Autonomy & Independence

Ian Bell has an article in the Sunday Herald (‘Hung Drawn and Independent’) where he looks at how a hung parliament might lead to Scottish independence. In can be summarised as follows, independence doesn’t have majority in Scotland but if the SNP get full fiscal autonomy in a hung parliament in return for their support it will lead to independence by the back door.

Ian arranges the Scottish electorate in the Thatcher years into four groups and in the order they appear in the article they can be defined as worried unionists, unionists, devolutionists and nationalists, where the nationalists were in the minority then and are still in the minority now.

However it’s actually easier to break the Scottish electorate into two groups, unionists and nationalists. The unionists have a devolutionary sub-group who wanted and got a subsidiary Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh but it’s not a good idea to confuse them with nationalists. The driving force behind the Scottish Parliament may have been the fear of nationalism and a desire among some unionists for more local control in Scotland but the SNP was not part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention as independence was not on the table as an alternative to devolution. Devolution in Scotland may be a consequence of the rise of nationalism but it was not a nationalist aim, it’s not based on the idea of Scotland as a nation and it’s been structured as local government dependent on central government funding which has a consequence when full fiscal autonomy is considered.

Ian Bell is right to say that independence has not yet achieved a majority within the Scottish electorate but independence is not going to come in via the backdoor as a result of, “full fiscal autonomy” as he suggests because it can only come from achieving a majority within the Scottish electorate.

“Full fiscal autonomy”, is as Ian says a bit of wooly jargon and even if you define it as, “control of all the revenues raised and spent”, it still won’t happen in Scotland. The reason that many in Scotland still confidently talk about it is because they don’t understand the difference between devolution and federalism. Devolution is a provincial solution where the central government delegates powers to a province and retains ultimate control. Federalism is where partners join together under a federal umbrella. In devolution power is delegated down, in federalism power is granted up.

The UK operates a partial system of provincial local government which co-incidentally maps onto the old national boundaries in the UK for the non-English nations. However the second stage of the project which was to create provinces in England failed to materialise. It was not a system which was put in place to recognise the multi-nation makeup of the UK but to create a second tier of provincial government through the UK. Many people make the mistake of assuming that devolution is a recognition of Scotland as a nation and a federal partner with England in the Union when all devolution does is define Scotland as a British province.

When the Calman Commission was put together in order to put together an, “independence killer”, third option for any independence ballot paper or to stop an independence referendum full stop it failed miserably to create anything beyond a dog’s breakfast where a reduced block grant and assigned tax revenues were mixed together to give a funding level which came out back at the original block grant level of the Barnett formula whatever the economy and resultant tax revenue did in Scotland. Calman was an object lesson in the limits of Scotland’s possible autonomy fiscal or otherwise within the Union under devolution.

Fiscal autonomy might work in a federal system but it won’t work where the federal idea of  individual states raising taxes simply doesn’t map onto the provincial system of devolution which is based on a strong central power with centralised state functions with a second tier of local government provinces. In fact in terms of the bureaucratic upheaval, parliamentary time and the amount of work needed to graft full fiscal autonomy onto devolution it would be much easier just to give Scotland independence.

When someone talks of  Scotland getting “full fiscal autonomy”, it’s the  equivalent of a beauty queen saying she wants world peace. You know she’s sincere but she hasn’t a clue how to get it or even what kind of world it would need to be to have it.

This doesn’t mean that, “full fiscal autonomy”, can’t be used as a lever towards independence. It will probably run along the lines of, “We are being very reasonable and all we want is fiscal autonomy but since Westminster won’t give it the only option is to go for independence”. Ian Bell has an excellent last question but he’s wrong about full fiscal autonomy because full fiscal autonomy in Scotland is not a stepping stone to independence but will be a consequence of it.

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  1. Alan Clayton says:

    Part of the problem has always been that the noun ‘nationalism’ or ‘nationalist’ has unfortunate connotations. Tell a German friend for exaample you are a nationalist and watch for the momentary silence as they look for a swastika armband hidden somewhere.The SNP had countered this with the concept of civic nationalism, but the problem remains.

    1. J West says:

      I agree with Alan Clayton. I’m a great believer in independence but the term “nationalist” is a sticking point for many.

      I wish the SNP would drop the ‘N’ and rebrand itself as “Scotland’s Party”. I think you would kill two birds with one stone, getting rid of the negative connotations associated with the word nationalist and create a more positive “all inclusive” sounding brand.

  2. Hythlodaeus says:

    I think that a hung Parliament would possibly be quite bad for Scotland, with Lab/Con/Lib leaderships coming up with a compromise rather then a fully fleshed out plan reworking the budget settlement.

    In the coming election, it may well that the Tories are best hope to move us towards Independence. Not in any real sense of course, but if there is one thing which can unite the Scottish parties, it’s hatred for Tories. Even Annabel Goldie makes efforts to distance herself from David Cameron which says a lot.
    Give Scotland a decade under the Tories and good campaigning from the SNP and I think we got see independence support above 50%.

