Breaking the Union?

J. Alan Smith discusses the forthcoming referendum on independence for Scotland

In the Fifties and Sixties, a major principle of progressive thought on foreign policy was The right of self-determination'. I started having doubts after the chaos that followed the independence of the former Belgian Congo and the breakup of the Central African Federation. Apparently, it was all  right for Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) to leave the latter but not for Katanga to leave the former; this was a distinction too subtle for me to grasp.

A general principle?

Now the people of Scotland alone will decide whether Scotland will leave the UK, without reference to the other parts of the country. This is quite different from the process by which the southern 26 counties of Ireland left the UK nearly 100 years ago; this required an Act of Parliament passed by representatives of all parts of the UK. The major party in the Coalition is officially known as the 'Conservative and Unionist Party'; should the Scottish people choose to leave the Union, future historians may well judge harshly a Unionist Party that made it so easy for them. If the right of Scotland to decide alone whether to leave represents a general principle then, presumably, in the 1860s the States of the Confederacy had the right to leave the USA.

Both worse off

A rational discussion on the proposal for Scottish independence would examine whether Scotland and the other nations in the UK benefit from Scotland's presence in the Union. It is my opinion, based on a reading of our island's history, that they do. Of course, if Scotland were to leave, then both parts would probably survive but, equally probably, both parts would be worse off.

An aspect barely mentioned is the future of Northern Ireland. Historically, the seventeenth-century Ulster plantation was settled from Scotland and, geographically, Northern Ireland's surface link to the UK is the Stranraer-Larne ferry. Logically, Northern Ireland could remain in the UK following the departure of Scotland but, in practice, that departure would be a threat to a still-fragile constitutional settlement.

Details unclear

A worrying aspect of the process is the way that a major decision for Scotland to leave could be made without significant details having been settled. An alternative approach would have been to have a first referendum to determine, in principle, whether Scotland should leave and then, if the decision were `Yes; to produce a detailed proposal to put to a second referendum.

The major areas affected by Scottish independence would be the legal system, the armed forces, and the currency. Scotland already has a distinct legal system and its future would depend on whether an independent Scotland were part of the European Union. Would an independent Scotland be able to maintain all the existing Scottish regiments as well as the specialized corps required by an army and elements of a navy and air force? Certainly the remaining parts of the UK would need to spend more on defence to maintain the UK's obligations.

The currency to be used by an independent Scotland has been widely discussed: a new Scottish currency; the euro; or sterling. A newly independent country of the size of Scotland would find a new currency a risky venture. An independent Scotland choosing to go from sterling to the euro would be well advised to read the fable of King Log and King Stork. The continued use of sterling has some attractions but hidden difficulties. The problem is not the use by Scottish people of UK notes and coins but the creation of sterling amounts by Scottish banks. Who would control the Scottish banks and who would act as their lender of last resort?

Other areas affected are the public and private corporations located in Scotland because Scotland is part of the UK. For example, would National Savings & Investments remain in Glasgow? A major problem for the UK, if Scotland were to leave, would be the relocation of UK defence establishments from Scotland. Paradoxically, policies to benefit Scotland as part of the UK could lead to significant expenditure for the UK in the event of an independent Scotland.

Devolution of powers

There are hints that, if Scotland were to reject the call for independence, then wider powers would be devolved to the Scottish government. I think it would be better for the UK government to consider the devolution of powers throughout all the UK and not just Scotland. At present, we have different systems of devolution in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland while the majority of the population, the people of England, have no devolved powers at all, apart from those devolved to local government.

On the other hand, if Scotland were to choose independence, then the UK should seek to ease their path. Between the decision to leave and their actual departure, the UK should negotiate with organizations such as the EU, the NATO and the UN to ensure that Scotland can join those it wishes to join before it loses its membership of them that it enjoys as part of the UK. It would be in the interests of the UK to remain on good terms with an independent Scotland without sacrificing its own legitimate interests.

Safe Harbour

Over the black dock a blood moon

And an old rook before the white sail

Of a ruined galleon

Other ships sunk in history

And gulls haphazard like a flight of ideas.

Peter Mullen

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue