Co-operative independence in an interdependent world

Stephen Noon says that whatever the result of the independence referendum, Scotland and the rest of the UK will be closely intertwined

People like me, political advisers, can spend too much time thinking about ways of characterising what our political opponents are doing. Alongside the best articulation of our own case, we are keen to find that memorable label or phrase that will undermine the arguments being used against us.

One year to go

With just 12 months before the Scottish referendum on 18 September 2014 we are running a series of articles this week:

  • Tomorrow: Charlie Jeffery, of Edinburgh University, describes a project that aims to keep us informed as the debate gathers pace.
  • Sunday: James Mitchell, of Edinburgh University, analyses how the Yes and No campaigns are framing the referendum debate.

We are witnessing a classic example of this right now in the Scottish constitutional debate, with the No campaign anxious to persuade us that independence is being repackaged or rebranded. This, the story goes, is part of a plan to hide the realities of what being independent actually means. Indeed, this claim was the centrepiece of a recent speech by the Scottish Secretary in Michael Moore. As he put it, “when it comes to their rhetoric about an independent Scotland, the [Yes campaign] has retreated a long way in a short time”.

No campaigners, such as Moore, want us to believe that Scottish independence really means separation – the family of nations on these isles split asunder. But, for as long as I can remember from my time in the independence movement, separation has been the last thing any of us have considered.

We seek a new relationship of equality between the British nations, rather than no relationship. While Scotland’s brand of civic nationalism entered the modern world long ago, the British nationalist variant, deployed by the No campaign, remains desperately in need of upgrade. It relies on an increasingly outdated and anachronistic view of the all-powerful state, which takes corporeal form in a Westminster parliament with “absolute” sovereignty.

Independence supporters have moved well beyond these old-fashioned views of what it means to be a state, to recognise, instead, the realities of 21st Century independence in an increasingly interdependent world. This is not a rhetorical retreat, but instead a reflection of deeply-held principles and a world view that sees partnership and co-operation as the best way of ordering relationships between nations. It is a desire for something more appropriate to replace an increasingly dysfunctional political Union.

The roots of the proposition being put forward by the Scottish Government today are long and deep, with an intellectual basis provided, among others, by the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, one of the key authors of the Scottish Government’s first independence publication, the 2007 green paper. Anybody who thinks that the independence on offer today is somehow changing should read that paper. One of Professor MacCormick’s greatest contributions to legal thinking was the idea that the relationship between legal orders – international, the European Union and domestic – was interacting and complementary rather than rigid and hierarchical. This pluralistic vision included the understanding that simplistic notions of state sovereignty were a thing of the past.

In his legal writings, Prof MacCormick clearly identified that the world had moved on. In political or governmental terms, this meant that the idea of shared, pooled or limited sovereignty was not something to fear; indeed, it was – and is – something to embrace. It is a simple reality that every country enters into various agreements with other countries, forms of collaboration and co-operation such as EU membership, which can have the combined effect of reducing absolute sovereignty. But you can have these shared arrangements and still be an independent country – just ask Austria, Sweden or Luxembourg.

What I take from his work is a very simple idea: it does not make us any less independent if we choose to work with others; in fact, it is in our choice of inter-relationships that we truly find ourselves. In a debate that has precious few heroes, Professor MacCormick stands out.

Alongside the political attempts to define what the opposition is doing, there is also the need to claim ownership of ideas and even words. Again, we have had a very powerful, recent example with both Yes and No describing their offerings as “the best of both worlds”. This is because both sides recognise that what the people of Scotland actually want is for our parliament to have the powers it needs to make a difference for our economy and society, alongside meaningful partnership on these isles.

Ultimately, next year’s referendum will see the people of Scotland putting their faith in one of two paths to achieve this outcome.

What we know from years of polling and research is that there is a settled will in Scotland for a parliament with substantial new powers, including over taxation and the welfare state (supported by as many as two-thirds of voters). Moore and his Liberal Democrat party stand for a federal UK, and federalism would give people in Scotland a great deal of what we want. However, a federal UK is, in reality, out of reach. It would require change elsewhere on these isles that is nowhere in sight and so it is not a real solution to our pressing social challenges or an actual means to take advantage of the enormous economic opportunities within our reach.

There are many people in the Labour Party, Home Rulers and people of principle, who will do all that they can to keep any promise to deliver more powers, if there is a No vote next year. They may very well succeed, but there is a big question mark: will those powers be adequate?

There is no evidence at the moment that the package of greater devolution that might be taken forward would include the ability to make the sorts of different choices for our economy and society that are so badly needed. We could possibly get bits of welfare and bits of taxation, but only of a very limited scope. So, even with the best will in the world, a No vote next year might mean more powers, at some stage, but insufficient powers when they come. The desires of the majority will, once again, be unmet.

It is in this light that the case for a Yes vote becomes increasingly compelling. What is on offer from a Yes in 2014 is independence and new united kingdoms and it is about as far from separation as you can get. It is what I would call co-operative independence, and it is the sort of independence that works exceptionally well elsewhere.

Just across the North Sea we have the prime example in Scandinavia, the most successful union of nations on the planet. These countries co-operate intimately and extensively, while respecting each other’s independence. They are a truly modern family of nations, working together to create something that is greater than any of the individual parts, including societies that have become the wealthiest and fairest in the world.

We should be striving with every fibre of our being – across the UK and not only in Scotland – to replicate their success, including a new relationship on these isles based on the same independence, equality and mutual respect.

I say strive deliberately because the benefits that flow from independence will not come automatically; they will require hard work and effort. But the prize, making sure Scotland’s vast wealth works better for the people of Scotland – delivering a faster-growing economy, higher wages and new opportunities – is worth every bit of effort.

Whatever the result next year, Scotland and the rest of the UK will be closely intertwined. There is no other option on the table; that is just the way of the modern world. Whether Yes or No, we will be partners in the EU (for as long as the UK remains a member), work together on mutual defence, share a head of state (as 16 other Commonwealth nations do) and continue to use our existing shared currency. But, crucially, with a Yes vote we can co-operate as equals.

Alongside this common sense co-operation, we can also gain additional advantages with a Yes. We can get immediate access to all the new powers we need to make life better for people in Scotland, rather than waiting, with fingers crossed, in the hope that some new powers will trickle north after a No. With a Yes, it is the people of Scotland who will be in the driving seat, not Westminster politicians, and that is a decisive difference. Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands.

Stephen Noon is chief strategist with the Yes Scotland campaign.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy