It seems that
we are all
independence n the state or quality of being independent
confederation n 1 the act of confederating or the state of being confederated. 2 a loose alliance of political units. 3 (esp. in Canada) another name for a federation.
For anyone who has followed the SNP's definition of 'independence' over the years, recent reports regarding redefinitions and 'independence-lite' reformulations should come as no surprise. From the adoption of 'independence in Europe' in 1988 to the promotion of fiscal autonomy in 2001, the party has constantly sought to adapt its 'big idea' to a changing international context and, of course, the shifting sands of public opinion.
Normally this has been reasonably sure-footed, little more than a tactical statement of priorities. So in 1997 the SNP message was clearly devolution as a stepping stone to full independence; more recently it's been fiscal autonomy followed by the real deal. But now the issue has essentially been forced by the astonishing electoral achievement of an overall majority at Holyrood, I can't help feeling this latest reinterpretation of first principles is a little contrived.
Consider the language used by influential nationalists when talking about independence. Stephen Noon, one of the architects of the recent election victory, says 'separatism is not on the agenda', another points to a document which talks of the 'United Kingdoms rather than the United Kingdom', while Alex Salmond defines it thus: 'The resumption of independence is the resumption of political and economic sovereignty. How you then choose to exercise that sovereignty reflects the inter-relationships with principally the other countries in these islands'.
Not only would I pay good money to watch Salmond, or indeed any SNP candidate, try out that line on the doorstep, but its actual meaning is, at best, contrived. 'This is the independence option,' a nationalist chum patiently explains to me, 'The point being made here is that independence (in relation to the rest of the UK) is not about separation, ripping Scotland out of the UK etc, but about building a better relationship on the basis of equality'.
This dovetailed neatly with a report last Friday of a study by Professor James Mitchell, a respected political scientist at Strathclyde University, based upon interviews with around 80 leading figures in the SNP. Mitchell's impression, based on first-hand accounts of what independence presently means, was that the SNP is moving towards a more 'confederal' arrangement within the UK, sharing services such as defence, foreign affairs and social security while exercising full fiscal and political 'sovereignty' (always an important word in the nationalist lexicon).
Asked what socialism was, he replied that it was whatever the Labour Party said it was. Similarly, it now appears that nationalism, or more specifically independence, is whatever the SNP says it is.
'My take on this is that we are moving towards an ever looser union,' Professor Mitchell elaborated elsewhere. 'It is quite vague but it gives a sense of direction. There will always be a union in some shape or form. Quite what shape or form it takes, though, is very different.' Now this is all well and good, and indeed not a million miles from my own preferred constitutional model (and apparently I'm an unreconstructed unionist), but it is not independence, no matter how loosely defined. Scotland cannot be at the same time part of a United Kingdom – however constituted – and an independent nation, with separate membership of the European Union and United Nations, for long the acid test of true 'independence'.
It's difficult not to draw the conclusion that the SNP is trying to have its cake and eat it. Talk of sharing services is not only a logistical nightmare (what happens when the UK wants Scottish-based forces to participate in a war the Scottish Government opposes?) but incredibly presumptuous. Why is it wrong for the UK to dictate terms to Scotland, but 'pragmatic' and reasonable the other way round? In short, 'independence-lite' (which I accept is a media term) throws up more questions than it answers, and so far the SNP's answers have been less than adequate.
In essence, the SNP's has become, by its own definition, a unionist argument. For decades the party has lumped all its opponents – from the federalist Liberal Democrats to devolutionist Labour – together as 'unionists', but if the SNP is now arguing for a reconstituted United Kingdom – and no senior figure has denied that is the case – then it too is proposing a unionist response. Admittedly, it's more radical and far reaching than that proposed by any of the main unionist parties, but unionist – in that it preserves the basic constitutional integrity of the UK – nevertheless.
Michael Portillo, as shrewd an observer of the Scottish political scene as exists in London, recently predicted that Alex Salmond would win his planned referendum but that the word 'independence' would not appear on the ballot paper. This was perceptive, for what the SNP now proposes cannot honestly be presented as 'independence' to the Scottish electorate. In reality, and assuming there are still to be three questions, voters will end up choosing between the status quo, fiscal autonomy and devolution-max, be that federalism, confederalism, or whatever.
The SNP, of course, win either way, for it's highly unlikely the status quo would survive come the crunch. But will it win true independence? They say it depends on the definition, but then to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn't they? It reminds me of an anecdote about Herbert Morrison. Asked what socialism was, he replied that it was whatever the Labour Party said it was. Similarly, it now appears that nationalism, or more specifically independence, is whatever the SNP says it is.
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David Torrance is a writer, broadcaster and political historian. He is the author of biographies of George Younger and Alex Salmond