    1. Dave Coull says:

      “Give Scotland a decade under the Tories”, Hythlodaeus? No thanks. As for “see independence support above 50%”, what evidence do you have that it isn’t already? Support for independence can ONLY be measured by a referendum. Support for a particular political party is no measure of support for independence, and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting the outcome of referendums.

      1. Hythlodaeus says:

        The excellent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is a good marker of independence sentiment. It also benefits from being an academic work rather then paid-for poll and not concerning itself with party politics.

        The group of academics who work on it are some of the best sociologists in the country and have mixed opinion on the country’s future.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    Ian Bell’s estimates of the relative strength of support for independence or for union are really just guesstimates. In so far as they are based on so-called “opinion poll” data, that is completely worthless. Opinion polls may be fairly useful for estimating the relative strength of support for political parties; but they are quite useless for estimating the likely result of a single issue, non-party-political referendum. The actual level of support, in the 1997 referendum, for setting up a Scottish Parliament, was MORE THAN TWENTY PERCENT HIGHER than the opinion polls had, on average, been predicting in the lead-up to the referendum. People behave differently in a referendum from in a party political contest, and some people really do make up their minds when they see the actual question, in black-and-white, before them. And of course there will (quite rightly) be no mention of “nationalism”, or of any political party, in the question before them. I think the referendum on independence, when we finally do get it, will result in a victory at least as decisive as the one on setting up a Scottish Parliament. Some of the more faint-hearted nationalists, who have hesitated over a referendum, will be proved decisively wrong. As for unionist politicians, they oppose a referendum because, no matter how much they may bluster, in their hearts they think there is a good chance they could lose. I predict that what they secretly fear will in fact happen. But that’s no excuse for them resisting a referendum. There is no excuse for anybody who claims to support the principle of democratic self-determination hesitating over holding a referendum.

  4. Minerva's perch says:

    Alan, you’re right of course, although the prejudices against nationalism are only all too evident in Scotland – with or without a German accent! As you know, the ‘Scottish’ Labour party have made a great deal of political capital from their caricature of nationalism, although the very creation of the ‘Scottish’ Labour party (a topic that I know is dear to Dougthedug’s heart) suggests that Scottish Labour wanted to have its anti-nationalist cake and eat it.

    If you speak to more enlightened members of the Labour party in Scotland (yes they do exist!), they understand that Kohn’s distinction between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism is little more than an ideal-type to distinguish the more fractious and often violent nationalisms of eastern Europe from the more self-consciously modernist and constitutionally-oriented nationalisms of western Europe.

    It’s more useful to speak of heterogeneous nationalisms than homogeneous nationalism as well as to distinguish nationalISM (the ideology of nationalism in and for itself) from nationalism (democratic self-determination as a political objective, with all that that implies). All that Scottish Labour is doing is exploiting the residual prejudice of left-oriented conceptions of homogeneous and implicitly ethnic ‘nationalism’. You can see this, for example, in the terrible tangle that the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm gets himself into by trying to justify his absurd assertion that no nationalist can be a “professional historian” (in his preface to his book ‘Nations and Nationalism’).

    As for the excellent post here Doug, I like your point that independence would be so much easier than trying to accommodate “full fiscal autonomy” – why sip from the cup when you can drink from the fountain? Notwithstanding the ambiguity of the concept of “full fiscal autonomy”, I think it’s also important that we don’t overestimate the magnanimity of the UK Treasury. Unless the threat of Scottish independence is real and present there’s no reason why the UK Treasury would dream of conceding “full” or even “partial” fiscal autonomy to Scotland. But if the threat is that real and that present why on earth would we want to settle for what would be the dog’s dinner of fiscal autonomy?

    This, it seems to me, is the basic flaw in Ian Bell’s argument. I don’t think that it’s realistic to suggest that, in the event of a hung parliament the SNP would bargain for “full” fiscal autonomy as the price of its support for a minority British government. The SNP knows that no British government would buy it and if the SNP did adopt this as its bargaining strategy how would that play with the Scottish electorate, particularly if the price of rejection was a second general election that gave the Tories a clear majority?

    The other point here, of course, is that fiscal autonomy (“full” or otherwise), whilst it provides another escape clause from independence for unionists in Scotland and it would (temporarily) assuage the English question, it wouldn’t provide Scotland with anything like the powers it requires to address its long-standing problems and escape the British disease. What is encouraging about this debate though, for those of us who support Scottish independence, is that, in the last thirty years we’ve seen greater advance towards independence than in the previous three hundred years. Let’s continue that work rather than allow ourselves to be seduced by the illusion of “full” fiscal autonomy.

    1. Hythlodaeus says:

      An excellent comment there.

      There are far more theories of nationalism then most people are aware of and a lot of excellent writing on Scottish nationalism in particular. David McCrone and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh have some particularly good stuff which certain MSPs and MPs could do with having a read of.

    2. Davie Park says:

      A very clear analysis, Minerva’s Perch.
      I have come to the conclusion that ‘fiscal autonomy’ without control of natural resources, foreign policy and control of ALL taxation, merely presents more opportunities for unionist spoiling and misrepresentation.

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