The real issue behind the Scottish Independence vote

48178462There is something quite surreal about the prospect of a vote, by those who happen to reside in Scotland at the moment, on whether or not the 300-year-old Union of Great Britain should continue. Despite the opinion polls, I have a sneaky feeling that it will be a fairly clear ‘No’ vote. Because of the emotive nationalism, my sense is that people are reluctant to tell anyone that they are planning to vote ‘No’, and so the pollster results are skewed towards ‘Yes.’

But whatever the result, there are going to be some serious recriminations about the way the whole process has been conducted. It is breathtaking to consider the misjudgements, incompetence and constitutional wrecking that has marked the whole process. These are the most obvious blunders:

  • Cameron insisting that the vote was a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’, out of hubristic confidence that Scots would not dare to vote ‘yes’, instead of including a third option.
  • Allowing the ‘better together’ position to be called ‘No.’ Not surprisingly, this looks rather negative, as does any campaign to maintain the status quo. If there had been any thought at all about this, the vote would have been cast as between ‘yes to independence’ versus ‘yes to union’—or, better still, ‘yes to union’ versus ‘no to union.’
  • Putting that third option (the so-called ‘devo max’) option on the table the week before the vote, which looks to everyone like a cross between a panic measure and a bribe.
  • The sloppy definition of who can vote, so that residents in Scotland with no long-term stake can vote, whereas those who have a long Scottish heritage but happen to have moved to England or another country cannot.
  • The notion of making constitutional change on a mere 50% of those voting. Even a debating society has a 2/3 threshold for constitutional change—and if there is less than 100% turnout, this change could happen with a minority of the electorate voting for it, let alone a minority of all Scots.
  • The idea that one part of the United Kingdom can vote itself independent regardless of the will of the rest of the Union. Scotland comprises 8% of the UK population—so why couldn’t other areas with 8% also decide to secede? At what percentage does the other half have a say?

What is also striking is the fact that some really key questions have not been answered which have a significant bearing on whether independence will ‘work’. What currency will Scotland use? It is hard to seeing rUK allowing Scotland to use the pound—which then raises the question of international credit. A newly independent Scotland won’t be granted a AAA credit rating, which means that servicing its portion of the national debt will be more expensive. Can it join the EU? This is unlikely to happen soon, but when it does it will probably be on condition that Scotland joins the Euro, and if so it would, in many regards, have less financial autonomy in relation to Brussels than it now has from London. And it might well have to join the Schengen agreement on borderless movement of people—so the recent joke Scottish Border Patrol someone set up will become a reality. I wonder what economic impact that will have on the North East? And yet they too have no say on this.

At present the divide for them is merely a jagged line on a map, which they cross with great regularity almost as if it were not there. Health, education, work, shopping, veterinary care – these are just some of the things for which people hop over the boundary in an area where many people regard themselves as “Borderers” first – English or Scots second. And with talk of border controls, new currency and tax systems, and even a different time zone should Scotland opt to go it alone, it’s easy to see why a yes vote could be huge for those Borderers.

enhanced-21385-1410819587-10But it is not really the case that answers have not been offered—the questions have been debated, and quite fully. The BBC Daily Question has explored most of the key issues from both sides of the debate, and many are finely poised. I was surprised to learn that the average tax paid per person in Scotland is more or less exactly the same as that paid in the UK as a whole. Public spending, governed in part by the Barnett Formula, is higher in Scotland than in England (though not as high as in Northern Ireland) but the gap is made up for by oil revenues. Another key question is whether food prices would go up. All other things being equal, this is likely, since distribution costs are higher—but ‘all other things’ are not likely to remain equal, and changes in the tax regime could protect lower costs. The economic arguments have put the ‘No’ campaign in a double bind: mention them and it looks patronising (‘We are helping you out’); say nothing and you omit what could be a key part of your argument.

Will the NHS still function in Scotland? Because of devolution, it did not follow the marketisation that Andrew Landsley imposed in England, and waiting lists have not met the targets set. Scotland has big health challenges, constantly topping the chart for obesity and coming at the bottom of league tables for life expectancy. (A man born today in certain areas of Glasgow has a life expectancy in the 50s.) But in Scotland the health service has not faced the same ‘battle for its heart and soul’ that has happened in England, and perhaps it has found a better way of working. Perhaps.

No, the issue is that, on many of these things, we simply don’t know, and can’t know, since there are so many uncertainties. The world as it is today feels a very uncertain place to be a small country—and yet many Scots appear to want to take the risk.

