Independence in the World

As Scotland’s greatest living polymath Alasdair Gray (Bella’s patron) changes his famous slogan to: ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better world’ we hear from Alyn Smith, MEP.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to debate independence in an international context at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year where I was head to head with Tony Benn, no less. It is rare in politics you get the chance to be a bit thoughtful and I really enjoyed the prospect of an almost philosophical cut and thrust about how the status quo isn’t working for us and how we could do better internationally.

I’m not sure I convinced that esteemed and venerable Labour politician, but I certainly won over a few folk in the audience. He did, to be fair, rather lose the crowd when he made reference to his family connections to Scotland as if that was some sort of logical answer for allowing Westminster to make our decisions for us. I’ve believe that we need to be conscious of the feeling of sadness, rejection even, that some commentators south of the border feel at our growing independence but, while we need to be sensitive, we should assuredly not let their sentiment hold us back from building a country to be proud of. Why anyone on the left would be more interested in preserving Westminster rule than building a progressive ecological social democracy to be proud of is beyond me, but there we are.

The question we were set was “Would an Independent Scotland Lose its International Influence?” To answer that we need to assess where we are now, independently and as part of the UK, and whether that actually works for us.

So what influence do we have now as Scotland? Some, to be sure, people like us. Holywood makes cartoons about our flame haired Highland princesses, we’re known, we exist in the global imagination in a way that many other countries don’t. We’ve signed co-operation agreements with various places on various things: with Malawi on international development, started under the previous administration and continued and strengthened under ours; with the Maldives on climate change, committing ourselves to help a country in pretty dire straits cope with a largely western made problem.

By virtue of our domestic actions we’ve cut a dash internationally, with our world leading climate change legislation, the most ambitious targets in the world. We’re the world’s most science and research intensive nation, go to NASA or CERN and they know exactly where we are on the map. We’re making Scotland a global leader in renewable energy, even this week the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney signed a co-operation agreement with Incheon Prefecture in South Korea to help them, and indeed learn ourselves, from the development of their marine energy resources.

We’ve done some work to promote that internationally. I was, to no great purpose or effect I’ll confess, at the Copenhagen climate change summit back in 2009, our Minister Stewart Stevenson is just back from Rio where we pushed for greater ambition than we’ve seen to date.

But is any of that binding? No. Would it, in the terms of the question, class as ‘clout’? No again.

So, we’re presently part of the UK. What influence do we have as Scotland over UK foreign policy?

Damn all. The UK is a unitary state, at the heart of that apparatus is the Diceyan conception of Parliamentary Sovereignty – flatly offensive to any notion of Democratic intellect or egalitarianism of an active or engaged citizenry, but that’s a whole different discussion! Foreign policy is exercised under the Royal Prerogative and the views of the constituent parts of our disunited kingdom, nor the people within it, are neither sought nor required.

So in both our roles, independent and by virtue of UK membership, any objective assessment of our role on the international stage has to give the same verdict of every school report card I ever had: “Could do better”.

But do we, in our heart of hearts, think that we are distinct enough to need international representation? Yes!

Lets start with the big picture. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of our cities in protest at the Iraq war, and yet our troops are in harm’s way in two theatres, and I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which an independent Scottish Parliament, of any political complexion, would have consented to their involvement in the way in which they were involved.

The fact that thousands more marched through the streets of England underlines my point, not weakens it. Westminster is a dysfunctional and unrepresentative system which doesn’t serve its own country well, much less mine and we’ve another option.

More domestically, and I use the term advisedly, I see in Brussels a succession of UK Ministers coming over and getting it wrong. I say domestically because as an MEP I’m not dealing in foreign affairs, but domestic policy on a bigger canvass. I’m, as you’ve probably gathered, not a diplomat, I’m a domestic politician representing our interests in a bigger environment. And I see on a weekly basis ministers coming over, making speeches for the benefit of the Daily Mail, trying to out-UKIP UKIP and not realizing the damage they’re doing to British interests, much less Scottish interests.

