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.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bad Habits

Alex Salmond
Salmond: Early promise evaporating?
It's becoming a recurring theme since I've been writing this blog, that every time that I try to be open-minded about those with different political persuasions to my own and I give deserved credit where it is merited, that the unwitting recipient recipient of the praise immediately blots his or her copybook.

It's going to be hard to beat
Liam Byrne, who sadly followed up on his admirably swift action over the case of Tul Bahadur Pun VC with his ridiculous pronouncement about ID Cards becoming "A Great British Institution, but Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond seems to be having a damn good go.

I'm reasonably, but not obsessively pro-union, but some time ago I felt moved to pass favourable comment on the style with which the SNP and its supporters campaigned in the recent elections to the Scottish Parliament, much as I might be uncomfortable with some of its policies. After a week or two of Mr Salmond forming his government I was once again pleased to see the it was exercising its first real power in what seemed to be a reasonable, pragmatic manner.

Unfortunately in the last couple of weeks the train really does seem to have come off the rails, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say the train has gone very much back on to the rails that some like I may have always expected it to run down. There have been a sequence of stories suggesting that the nationalist hard core of the SNP's programme is starting to take centre stage.

They began with a number of fairly low key announcements about separations in the functions of elements of the British and Scottish Civil Services. Later on came a more headline grabbing, but perhaps less serious in many ways, demand for a much greater degree of autonomy in broadcasting, specifically the replacement of British (i.e. English as seen through SNP eyes) news coverage with specifically Scottish versions. Now, of course, we await the SNP proposal for a ballot on Independence, due out tomorrow.

The first element of this assault appears designed simply to be a move designed to promote a senses of 'separateness', unaccompanied as it was by any suggestions as how such separations of civil service functions would in any way offer better services or greater efficiency in their delivery to the Scottish people.

The proposal for a separate news service also seems somewhat suspect. I live in a region of the country that has a significantly larger population than the whole of Scotland, and originate from a different one, which though slightly smaller had just as strong a regional identity as Scotland. In neither case has the already significant amount of regional news programming ever really captured my imagination, compared to national coverage. In both cases the few really newsworthy stories always have to be supplemented with swathes of dull parochial dross even to fill half and hour. Scotland may have a little more to offer its viewers, especially with a whole distinct political system to cover, but I've got a feeling it wouldn't entirely escape the limitations of existing regional coverage.

The call for a referendum, is a trickier issue in my mind. Guido, who has also proved my rule in the reverse direction, by making a succession of interesting posts ever since I submitted my Top 20 blogs without him, has turned his mind to the same issue I have on the Scottish referendum question:
Is Guido the only one who thinks it hypocritical of the Tories to be against a referendum on Scottish constitutional affairs and for a referendum on UK independence from the European constitution?

Why is self determination good for the UK but not Scotland?

Source: Guido Fawkes

Well yes, it's a fair point, and one that has been an issue for me when I think about such a referendum. In the end though I really do believe that there is something in my discomfort with a Scottish independence referendum at this time that goes beyond the simple fact that in the case of Scotland I am content with the status quo, and in the other I am unhappy with what the status quo looks set to become.

It is, I think, simply this. In the case of the European ConstitutionTreaty, we have a fair idea of what the consequences of its adoption are likely to be, and were a referendum to take place we would have a precise document to vote for. I do not think that at this time the same applies in the case of Scottish Independence. It is clear that no politician on either side of the debate is fully certain of the consequences, especially the economic ones, to Scotland.

There are often a vague claims from SNP supporters that Scotland would either become like Ireland with its boom of the last decade and more, or like the Scandinavian countries. You can ignore the duplicity in claiming both to be germane to the case at hand and seriously worry if either of these models stand up to close scrutiny. In the former example will the EU be in a position to offer the type of funding to Scotland that it could, and still does to Ireland? I'm sure Brussels would be delighted to see a country opt for 'Independence in Europe' - but in the newly enlarged Europe with so many poorer countries in Eastern Europe, will such largess ever be possible again? In the latter case, are similar latitudes, populations and natural resources a guarantee of having similarly successful societies?

There are many issues beyond the simply economic, such as the voice Scotland might have in the EU as an independent nation, versus that as part of the United Kingdom whose voice would be little weaker without Scotland and may adopt very different positions without the necessity to consider consequences to Scotland. The economic issues alone though are enough, in my mind, to warrant further consideration before pressing for a referendum.

If the SNP were to propose a commission to consider these issues and report to the Scottish people after a year or so, possibly with a view to a subsequent referendum then I suspect, on the grounds of self-determination that Guido alludes to, it would have my support. The step into the unknown that the SNP are likely to propose to the Scottish people is something that I feel all opposition parties have the right to activly opposed, especially considering the limited mandate of the SNP administration.