Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Rabbie Burns once wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. It is hard to see but Scotland and Switzerland are linked. Both are small countries in which a significant part of the population is seeking self-determination in the face of big and ever more distant power. In Switzerland’s case it is against the distant behemoth the EU has become. In Scotland’s case it is against the British State. What has happened over the past week has demonstrated just how nervous big power is about government for the people, by the people and of the people and on that issue alone I am a Scottish nationalist.
In a carefully co-ordinated attack Britain’s three main political parties said an independent Scotland would be denied the pound sterling. Yesterday, the President of the European Commission said it would be “difficult, almost impossible” for Scotland to join the EU. Now, I am no fan of the Scottish Nationalists and their efforts to destroy my country but I am a democrat who believes that power should remain as close to and as closely linked with the people as possible.
That is why I like Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. She is bright, articulate, personable and honest and a breath of fresh air compared to the many truth dodgers and weavers in the Westminster Village. For Sturgeon Scottish independence is not some misty-eyed nationalist fantasy courtesy of Mel Gibson bouncing around the Scottish Highlands in a skirt trouncing historical fact as he goes. Independence is about re-establishing the lost link between people and power destroyed by a Westminster Village indifferent to the needs of the people and a Brussels elite obsessed with the creation of a distant new country called ‘ Europe’ nobody wants. Indeed, her emphasis on political principle distinguishes Sturgeon from her Little Scotlander boss Alex Salmond.
So, why does Scottish independence scare big power? There are two essential reasons both of which reflect the growing power of distant executives over parliaments and peoples. First, Scottish independence would not just wipe out a 300 year old country and a 400 year old union. Separatism would also gravely undermine London’s authority over England, Wales and Northern Ireland and raise fundamental questions about the governance of the British peoples. Second, Scottish independence would reinforce the wave of democratic nationalisms sweeping across Europe as a consequence of elite incompetence and the deepening democratic abyss.
Sturgeon’s demand that a democratic relationship between power and people be re-established is made more acute by the disrepute into which both the Westminster Village and Brussels has fallen. Only last week Westminster quietly dropped a provision to permit local constituencies to recall an MP if their behaviour was no longer deemed appropriate. This was a clear commitment made in the wake of the MP expenses scandal.
In presenting the British people with a fait accompli Deputy European Commission President Vivien Reding said in London last week that 70% of all Britain’s laws are now made in Brussels. She also said the unloved and unvoted for European Parliament is now the strongest legislature in Europe. No-one told the British people that a consequence of EU membership would be the utter emasculation of the Mother of Parliaments.
Now, in a sense the Scottish Nationalists make it easy for big power by presenting an absurdly rosy picture of Scottish independence and nor should they be surprised the British State they are seeking to destroy is fighting back. Take the proposed currency union. It is totally unfair of the nationalists to expect the British taxpayer to underpin and guarantee the debts of an independent Scotland. At the very least the British people should have a say over Scotland’s continued use of the pound sterling and the fiscal and other liabilities they could incur in the name of an independent Scotland.
However, it is not Scotland’s future liabilities what worries London. Indeed, the Scots represent only 8.9% of the British economy and 8.3% of the population and currency union would actually ensure de facto British control over an ‘independent’ Scotland. Of greater concern to Westminster is that Scotland’s departure from the UK would increase calls for an English Parliament to represent England’s 58 million or so people in the same way the Welsh Assembly represents the 2 million in Wales, and Stormont the 1 million in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, rather than do tawdry big power deals with the European Commission London must offer a new political vision; a Federal Britain. A Federal Britain in which London would retain control over federal taxation and the currency, as well as foreign and defence policy. A new English Parliament would be established, naturally in York the ancient capital of Roman England and my own native Yorkshire. Crucially, the Bank of England would be renamed the Federal Bank of the United Kingdom. A Britain that looked more like America, Australia or Canada would actually furnish Westminster with far more political legitimacy to seek the repatriation of powers from Brussels that is the next big political struggle.
The simple fact of political life is that whatever happens in the Scottish referendum on 18 September Scotland will remain a relatively small rock stuck on the end of a hugely bigger England at the windswept margins of a broken Europe. The facts of power, people and geography will produce in effect the same result - independence-lite or devolution max.
As an Englishman proud of the Scottish blood coursing in his veins the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom would be one of the saddest days of my life. However, as a democrat I would support the will of the Scottish people. Scots deserve to be offered a far better vision by big power than Borg-like ‘resistance is futile’. Like the rest of us they need a new vision of a twenty-first century United Kingdom in a re-democratised European Union - a new vision for a new country in a new century in a new Europe.
Nicola Sturgeon has at least put that agenda on the table and for that alone I am grateful to her.