As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said, ‘The more closely the democratic system of state approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice’. If you want to keep a multinational union together, the best way to do it is to grant maximum freedom to its constituent nations, which will then have no reason to secede. The benefits of full sovereignty for individual nations can be enjoyed alongside the benefits of a larger union; we can have our cake and eat it too. The Yugoslav union could have been saved if only Serbia’s political classes had been ready to accept its evolution into an eight-member confederation, with its constituent republics and autonomous provinces enjoying complete self-rule. Unfortunately, Serbia’s politicians and intellectuals preferred no union at all to a confederal union. The European Union, for its part, though still a confederation, has already integrated too far, to the point where the sovereignty and democratic rights of its constituent nations are being violated; the British government is rightly resisting further unwanted integration. For multinational unions, less is usually more:
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
These are factors worth pondering as we witness the British coalition government’s clumsy attempt to dictate to the Scottish people how their referendum on independence should be framed and organised. The government has rejected the idea of a three-question referendum, as favoured by Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland), in which the Scots would be permitted to vote not only in favour of independence or of the status quo, but also of a third option – ‘devolution-max’, or full sovereignty over domestic affairs but with continued membership of the United Kingdom, and a continued common foreign policy and defence. The government is instead insisting on an ‘all or nothing’ referendum, in which Scots would be forced to choose between full independence or the status quo, and on a deadline by which the referendum would be held.
At this rate, the British government might as well simply declare the United Kingdom dissolved. There is no surer way of persuading a constituent nation to secede from a union than by trying to bully its elected representatives in this manner, and restrict its citizens’ right to vote as freely as possible. David Cameron and his ministers will have only themselves to blame if Scotland’s voters, angry at being denied the right to vote freely without interference from London, react by turning in favour of independence. If they want to save the union, Westminster’s politicians should recognise the right of Scotland’s elected representatives to choose when to hold their referendum and on what basis it should be held. With the majority of Scots opposed to independence, there is every reason to believe that granting them the right to devo-max would be the best way to save the union.
I support devo-max for Scotland. I support the right of the Scottish people to have all the sovereign rights that other nations in Europe enjoy. If they want to be fully independent, I respect their right to be. However, I hope they will opt instead for having their cake and eating it. There is no reason why left-wing Scotland should be forced to endure government by right-wing Westminster; a sovereign Scotland will in all likelihood have more enlightened domestic government than the one the UK has at present.
On the other hand, the UK has, since 1997, been a major positive force in world affairs; first under Tony Blair, then under Gordon Brown and now under David Cameron. However regrettable his domestic policies, Cameron’s foreign policy has been almost impeccable; where Blair was a pioneer of progressive foreign policy, Cameron adopted his model and, if anything, improved upon it. It would be a loss for the world if the UK were to be diminished by Scotland’s secession. By contrast, Salmond’s peacenik, anti-nuclear record suggests that an independent Scotland led by him would be likely to obstruct rather than support progressive moves on the global stage by Britain and the West.
Over and above such cold calculations remains the fact that the majority of Scots, like the majority of English and Welsh, continue to identify, at least at some level, with Britain as a whole. Devo-max would best reconcile the self-identification of Scots as Scots with their self-identification – and the self-identification of the English and Welsh – as Brits.
Some fear that Scottish sovereignty would leave the Conservatives too overwhelmingly dominant in the rump UK. This might not be so straightforward. Comfortable dominance over Labour in a rump UK, and in an English parliament, might lead the English Conservatives to splinter, and see the re-emergence of a gentler, one-nation current of Conservatism in opposition to the currently dominant Thatcherites. At the very least, the establishment of an English parliament would help the English to understand and articulate their own national identity better, as the Scots already do. The Welsh may opt to retain a closer union with England than the other parts of the UK will, but that again is up to them.
PS I have purposely omitted discussing Northern Ireland in this article, as that is a whole different kettle of fish…
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