It has been quite difficult to find any theological basis on which to form a view on this. (I don’t think the fact that ‘Alec Salmond’ is an anagram of ‘Call as demon’ really counts here…especially when I have misspelled Alex!) There is a nice piece making a plea for continued Union on Fulcrum by David Barclay. The core is his argument is that, since Christ has united people, we should see to stay together wherever possible.

Some see difference as an opportunity for division, for choice and separateness – a chance to fragment into smaller and smaller groups to try and maximise our happiness. But the Bible offers a different perspective. Ephesians 2:13-14 says “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”. As those who have gone from being foreigners and strangers to being brought into the family of God, we should seek as far as is practically possible to break down barriers and extend the boundaries of our communities.

But I am not sure the logic of this works. Surely we should seek unity with those in other countries, not seek simply to eliminate country borders? This argument would, in fact, support the creation of a European super-state, and there are some good theological arguments against that. The main objection to larger and larger unions is the loss of contact between those governing and those being governed—often expressed as the ‘democratic deficit.’ And in fact it is this which is driving the determination for Scottish independence. As the Scottish Government’s own White Paper has put it:

Devolution has shown the strengths of having different political systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK for both countries. Since 1999 many areas of Scottish life, including health, justice and education, have to all intents and purposes been independent.

The Scottish approach to these issues – for example, banning smoking in public places, protecting free education and pushing for a minimum price for alcohol – has challenged the rest of the UK to consider different approaches to address challenges common to both countries. We have also been able to consider the Westminster approach to policy issues, sometimes rejecting those that are not suitable for Scotland or that have no support here.

With a Cabinet drawn from the social elite, politicians being ‘forced’ to accept an 11% pay rise at the same time they reject a 1% rise for NHS staff, and a general sense of the political class being out of touch with ordinary voters, the Scottish referendum is highlighting something felt across the country. In fact, as Johann Hari pointed out during the debate on proportional representation, our electoral system constantly fails to reflect the wishes of most people.

In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives. So under FPTP they get to rule and dominate out of all proportion to their actual support, and drag most of us in a direction we don’t want to go.

And this distance between the desire of the governed and the will of the governing is just what Samuel warned the people of Israel about when they wanted to change their system of Government and have their own king like the other nations:

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattled and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Sam 8.11–18)

Perhaps Thursday’s vote, whatever the outcome, will be a wake-up call for the whole nation to rethink what it wants from its Government.

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23 thoughts on “The real issue behind the Scottish Independence vote”

  1. In all my time as an elector I have never known the UK to be governed by such a bunch of inept, incompetent and self-serving “leaders” as we have in Westminster at the moment. It is is a real shame that politicians cannt be criminally prosecuted for their crass stupidity,

  2. There are a lots of things I could say here… but here are just a few:

    I’m not sure you’re right about whether people feel they can say “no” out loud. My experience has been that which voice seems loudest very much depends on where I am. I live in a context – in Scotland – where I am hearing a LOT of “No”, but I do also know a lot of “Yes” people in different places.

    I also think maybe your framing of the context omits 2 important things: (1) the longterm disillusionment of Scots at being governed very remotely and by a government that does not have any real democratic mandate in Scotland; and (2) a change in many Scots’ sense of self-identity as Scottish rather than British in the years since devolution.

    As for the constitutional legitimacy of part of the union deciding to secede – well, Westminster set up its stall as being prepared to legislate in line with the local democratic mandate when it allowed the referendum, just as it did in the run up to devolution.

    I tend to agree with you about the theological perspective. At the end of the day, the core of this debate for those in Scotland comes down to trying to envision the sort of country in which they want to live, and whether that can best be delivered by a devolved Parliament underpinned by Westminster, or by independence. The sad things are that the “better together” campaign was to slow to realise that framing; and that this is really just part of a wider conversation about governance in which the whole of the UK wants but has been refused a voice.

    Whatever happens on Thursday Westminster would do well to sit up and take note: many are unhappy with how the UK is being governed. Whether nationalist sentiments on the one hand, and the desire to try to reimagine good governance on the other are strong enough to see independence voted for on Thursday or not, the challenge – and perhaps even a window of opportunity, on Friday, will be to see that change brought about for the good of our communities.

    • Thanks for the comment about whether people are happy to say ‘No’ out loud. We will find out on Thursday!

