In no civilised country is toleration so little understood as in Scotland
– Henry Thomas Buckle
The break-up of the United Kingdom is inevitable. Indeed, it was inevitable the moment the Scottish Government was formed in 1999. Power is a contagious disease and the ceding of some power from Westminster to Holyrood only made that lesser government hungry for more. Veritably, the transfer of power at the time may well have immediately lessened the cries for full independence but made it more certain in the long-run. Power is an addictive drug and, given some, people inevitably want more.
In addition, the current COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the regional differences within the UK and accelerated the demand for a second Scottish referendum – a referendum that will, inevitably, lead to a claim for independence. The question is now not do we want independence from the rest of the UK (like it or lump it), but what type of independence we will choose.
Somewhat sadly, many independence-minded Scots blame England and the English for all their perceived problems. This is simply not so; many of the problems within Scotland (and that is really within certain areas of Scotland) are mirrored by the same problems within certain areas of England and Wales (Northern Ireland is a little unique). It is, in fact, the British ruling classes that, in many respects, cause the problems (and perceived problems) − and the British ruling classes are well-stocked with Scots. Not that our problems are great compared to those of some other countries – but that is another story.
At one point in time, some years back, it was harder to imagine an independent Scotland. The resources and much of the infrastructure of the UK were communal. British Railways (or British Rail) belonged to all as did the Gas Board(s) and the Central Electricity Generating Board, the public General Post Office and many more such – albeit with particular off-shoots in Scotland. Scots played their due part in the running of all these assets. Then along came Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party.
Not all these communally-owned institutions were popular and Thatcher played on their weaknesses and the fact that 'they cost the taxpayer money' to facilitate the privatisation of same. It was also stressed, with no proof, that they would, somehow, be more efficient if run privately and for profit. Thus, they moved from communal assets belonging to all to businesses increasingly being used by the rich, and often foreign rich, as investment opportunities. Yes, taxes went down but, more subtly and insidiously, household costs went up.
These privatisations helped widen the gap between the richer and poorer of this country − and it demonstrated that there was nothing sacrosanct in the ownership of these facilities. They were not, irrevocably, British; and, if they could be broken up and removed from the British people, another foundation of UK Ltd had been pulled up.
Then there was the (deliberate) running down of UK manufacturing facilities as UK investors (the richer members of society) found it more profitable to both invest and buy from countries where the poor and poverty stricken could be fully exploited (again Thatcher's Conservative Party had opened up the way to overseas investments). This had the very subtle effect of removing some of the interplay between the countries and regions of the UK – leading to individuals (unconsciously) thinking of the UK in remoter terms and thus, in turn, leading them to associate more with their local region. (We even saw something of this when those anti-English racists recently demonstrated at the border crossing with placards telling the English visitors not to enter the country but to go home due to COVID-19).
Given this background, all that was needed to tip Scotland towards independence was a less than bright Conservative Prime Minister who is hardly aware of the country outside of London. And, boy, in BoJo do we have such? He is the greatest gift to the SNP since Thatcher.
Now, what are the specific problems facing Scotland as a result of being part of the UK? The basic problem is that faced even more acutely by parts of England (although not all Scots appreciated that). It is the uneven distribution of wealth which, in turn, leaves many areas deprived and rundown and many individuals struggling for a living – a factor made all the more acute by COVID-19. Thus, behind the demand for independence, is the unspoken belief that Scots would be better off, on the whole, running their own show. The economics of that view are doubtful but, certainly, we would feel better having the total power to make our own mistakes. And that brings us back to the type of independence we want given that, in this world of ours, there can be no true
independence. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on our neighbours and so it is the degree of independence that needs to be defined and the structures within it.
Firstly, our voting system. As mentioned in a previous article, our present voting system is, at best, inadequate and at worst, corrupt. A new nationalist party is being launched, the Alliance for Independence, and this party hopes to make use of the 5% threshold in the Scottish Parliament to squeeze in extra members dedicated to independence − using strong SNP seats in order to maximise its vote, whilst not upsetting the sitting member: legally allowable, morally indefensible (the SNP officially have nothing to do with this) − but demonstrating one of the weaknesses of the existing system. The other major problem with the system is that it takes control from the voter and hands it to the political parties – who choose who will be on their 'lists', irrespective of any popular vote, or lack of, that a particular candidate receives. This diminishes the popular and democratic vote of the electorate.
I asked the following question of the main political parties; 'I would be pleased to learn of your party's view on the existing proportional representational (PR) arrangement used to elect MSPs and your further views on the single, transferrable voting (STV) system as an alternative and whether your party would consider adopting such a system?'
Here is what the Liberal-Democrats communications officer replied: 'The current system has been a significant democratic improvement, providing fairer representation and voter choice while maintaining local links, but we agree that there is scope for improvement... The current AMS electoral system has the great merit of being broadly proportional but also manages to combine most of the faults of FPTP and of list systems, as well as adding a number of problems that come from having two types of MSP. The Arbuthnott review of 2005 recommended that if it were not improved in ways they recommended then, after two further elections, the alternative of STV should be considered.... We urge the government to give serious consideration to adopting STV for Scottish Parliament elections'.
I agree – excepting only the praise for the existing system. The Conservative Party had a different point of view. Their spokesman answered: 'As a party we're perfectly happy with the voting system in Holyrood and have no desire to change it'.
At least it is a clear and principled position. I asked the same question of both the Labour Party and the SNP. Being a gentleman, I'll skip over Labour's response but the SNP, as I expected, have not yet replied and, given the tricks they play with the existing system, I do not expect such. I have emailed them several times and left at least two messages on their answer machine. (If they ever do respond, I'll let you know.)
So, getting our voting system right for independence is one thing; our relationships with other countries are even more important. The SNP suggest that we immediately re-join the European Union. There are a number of objections to such a move. If the rest of the UK are not in the EU, then our trading position with those other UK countries would alter − and not for the better (and we do £40 billion per annum with them against £12 billion with the EU as it is). Also, the EU is a very limited democracy being run, at least in part, by the large international companies. We would be leaving being under Westminster for being under Brussels. At worst, we would have to face a hard border between us and England – a fact that could, and would, put English jobs out of the reach of Scots − and some 30,000 Scots every year take up positions south of the border. It may even decrease tourist trade with England.
A better answer, I believe, is a federal arrangement with the rest of the UK, where we keep our borders (and trade) open and co-operate on joint ventures such as defence and fishing rights. We can make up for any lost trade with the EU by taking over more of our own resources that are currently held by those large international companies (including our banks). That would not be easy and would take time – but it can be done.
Then there is the land issue – but all that is another subject and I have run out of space! Only room to tell you that I am no gentleman and that the Labour Party, in reply to my query, emailed me an application form to join them. I did not take up their offer.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow