The meaning of independence

Nicola Sturgeon has promised Scotland a detailed prospectus for leaving the UK. “It is just as important that there is clarity about the implications of independence. And there will be. We will be frank about the challenges we face …” (see here)

In general, independence is commonly taken to be the ability to make one’s own decisions without interference by others. In the case of Scotland this would particularly apply to influence from the UK. The argument I want to make is the SNP should say if this is to be total independence and, if not, they should specify exactly what kind it is.

Some SNP views

Take this as example, from Nicola Sturgeon in September 2016 :  “the fundamental case for Scotland’s independence remains as it was. That case for full (my emphasis) self-government ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends”.

On the other hand, take this from Alex Salmond in 2013. “The First Minister said separation would sever political ties with the rest of Britain, but unions of currency, monarchy, society, Europe and defence would remain.  A senior aide to Mr Salmond told BBC Scotland he would not object to the term “independence lite” as a description of what was on offer at next year’s referendum.” It was on this basis that the 2014 referendum was fought.

I have always found it difficult to see how we could have maintained five unions with our only neighbour without strong political ties but that is not my central point.

In the first quote, I believe Nicola Sturgeon is talking about legal independence. The self-government she talks about is the ability of the Scottish Parliament to pass any law it likes. The UK Parliament would no longer legislate for Scotland. Leaving aside the fact that EU membership implies the acceptance of EU law and justice on matters like agriculture and fishing, the real problem with this is that there is a vast difference between the legal power to do something and the practical ability to do it. All of us are legally free to live a millionaire lifestyle but could not do it.

I think Nicola has recognised this point. In 2016 she said:  “ I want the UK as a whole to stay in the EU because I think that option will be better for the rest of the UK, I think it will be better for the EU and, should Scotland become independent in the future – something I believe will happen – I think it will be better for us too. “(my emphasis again) This is surely an admission that, whether Scotland is legally part of the UK or not, the actions of the UK will affect us. You might think this was common sense but the rhetoric of “full independence” disguises it. While we are still part of the UK we may be able to influence Brexit, if Parliament has ultimate control. This illustrates what I believe to be the central dilemma of the Scottish position. Given that the UK’s actions influence Scotland – is it better to retain some UK influence through our MPs or give this up , lose our political influence in the UK, and thereby reduce but not eliminate UK influence over us?

Are words important?

It may be argued that I am being pernickety about the definition of a word, like a pedant who insists that “hopefully” does not mean “I wish …”. I think that is a mistake. Words are very important in democratic politics and condition public understanding. “Independence” sounds good. We are pleased that elderly relatives are still independent and proud when our children become more so.

A very well-known celebrity Yes supporter tweeted in 2014 that no one could be against independence (admittedly from their Chicago base). In March 2015 , in anticipation of a hung Parliament and his own election, Nigel Farage called for the EU ballot question to be: ”Do you wish the UK to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?’’ He constantly used the term throughout the referendum, even if the main achievement turned out to be a new passport cover. See this.

The reality behind the word

The truth is that no nation can be wholly independent in the modern world. Therefore, proponents of “independence” should be required to be specific.  We in Scotland are independent already on e.g. school education (we are not worried about Theresa May’s grammar schools). We could never be independent in any meaningful way on climate change. The word is meaningless unless its use is specified. In 2014 Scotland was to be part of a continuing union with the rest of the UK covering at least money supply, interest rates and fiscal policy. This was a continuation of the existing economic union. Yet this did not apparently detract from our “independence” Really?

At the time, I wondered why Alex Salmond was so keen to keep the economic union. Then I looked at the figures. Scotland exported nearly £50bn worth of goods and service to the rest of the UK in 2015.  This is out of a total GDP of £152 bn. (including a geographical share of oil)  Altogether exports amounted to £79bn. This means that the equivalent of over a million jobs in Scotland are related to selling goods and services to the UK. Having a different currency puts up a barrier to this trade. This means that our economy – the level of demand, inflation and growth – is heavily influenced from outside our country and in particular from the UK. Austerity in the UK means low growth in Scotland, whether we like it or not. Alex Salmond did not offer real economic independence in 2014 because he couldn’t.

Many good people are attracted by the vision of a more equal and fairer Scotland and despair of taking the UK (particularly England) on that path. Believe it or not I could find myself voting to take Scotland out of the UK. At the minute the country is heading towards a takeover by Donald Trump and his right-wing acolytes. Escape may be the only option. If we do leave, it is vital that we do so with realistic expectations of what we can achieve and the difficulties we will face. The unqualified use of the term “independence” raises expectations beyond that by ignoring the many practical constraints on the legal freedom of the Scottish people.

It is unrealistic to expect the SNP to alter their use of the term, which they clearly believe is a winner. Those of us who think that the decision about Scotland’s future needs to rest on pragmatism about the welfare of the Scottish people need to be more willing to question the use of this term and to try to force those who use it to explain what they mean and to be consistent in its use.










  1. weesandysays says

    Why should anyone believe that what Sturgeon herself thinks is actually a good thing ? She has been found to be wanting on this issue before , this is Women who makes her decisions on flawed personal emotions time after time not on decisions that are best for Scotland. This is an individual who has been groomed in grievance mongering since age 16 by some one who time after time is proven to be simply lying on very important matters. Salmond and Sturgeon are cut from the same cloth, others would say in a more straighforward way “two cheeks of the same Nationalist ar*e” . It should be noted too that all the recent relevation’s on the White Paper not being worth the paper it was written on that it was 100% Sturgeon that was responsible for producing that document, no one else. “it was her baby”

    • Keith Macdonald says

      I think it is a mistake for those who are sceptical about the idea of Scotland leaving the UK not to recognise the big differences between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. I do not think she is really a nationalist in the sense that achieving the symbolism of statehood is all important to her. As an individual she is much more pragmatic about the welfare of the Scottish people.

      Obviously, as Leader, of the SNP, she has sometimes to pretend to worship the god “independence” but in my opinion she was inching her party away from it until Brexit.

  2. David McCandless says

    I am not convinced that an independent Scotland would be any more equal or fair than the UK is now. Inequality is largely a universal outcome of free market capitalism – all of the countries that practice it tend to end up quite unequal. (Whereas the countries that aren’t free market capitalist countries tend to be totalitarian dictatorships). Scotland is hardly likely to be any different.

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