      I was suggesting this sense of remoteness by my comment on ‘democratic deficit’…perhaps need to make it more explicit. If we feel a bit remote in the Midlands, heaven knows what it must feel like in Scotland—and with no MPs in the Government.

      I am sure you are right about devolution leading to this—just as John Major had predicted.

  3. I fully agree with you, Ian, that much of the support for the Yes campaign is driven by the UK’s democratic deficit. In this respect it seems to tie in with the rise of UKIP in England (not sure how much support there is in Wales and NI). Both the Yes campaign and UKIP have a rather rosy view of what independence will bring and will find themselves up against some of the hard realities of global economics and politics if they get their way IMO.

    That said, there is little doubt that our current political class will find it difficult to return to business as usual on Friday whichever way the vote goes.

  4. Thoughtful post Ian. Agree very much about the crass blunders. Here in North Wales we also feel distanced from London/Westminster geographically, economically, politically, socially, but after 15 years of devolution many of us now have not dissimilar feelings regarding the Welsh Govt. in Cardiff. Our news is Southern-centric, the majority of our power-brokers live within spitting distance of the M4 corridor, our N-S internal communication routes are still very poor, and Anglesey remains stubbornly one of the areas with lowest GVA in the UK despite billions poured into Wales via EU structural funds, etc, etc. At least we can look eastwards towards Manchester/Liverpool for functional links.

    In that sense I wonder what the people of the Highlands and Islands will make of independence in terms of their own peripherality? Will ‘business as usual’ just shift from Westminster to Holyrood? It may be that in our devolved nations, a vote for indepence comes over outwardly as an appeal to the heart, for a fairer society with greater equality, better sharing of benefits, for a ‘say’ in our own destinies, as opposed to the No campaign’s appeal to the head (currency, business confidence, economies of scale, etc) but (theologially), is it realistic to expect the political ruling classes ever to change their spots – be they in Westminster, Holyrood or Cardiff Bay?

    “To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and islands is equally known with that of Borneo and Sumatra: of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest.” —Samuel Johnson, 1703.

  5. A good analysis of the situation Ian. Thank you. It’s difficult to judge what the result will be because an extraordinarily high percentage of voters are registered to vote so I am anticipating a huge turnout. Families are split and from my own very crude analysis of family and friends intentions, more women will vote No. And there are more Yes banners in urban areas than rural. Make of that what you will! If I were a betting man…. I’d keep my money in my wallet. I am pleased to say that the churches have been active in arranging local debates which have been of a higher quality than the national debates from my experience and many churches are opening for prayer on Thursday and for reconciliation services the next day. There are going to be a lot of sore heads and frayed relationships on Friday.

  6. I’m an Englishman living in Scotland, but with Scottish roots (my grandfather was Scottish) and I will be voting Yes on Thursday, a change in my position from a year ago. I don’t think there is any constraint on people expressing a ‘No’ position – the general conversations I’ve been involved in have been very civil. The issue you express of ‘democratic deficit’ is a key issue for me – allied to Scotland being a different nation state. Scotland has many close ties with England but has a separate history, a separate legal system, a separate education system, a separate NHS, and a separate national church (the presybyterian Church of Scotland). Given it is a different nation it makes sense for it to govern itself, particularly when large states lead to the sort of democratic deficit you describe.

    Allied to the proverb ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and to a biblical view of the fallenness of human nature, it seems to me wise (and possibly more biblical) for governments to be governments of smaller nations/units that are closer to the people and therefore more accountable, and also less powerful and therefore less open to falling for abuses of power. Treaties can be agreed between these smaller states for the sake of trade arrangements and for defence against a common potential enemy (such as with NATO). Norway, Switzerland, and Finland have all been small successful countries, the first two without being members of the EU, and with their own currencies. It might cost Scotland a bit economically in the short term to gain it’s independence and thereby more accountable government, but surely that is worth it.

    Again, as a Christian, I’ve been disappointed by the debate being so focussed on the issue of money – as a Christian I’ve wanted to say that there is a lot more at stake. So I’m hoping for a YES on Thursday, and then for very good fraternal relationships with our neighbouring countries including England. There is nothing anti- English about this – just a desire for accountable government, closer to the people, for a country that has always had it’s own identity. And I’m very interested to hear your response to these thoughts. Thanks in anticipation!

  7. I don’t see why the rest of the United Kingdom should have a say in what is essentially a Scottish question. It’s up to the Scots to say whether they want to stay in the Union. It isn’t up to the English to tell them they have to. If you liken this to divorce proceedings, should a husband be able to refuse permission for his wife to divorce him? If one partner wants to stay and the other wants to go, whose voice should prevail? You can’t hold someone prisoner against their will.

