As Brexit looms, fuelled by a demand for the return of British sovereignty and, in turn, the drive for Scottish Independence gains momentum, the question arises: just what powers are available or are required to be a nation state?
The days of One Crown, One Faith, One Flag are long gone, if they ever existed. Even in my lifetime the change has been dramatic. Former Soviet satellite states are clear evidence of that. Liberty from the Soviet yoke hasn’t resulted in absolute independence or sovereignty; instead, membership of the EU and NATO has been obtained by many and others look wistfully on and aspire to join them.
More prosaically, it was once viewed as almost essential to have a national airline and the likes of Estonian Air took to the skies. It’s since gone into liquidation, joining others like Sabena that people may forget was once Belgium’s national carrier. No one now, and certainly not since the recognition of a climate emergency, sees a national airline as a necessity.
So, what then is it that’s required to meet the demands of sovereignty or independence? First, it is neither an absolute nor static concept. The criteria have varied over the centuries since nation states were first forged.
Moreover, it has also varied from state to state with many criteria being met but others being much more fluid. Finland, for example, was never challenged as a nation state but did require to accept limits on its sovereignty imposed by the Soviet Union. Other states, sometimes by choice and often by internal or external factors whether economic, military or social, also required to temper and/or adjust their decision making.
New sovereignty concept
Now, as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the concept has altered again. No nation is entirely Independent and all nations are now interdependent, (’twas perhaps ever thus). Globalisation, terrorism or conflict and, critically climate change have altered previous understandings. Even states that protest their independent status whether North Korea or the USA at the extremes have limits imposed upon them. So, shouting “Freedom” or “Take back control” is one thing, the reality’s quite different.
What is clear though is that it’s nation states that are the building blocks of regional or global co-operation and hence why statehood has to be obtained for representation. There are many German Länder or even federal US states that are both larger and wealthier than independent nations whether in the EU or elsewhere. But it’s Malta that’s got a seat at the EU table with a voice and veto, not North Rhine Westphalia, and similarly it’ll soon be St Vincent and the Grenadines, not California, sitting on the United Nations Security Council.
Nations have long since recognised that ceding some sovereignty was not only necessary but beneficial. Long before it joined the EU and quite apart from the constraints imposed by having the Russian Bear on its border, Finland saw merit in regional cooperation. The Nordic Union allowed for free movement and many other rights long before the EU was even a twinkle in the eye of many a Europhile, even if it reduced control of borders and affected other Brexiteer mantras.
Now, the Finnish concept is of fields of responsibility where some matters are dealt with, and de facto power is ceded, to the Nordic Union, the EU and other international organisations or institutions. All the time though it is Finland that ultimately decides, even if on some occasions it may be reluctant or even regretful about ceding power. But the opportunities shared responsibility offers and the requirements of the modern world necessitate it.
Myths and realities
For absolute sovereignty is a myth and even the most ardent Brexiteers are simply exchanging co-operation with Brussels for the effective imposition of diktat from Washington. Fictional demands for straight bananas or the banning of the bagpipes will be supplanted by chlorinated chicken and the privatisation of the NHS. Not only will we all be collectively worse off – other than the few who’ll be even more enriched – but Britain itself will be further diminished in status and influence. Far from the glories of a New Age of Empire, it’ll be a cold hard world where further coorying in, if not total sycophancy to the US, will be the only menu.
Instead, small nations and even large ones can be enriched and empowered by cooperation, even if it means ceding some powers to a larger entity. The classic example for Scotland is our Celtic cousin in Ireland. For over 800 years Ireland was dominated and bullied by Britain, ravaged by Cromwell and threatened by Churchill. Now the rancid remarks of Patel and the bombast of Johnson are irrelevant, as the EU stands with them. For probably the first time in their history they are the ascendancy, not a colonial elite or foreign power presiding over them (see here).
The changing state
But if Scotland moves towards independence then it will be different from what the Irish Free State was when established (in 1922) and has become not simply through membership of the EU or euro. The role of the state has changed and arguably shrunk since then. The days of post and telephone boxes being painted a different colour or having Royal insignia removed are long gone. Now it’s international operators, as with airlines or search engines, with the state more often taking on the role of regulator.
