Apr. 27th, 2014

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Having read a sceptical book on Independence, it seemed only fair to try one that argues the case for change.  Arguing For Independence was written by the vice-chair of the SNP, Stephen Maxwell.  He sets out six cases for independence: Democratic, Economic, Social, International, Cultural and Environmental.  These are preceded by a good chapter on "Ways of Arguing" and followed by an FAQ-style wrap-up titled "Aye, but...".

Although the first two cases are well argued, I was surprised how weak the later chapters were.  The democratic case is quite strong and includes some items I hadn't really considered before, such as removing Scotland from anomalies such as the House of Lords  and moving us towards a written constitution.  I'd argue that a draft constitution should have been written before the referendum, as it was for devolution, but politically that may have been impossible.

The economic case is the longest chapter, as it should be.  Maxwell is quite open that there are risks, of the kind that worry me and that are outlined in Scotland's Choices.  His take is that these are short-term risks and have to be balanced against the long-term risks of an economy directed by and for the benefit of the South-East of England, which is an interesting angle to take.   He acknowledges that the currency question is uncertain.

Maxwell also outlines the history of other small North European countries and asks whether they would have been as successful if they had not gained their independence.  To which my response is that it would all depend on the success of the larger union involved.  If Denmark were part of Germany, it would probably be fine, whereas if Finland had remained part of Russia/the USSR it would probably have suffered.  Maxwell rather skips over Ireland and Iceland: those countries who were once the icons of the pro-independence movement, acknowledging briefly that there are risks as well as potential benefits to independence.

I was expecting a strong argument in favour of the social case but this short chapter boils down to saying that the economic benefits would allow better social support.  This is the flip side of my own concern, that the social benefits desired by several of my friends would be threatened if Scotland's economy does worse after independence: we could simply swap a Westminster-imposed austerity for one imposed from Holyrood.  The cultural and environmental cases were similarly weak.

The international case was particularly troubling to me.  Maxwell seemed to veer pretty close to the UKIP point of view (except on the important issue of immigration), in that he would be happy to consider leaving various international groups such as the EU, if they don't accede to the demands of an independent Scotland.  In this, he shares the underlying trend of nationalists everywhere, whatever they claim about being open to the rest of the world, I suspect that at heart they would not be concerned it more barriers existed between different countries.  In addition, Maxwell's arguments were full of the wishful thinking that characterises this aspect of the pro-independence movement; they seem to think that other countries will take the positions that match their personal hopes, with no actual evidence.   I remain highly sceptical; other countries will pursue realpolitik for their own ends, not for the goals of an independent Scotland.

Maxwell was particularly motivated by his anti-nuclear views: the removal not just of the Trident fleet but also of anything else that uses nuclear power, including power stations and ordinary submarines.  He was remarkably naive about the chances of this happening.  He argued that Scotland could become a non-nuclear member of NATO, analogous to Denmark, without acknowleding the key difference that Scotland, unlike Denmark, has the ideal base for NATO's nuclear weapons; NATO is unlikely to abandon this facility.   Recently, we have also see the pro-independence campaign jump at the suggestion that an independent Scotland could be admitted to a Sterling currency union in return for continuing to base the Trident fleet.  As with other examples, an independent Scotland would have less autonomy than its advocates are hoping for.

Overall, it was interesting to read arguments in favour of independence.  Maxwell takes a reasonably balanced view, acknowledging some of the risks and examining how arguments can be made in the face of uncertainty.  Some of his points in favour of independence were sound and well-made, particularly regarding the democratic case.  I appreciated the challenge to my scepticism from his arguments regarding the economy.  On the other hand, I was disappointed at the weakness of the remaining cases.


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