Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Debate Without Substance

Is Scotland being offered an honest choice?
So then, Alex Salmond has revealed his white paper addressing the future constitutional settlement for Scotland.

To be fair he does offer a 'national conversation' on series of options, before any referendum should be called:

  • The Status Quo

  • Further devolution of powers to Holyrood

  • Full independence
I'm not sure how the first of these options squares with the position attributed to him by the BBC that "no change is no longer an option", but compared with the flagrant dishonesty of the Westminster government over the upcoming. European Treaty it's pretty small beer. What I can't quite see yet is what the nature of his 'National Consultation' with the Scottish people is likely to be. I must say, first and foremost, that I cannot, and do not accuse Mr Salmond of any intent to deceive or mislead in his approach. His is a principled position about which he and his party are perfectly open, and I'm glad to see that many of his political opponents and most of the media have also acknowledged this fact and have delivered their response to the white paper in a considered and reasonable manner. It's interesting to compare this to the hysteria that is whipped up by certain national broadcasters when ever someone has the temerity to suggest a devolution of powers from Brussels back to nation states, but that's a posting for another time.

I still can't help thinking though that the kind of 'National Conversation' that Mr Salmond seems to anticipate falls some way short of addressing the issues that worried me in my previous posting. Certainly the grand debate should take place, but as things stand it would take place in an arena of ignorance and empty rhetoric.

The type of exercise I was speculating on yesterday was not the same as what Mr Salmond proposes, it is a precursor, and in my opinion a necessary precursor to it. The analysis of the economic consequences of independence and to a large extent those of the political consequences on the world stage should not, insofar as is possible should not be become a political football in the course of the debate, they could be, and should be, largely a matter of accepted fact.

The type of exercise I envisaged was something more along the side of a Royal Commission, vested with every power possible to make as many politically incontrovertible analyses of the facts of the case for and against independence. I would expect it to be manned by economists, lawyers and experts in the field of international relations, not politicians. Government departments, both British and Scottish, should be called upon to contribute, but at the level of the real experts, not their political masters. The only way the big political beasts should involve themselves is in making it possible for the commission to do its job, for example making it clear that EU officials should make themselves available to discus the potential shape of a post-independence relationship between Scotland and the EU, including the financial consequences.

My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that Scotland can clearly stand alone as an independent state; my instincts are that economically it would be somewhat poorer, but possibly only to an extent that many Scots would see as an acceptable price of independence, while the consequences for Scotland's influence in the world, especially within the EU would be more serious, but possibly acceptable again to some as a price worth paying. That's just my gut feeling on the matter, and when I hear politicians speak on the matter I always get the feeling that they are working off a base of knowledge that is hardly any sounder. That is why I am so convinced the expert analysis is needed first so that any public and political debate can be around a body of solid fact.

As an aside, I think some of the lines being pushed in some parts of the mainstream media, and the world of blogging, that the rest of the UK should be consulted in a referendum, is misguided. While it is possible to wrap up such an idea in a mantle of high sounding principle, it is feel it is simply wrong. I might be half Scottish, work there from time to time, and love the place, I really don't feel I have any great right to demand a say in how the government of that part of the country should develop. Certainly there would be an impact on the rest of the United Kingdom, but due to the weight of relative sizes it is almost certain that it would be insignificant in comparison to the effect on Scotland itself, and so to demand a vote of equal weight is not really justified.

Exactly the same arguments could be made for offering the rest of Europe a vote on whether the UK should adopt any EU treaty. I seem to remember that when that referendum was still on the table, even the suggestion that UK resident Non UK EU citizens be allowed to take part in the vote had many of the same mouthpieces spitting blood in indignation. The possible accusations of hypocrisy raised in the article by Guido quoted in the previous vote must be avoided at all cost.

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