    Personally I hope that Scotland votes to stay in the Union. But whatever the result, it will be the democratically expressed will of a sovereign people and must therefore be respected as such.

  8. There’s little I can say against Richard McArthur’s post, but as an outside observer I have to say that the finer points of democratic accountability and local government are lost on me. This is a heart issue for me and for most of my compatriots too, I think.

    Contrary to popular misconceptions, most of the French are ardent Britophiles. We’re horrified at the prospect of the United Kingdom breaking up. It’s like looking through the fence at your neighbors’ scène de ménage and witnessing the descent of a once strong marriage into bickering, recriminations and divorce. It’s heartbreaking, the more so because it’s just so pointless. Nobody in Great Britain should complain about a “democratic deficit”. Despite the monarchical charade, you’re one of the most democratic countries on earth. Iraqis and Russians and Saudi Arabians might have cause to complain about a democratic deficit. The British, Scottish or otherwise, do not.

    Still, it’s your decision and not ours. I’m sure France will be a good friend to an independent Scotland, although don’t count on the same sort of romantic nostalgia that fuels the Scottish attitude to what you call the Auld Alliance. Most of the French don’t even know such a treaty existed and certainly won’t have any feeling of obligation towards the Scots if your English neighbors start throwing their weight around after independence. You’ll be on your own, which means applying for the European Union like any other country – a long and convoluted process at the best of times, but with all of the political and economic uncertainty following independence and with no central bank or even currency to call your own, don’t be too surprised if Europe declines your application. Even with all that oil money, it’s going to take time to establish a trusted currency and responsible fiscal management. A decade at least, possibly longer. During which time foreign investment in the Scottish economy will likely dry up completely – I mean, who’s going to invest in a country with no currency at all and with no lender of last resort to guarantee loans?

    But I’m sure you realize this and have still decided to vote Yes. A brave decision and one that I hope you don’t regret in the cold light of the credit-less dawn that breaks on you after the party (and I’m sure it will be a good one) is over. I wish you “bonne chance et bon courage”, I think you’re going to need both.

  9. Interesting to get the theological perspective on Scottish independence, Ian!

    As Scotland’s long had a different concept of sovereignty to England (popular, not parliamentary), and the Union came about from ultra-realpolitik (English elites covering the losses of Scottish elites in the Darien fiasco), the Scottish people surely have every right to decide this themselves.

    Britain’s never been a federal state, which is why it’s in this mess, so the U.S. or German precedent doesn’t apply. If it’s “No,” it may yet become one, which might be the best outcome. Leaving “devo-max” off the ballot was, I agree, arrogance of epic proportions, that may yet cost the UK govt. dear.

  10. Useful contribution. Thanks. There is a good piece on the Dean of Durham’s blog (see my FB page) also expressing surprise that the CofE has been almost silent on the issue, save for the recent unscripted,though careful, comment by its Supreme Governor at the weekend! ‘Better Together’ unwittingly has a theological core value underpinning it, that of the covenated relationship. Whatever the result, see below, there will be recriminations.

    The Edinburgh Agreement had a built in democratic deficit. rUK cares strongly about the Union, as well as half (or more) of Scotland. The issues of what independence really means have been obfuscated. Salmond is deperate for a currency union for which, in the absence of signficant Scottish reserves, there will in effect be recourse to rUK. That is clearly unacceptable and no non-Scottish MP will vote for it. Not having Devo-max on the ballot will be the one issue which will haunt the Government in the event of a Yes vote.

    However, the bookies are consistently going for a No vote, with the odds of a Yes vote lengthening slightly today. 10/3 against, 2/9 on. It was for a while 3/1 against and 1/4 on. The pollsters are clear that in their view the polls undercount the Nos. We will start to know in 48 hours!! Glasgow will clearly vote Yes, albeit with a small majority, Edinburgh decisively No, most rural parts (with few people) will vote No, and the real battlegound is the north-east, Aberdeen et al.

    • I didn’t realise that the pollsters think they are undercounting Nos. Is that for the same reason that I mention?

      I am a bit hesitant about deploying theological categories like ‘covenant’ to argue for union. Surely the implication here would be that we should be in covenant with everyone, so have one world government? If not, then this must be able to be applied across national boundaries—in which case it would not matter whether Scotland was the same country as England or distinct?


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