Independence after the crash: the financial crisis has transformed the debate over Scottish independence--to the disadvantage of the SNP.

AuthorStafford, James

Here is a useful test that watchers of the debate on Scotland's independence might want to apply to the competing statements of the contending parties: 'Could you have said that in 2007, or even 1999'? If the answer is 'yes', then the statement might not mean much. The global financial crisis, and its corollary in the eurozone, should by rights have transformed the terms of what is now a decades-long debate on the possibility of Scottish independence. But it is not immediately apparent that they have done so. Activists from both camps paint rosy pictures of possible futures within and without the UK. Scotland's legion of cultural commentators ruminate on the politics of identity, much as they have done for decades. The Radical Independence Campaign and Common Weal excitedly speculate about deliberative democracy and economic justice. All participants have an interest in reducing the salience of the 'crises of democratic capitalism' (Streeck, 2011), since none are seriously dedicated to dispensing with it.

This is not to say that the reality, and central importance, of the crisis is straightforwardly denied. The SNP's decision to advocate a sterling union over euro membership for an independent Scotland has been its most notorious consequence, and one that has drawn a huge amount of critical attention from campaigners for the union. But the back-and-forth about the pound addresses the symptoms, rather than the root causes, of this monumental volte-face, which repudiated decades of nationalist economic analysis (Jackson, 2012). It is widely acknowledged that the crisis has critically undermined Britain's attempts to sustain a post-industrial economy within an increasingly global division of labour (Hay et al., 2013). But it has also devastated Scottish nationalists' political economy. The euro crisis exposes nationalists' demands for social democracy as being irreconcilable with their vision of Scotland as a 'post-sovereign' state in a confederal Europe.

The revenge of sovereignty

Those who point out the risks attendant on a Yes vote this September are commonly accused of 'talking down' to Scots; of declaring Scotland to be 'too wee, too poor, too dumb' to 'go it alone' (Wishart, 2014). This is ironic, because intelligent Scots have always privileged co-operative strategies for the advancement of their country's interests in an uncertain world (Kidd, 2008). Since the 1980s, the SNP has consistently argued that autonomy within Europe would be a better fit for modern Scotland than incorporation within the United Kingdom (see Robert Saunders' article in this issue). 'Independence', as such, does not mean absolute sovereignty of the sort the British Crown-in-Parliament claimed to enjoy prior to EEC accession.

Perhaps the best exposition of this mature nationalist position was to be found in the elegant legal and political philosophy of the late jurist and SNP MEP Neil MacCormick. Here, a careful theorisation of the European Union's pluralistic legal order was allied to the attractive claim that the United Kingdom, conceived as it was in an era of 'Westphalian' or 'Hobbesian' absolute sovereignty, had outlived its usefulness as a vessel for Scottish aspirations (MacCormick, 2002, chapter 8). By removing the threat of empire and war from the 'European commonwealth', the legal order of the EU could permit the UK safely to disaggregate, in accordance with the properly democratic principle of subsidiarity and the inherent ethical value of the historic nation (MacCormick, 2002, chapter 12). For MacCormick, Europe offered a canvas not for the assertion of a Westphalian sovereignty for Scotland, but for the proper recognition of a milder Scottish legal personality within Europe's family of nations.

According to MacCormick, this latter-day nationalist alternative to the incorporating parliamentary union of 1707 was redolent of Scottish attempts to negotiate 'an federal union' within the British Isles in 1705-7. This alternative arrangement would have preserved the parliaments of England and Scotland intact, but established a permanent treaty governing the royal succession, as well as diplomatic and economic affairs. On MacCormick's reading, this treaty, like the latter-day European Union, would have outlawed Anglo-Scottish wars and guaranteed free trade between the two realms. But it was dismissed out of hand by English negotiators, stymied by the huge disproportion of size and power that existed between England and Scotland. Fresh from the 1688 revolution that had established the untrammelled sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, and standing on the cusp of global empire, English elites had little interest in formally sharing power with a smaller and...

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