War by Westminster, if I am not mistaken.” My response rather frothed over the breakfast table:
The British people were taken into war by a government. That war was not popular, but after we entered into it the narrow margin of opinion against became an equally narrow margin in favour. Oddly, Scotland was about on the same national (UK) scores for support and opposition, and Scotland has traditionally been rather more tolerant of military operations, wars, and adventures than many other parts of the UK. In Scotland, military service has rarely been seen to clash with socialism, unlike in South Wales or Northern Ireland. This 'Taken into Iraq' line has been peddled about quite a bit on the fringe of the debates, but it is wisdom after the fact. We were all 'taken in' and in all senses. National heritage has little meaning in this respect.
Alan also made a number of interesting points relating US and Scottish experiences and feelings:
“Eight years watching this country (the US) go off the rails, watching the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, watching the right-wing come to control the money, the press, the political discourse. Eight years of this and I have total sympathy for the Scots when they say they are fed up with Westminster. There was a time when I said they were missing the woods for the trees, that the solution was not to separate from Westminster, but to work harder to be represented fairly in Westminster.
But eight years of awakening (I think it is awakening; it could of course be something else entirely) to the possibility that American democracy is broken, quite likely permanently, and the certainty that we don't have what it takes to control the top - we can't fix the banks, we can't stop the gerrymandering of political districts, can't change the electoral college system, can't curb the power of the lobbyists, can't get the informationally-challenged voter to read and to think. Our only hope is to tend our own garden. And politically, that means invest our time, energy and money in local control and hope somehow if everybody does it and gets local leaders answerable to their constituents, they in turn will somehow use their influence to fix things at the top.
All this is just another way of saying our political institutions are too big and too remote. The bosses don't answer to us because they don't have to. They don't even hear us, actually. This isn't working, this notion of a national democracy. It's better to bring the large political units down to size. We needed the large nations in the day of military imperialism when it was smart to band together against other large imperialisms; today the nation-state is little more than an invitation to oligarchic control and corruption on a massive scale.”
My response to Alan:
Centre and locality yes. That is very true. Difference of the US with Britain is we have emerged as a country with increasingly one overarching centre, of government, finance, media, and culture, as in France. In the US this is not the case, and 'the centre' may refer to DC, New York, LA, Chicago, or Boston. It may refer to Des Moines if you live in the farm belt of Iowa. We live in such a small place that our local centres are usually rather small, like Des Moines, and London swamps and trumps all. There is strong evidence that independence support is weak in the Scottish countryside and the Islands due to fears of Edinburgh-Glasgow, and fears in Glasgow that the largest city of the land will be displaced even more by those swines on the east coast in Edinburgh. Yes, Scotland is really so parochial that the cities 50 miles apart have such a bitter rivalry. And not just Scotland. The north-east of England was given a referendum on regional government about 15 years ago. It was rejected by a large margin. The main reason? Most people didn't want to have a local government bossing them about from Newcastle. Yes, that huge metropolis of about half a million (if you include suburbs etc.), that is 40miles from Middlesbrough, was seen as the unacceptable face of 'central' government.
So, what does it mean? Not sure. Maybe, as Alan says, tend your own garden and do what you can. Maybe ignore the people, as they are all idiots. Maybe just don't try and change anything as none of it matters. Or change everything as we've nothing to lose.
Breaking away as you have different values and wish to fend for yourself with those values intact is innately decent and fine. Trying to find differences between yourself and others to justify your own nationalism isn't fine, nor is telling lies about finance and selling independence as freedom, but with the full knowledge that you don't want to be really free. The resentment will linger, yes indeed. But given independence, and given the pound and crown that they say they want so much, the first bump in the road and the resentment will be back, with all blame for woes placed on 'those foreigners who control our currency'. Nationalism once stoked is a nasty, pernicious thing that is impossible to eradicate, and difficult to manage, and yet politicians repeatedly try to ride its startling potential energy for self-elevation, a legal high for the power seeker.
As part of this discussion, my friend here in Fujisawa, Japan, Andreas, gave his own perspective, which is an interesting one in many respects. He is German, but half British, or rather half Yorkshire. His mother’s family is from Skipton, itself an embattled Yorkshire enclave as it has been part of the North and West Ridings of the County (or country, as it has sometimes portrayed itself). For those unfamiliar with Britain, Yorkshire is the equivalent of Texas among US states: large, diverse, very proud and voluble about its unique qualities, dismissive of other places, and yet full of internal arguments. Yorkshire folk and Texans would understand the Scottish issue very well.