That in truth makes gaining independence easier as there are fewer organisations to take over or supplant. But even there you would surely wish to consider continuing to share services where appropriate. The ongoing discussions on the island of Ireland and the willingness of Britain to agree to cooperation could be replicated or built upon. For sure, some aspects would require us to follow EU rules, not British ones, as that’s the requirement of membership, as the EU-27 are making clear. Without the complexity of the backstop or Good Friday Agreement, the other aspects would be far easier for Scotland.
Others aspect of life are different and continued co-operation is perfectly feasible unless it was ruled out, as the Nordic Union shows. Independence for Scotland, after all, is about bringing decision making back to Holyrood other than on aspects where it agrees to share whether within Britain or even across Britain and Ireland, as well as with the EU or other international organisations.
Many other separate institutions or state ownership do not appear vital or necessary for the operation of an independent nation. Eircom has been privatised since 1999 and is now registered in Jersey while Ryanair is arguably the de facto national carrier. So long as Scotland has its say and feels it is getting value for money why bother.
Why would you seek to replicate the Commonwealth Graves Commission? That would be absurd. More seriously, if DVLA for example offered to continue operating vehicle registration/licensing for Scotland for a reasonable charge and take account of Scotland-specific instructions why change? They can differentiate between various categories of motor vehicle and can surely do so between separate national post codes. Is a separate vehicle licensing service essential for Scotland’s independent nationhood? I very much doubt it and there’s surely other priorities for the new state to be both concentrating and spending limited resources on. Surely, it’s the transition to electric vehicles and supporting public transport that are key for both.
Other organisations may be viewed similarly. In the wake of the Thomas Cook debacle do you need a Scottish Civil Aviation Authority or rather, so long as representation and cost are correct, should you not stay with what you’ve already got? Of course, that’s dependent on the rest of the UK, but why would they not cooperate They’ve made their position clear in Ireland about continued cross border agencies and given Scotland’s landmass let alone airspace it makes perfect sense for them too.
For sure some separate institutions are essential but others can be shared. A fledgling Revenue and Customs has now been established and the Civil Service would need to be beefed up. Independence is a pre-requisite for being represented in the EU and having a seat in other international fora. After all, it’s political power and the right to make the decisions that matter. It’s being in charge of your own destiny that matters as Scotland has found out but thereafter aspects will have to be shared for political and economic advantage. The priority post-independence should be on the delivery of services and the regulation of other aspects of public life and that can be dealt with in a multitude of ways and at national and transnational levels.
So, as both Brexit and an independent Scotland edge closer and we enter uncharted political territory, perhaps it’s right to paraphrase Star Trek: “It’s a nation state, Jim, but not as we know it.”
Keith Macdonald says
Essentially I think that Kenny is arguing that the word independence should only be used in a qualified sense referring to specific functions such as economic management and that, for practical purposes, legal independence may have to be given up to enable democratic countries to work together on common problems.
This is a point I have made before in these columns and I believe is absolutely vital if we are ever to come up with a workable framework for constitutional relations between Scotland and the UK and the UK and the EU.
This implies a new way of looking at the relationship between Scotland and the UK. Instead of beginning with the constitutional question, we should start with the practical – economic, movement of people, social and cultural etc. that we want to achieve and then construct a fair legal settlement to support that.
This is the only way to avoid the trench warfare of “independence/ no to independence” which can never be resolved satisfactorily and which dooms Scotland to Brexit style conflict and stalemate.
Fay Young says
A very good point, Keith. In more optimistic moments I like to think that there is cause for hope in the reasoned arguments made recently by Sceptical Scot contributors like Kenny MacAskill, James Mitchell, David Eiser and John McLaren. Interestingly, it is also a point made by Tom Devine: a referendum has to secure more than a narrow win, he says, otherwise a divided Scotland is also doomed to years of continuing conflict.
Keith Macdonald says
Thanks for your encouraging reply. I am glad to hear you say that you think there is cause for hope because the current situation in British/Scottish politics seems almost deliberately designed to eliminate that hope and force us all into unquestioning obedience to one of a few doctrinaire positions centred around a personality cult or the worship of a word like “independence”.
Once the fakery of the election campaign is over there may be more chance to develop a better approach to our future. Let us hope so.