And here’s the real fault-line of devolution, and why it can’t hold much longer. Holyrood is responsible for implementing EU agreements, yet does not play any remotely significant role in their negotiation. When it comes to EU negotiations our Ministers might be included in the UK delegation, but so what? They may well be in the room but in the absence of detailed preparation the UK line is the UK line, and it is, most assuredly, set by the UK apparatus, usually with only a cursory consideration to Scottish interests. Now there is of course the Joint Ministerial Committee, there’s all manner of whizzy ways we can reform devolution but the fact remains, in the EU you either are a member state or you’re not.

So there’s a few examples of how the status quo isn’t working for Scotland, but I’ll be honest, the primary arguments for independence are not about our place in the world or indeed projecting our view upon it. That’s not the point of our nationalism and anyone who thinks it is doesn’t get it.

Independence is about the simple logic that where we are now isn’t the best we could be. That the people who care most about the future of Scotland are the people who live here. That a country of 5 million people will have a more responsive, representative and effective governance than the system we’re part of. That we’ve done well with the powers we have presently and could do still better by taking responsibility for our own affairs.

We have a different demos in Scotland, and it is becoming progressively more different still. We’re greener, more social democratic, more internationalist and more progressive than the centrepoint of UK opinion.

We implemented the smoking ban because it was the right thing to do to improve our shocking public health.

I confidently predict we’ll lead the way also on Equal Marriage because this will make our country fairer, more respectful.

We abolished prescription charges because a tax on being unwell offends our values.

We abolished tuition fees because education isn’t a private luxury, it is a common good and the more educated people in our society the more we’ll all benefit.

Those decisions have made us, already, a different place. That will only accelerate. It is therefore only logical that the international aspects of reflecting that demos will need to alter to best reflect our domestic reality.

And look at the wider world, globalizing by the day. In a world where borders matter less, then power counts for more.

The ability to represent yourself, to be represented by a government that actually does reflect your values, is a prerequisite necessitated by globalization not undermined by it.

Climate change, food security, pollution, crime and umpteen other issues will not be solved by one country, any one country, acting alone. Faced with these issues the world is already full of small countries, only some have realized it.

So, to answer the question – would Scotland independent lose clout internationally? Emphatically not. The ‘clout’ presently exercised on our behalf isn’t working for us and isn’t representing our values or aspirations, and we could do better.

We’ve two treaties of present relevance to us; everything we gained in 1707, the right to freedom of trade, movement, capital and the like, we keep, under the Treaty of Rome. But with that retention of rights we gain the right to decide our own priorities and having decided them to then decide if and how we pool that sovereignty in whichever structure, be it the EU, NATO, UN or whatever structures will succeed them, to best reflect our needs.

The future is multilateral, and smaller states do that better.

Scotland has nothing to lose and an awful lot to gain. Scotland could do better.


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  1. “Save as if you live in the final days of a solvent Scotland”
    Maxwell MacLeod

  2. Juteman says:

    Believe in yourself.

    Excellent article.

  3. “Would an Independent Scotland Lose its International Influence?”
    Hmm; no, an independent Scotland would gain from its international influence. I see Scotland’s future as a multi-layered and pliable living, sounding playing board for Scotland’s / world’s ‘futures’ projects, and an international Home-Nation to at least 30 million Australian, American, Canadian trans-national Scots all over the world. In-deed, the future for Scotland is mixed with 21st centrury technology, in all these new fangled enterprises you’ve mentioned Alyn, but a traditional Home Nation for all Scots throughout the world. My travels have taught me that all Scots want to come Home, some time in their lifes.

  4. Scottish gardener says:

    Great article, thanks Alyn.

    O/T If anyone fancies some uplifting reading only given it a quick skim but it looks pretty good to me. It’s the Scottish social attitudes survey from 2011 (sorry if this is old news) Support for and faith in the Scottish government appears to be rising dramatically across the board, think I’m seeing why the unionists wanted to force an early referendum, from my untrained look at the results here broken down by party loyalty I’d say they probably want it to be taken about six years ago, since then it seems there are now more than 50% of people in every party breakdown who feel the Scottish government gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is run, trust in UK government has plummeted (unsurprisingly) Don’t want to speak too soon but it’s made me pretty upbeat for the referendum. going to give it a proper read tomorrow, it is 5am, sorry for the ramble.

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