“I, for one, see the developments in Scotland, Catalonia and various other areas in Europe as an almost inevitable outcome of the developments in Europe, ie. a fundamental reassessment of the idea of the nation state. And in general, I see this development as a positive one, a trend towards a more region-based, less centralized version of government which, who knows, might even result in some deep-reaching realignment of the borders within the EU. What is happening in the former Soviet Republics - Transnistria, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and now Ukraine, only goes to show just how volatile superstructures built on little more than an overarching ideology are, once the central power has eroded. A bit closer to home, Yugoslavia. So in my mind, what we see in Scotland and Catalonia is no surprise at all. With the idea of Europe as a socio-political common ground catching hold among people in Europe (and I see this happening to a growing degree), the erstwhile ultimate unifying factor, the nation state, is losing its currency. If we are Europeans, if it is easier for me to drive from Passau to Salzburg than to Munich, if I have to pay last summer's Italian speeding ticket even though I am back home in Denmark, what then, apart from history, is the reason behind the borderline between me and the people over there? And once the realization sets in that these borderlines are not a (historical/political/economical etc) given, why not redraw the borderline between me and the others? For what reason should the hard-working North of Italy finance the lazy corrupt lifestyle of the mafia-infested South? (quote Lega Nord) For what reason should the hard-working North of Belgium finance the lazy corrupt lifestyle of the garlic-chomping South? (quote Vlaamse Blok)
So in short, the Scottish have all the right in the world to turn up their kilts at the tossers in Westminster, embrace Wee Eck and fly St Andrew's Cross from the top of Edinburgh Castle. What worries me, though, is the timing, the emotionality of it all, and the impending hangover once the party is over. At the first TV debate, the pro-independence idea went into a spectacular nosedive when the pro candidate had no answer to offer to his opponent's pointed questions regarding the economic and political feasibility of Scottish independence. There are so many problems looming, there are so many issues that have not been seen through. But what the heck, tomorrow's worries are tomorrow, and this is now, so let's get roaringly drunk on the mood of the moment! In my mind, with the gloomy long-term economic prospects of Scotland and the obvious lack of any contingency plans apart from relying on an EU bailout, I am afraid that before long, Scotland will be among the most unpopular nations in Europe.”
And all of this comment has simply been about the vote. What of the aftermath of the vote? A no vote, and what becomes of all this nationalist fervour? Does it simply drain away, never to be seen again? Not likely. A yes vote would trigger all sorts of interesting developments. The UK will have elections in 2015, but independence would be due in 2016, so the year of transition would be a tough and confusing one. The division of national resources and debts would be another area of potential conflict, as the precious ‘Scottish’ oil is assigned by international treaties with the UK. How much would the UK government wish to ‘give up’?
Much talk has been had over defence and the UK nuclear deterrent, but as important as they are, these are logistical issues that can be resolved, but the timing will be very tricky. A Scotland outside of the EU and NATO will be interesting, however, to see how different they really wish to mark themselves compared to the UK and other US allies, and it would be fascinating to observe the creation of Scottish armed forces.
But that is all conjecture. Interesting conjecture for a defence and security nerd like me, but something to wait and see about.
Which is just what a small group in Japan (at the moment, Japan) is doing rather closely. Yes, there is an Okinawa Independence Movement, looking closely at Scotland, especially the security aspects, and hoping that they can become independent of Tokyo (and Washington), and kick out the military bases that dominate the islands of the Okinawa group (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/15/okinawa-independence-scotland-japan-us-military-base ). Interestingly in Okinawa, many of those local politicians arguing so heatedly with the present and past governments belong, mainly, to PM Abe’s LDP. They see Washington as the main problem, and LDP membership they imagine gives them leverage over Tokyo. However, it seems obvious that (since 1972) it is the Tokyo government that has most obviously abused and ignored local communities rather than represented and protected them.
As Andreas further commented:
“In a chat about the Senkakus, my friend at Ryudai (Ryukyu University, the main university in Okinawa) pointed out that the local politicians on Ishigaki (a small island distant from but part of the Okinawa group), among others, are staunchly behind the belligerent line of the Abe (+predecessors) government in Tokyo, welcoming if not outright inviting the presence of the jieitai (Japan Self-Defense Forces) on their island, thus turning their homes into a potential target in case of a conflict with China. The reason for this seemingly odd pro-Tokyo line is quite simple: it riles those hated centralist bastards in Naha.”
And that is one important point. Parochialism and local enmity drive far more of policy than we would wish to admit. In Scotland, the enmity between Glasgow and Edinburgh is legendary, and that between Highland and Lowland historically bloody, and between Catholics and Protestants alarmingly common. So, good luck, whichever way you vote. And remember, no matter what the big men with the bigger mouths and the outsize flags might say, you have a fair few friends to your immediate south, and in the far east, who wish you well.