Saturday, 15 December 2012

Is the utility of Scottish independence pragmatic?

There is beginning to be a debate about the pragmatism or the utility of Scottish independence. I strongly suspect that the argument is being made by those who would support independence come what may. They realise however, that the number of “existentialist” nationalists in Scotland is quite small, limited to the more committed members of the Scottish National Party and they have to try to reach out to the waverers and uncommitted in order to win the independence referendum. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Unionists, too must try to reach out not only to our core support, who would support the Union come what may, but also to those who might be contemplating independence or who have once or twice even voted for the SNP.
 
One problem with the nationalist appeal to utilitarianism is that it rather forgets one of the central tenets of the philosophy which was developed by people such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The essence of their idea about morality can be summed up by the quotation from Bentham’s A Fragment of Government: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Let’s look at how this principle might apply to the issue of Scottish independence. Imagine that as a consequence of independence, the sum of happiness decreased in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the basis of utilitarian principles, Scottish independence would have to be rejected even if it led to an increase in happiness in Scotland. The reason is that anything which leads to an overall decrease in happiness is wrong by the principles of utilitarianism. Thus, for instance, if Scotland’s failing to share its oil revenues led to a decline in living standards in the rest of the UK, this would be considered by utilitarians to be wrong, because the sum of overall happiness would have decreased, even if it meant that the happiness of those in Scotland was greater than it otherwise would be. The principle of utilitarianism, after all, is not that it should lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number in Scotland. If the SNP were to maintain that they were only interested in happiness in Scotland, this would show that their philosophy has precious little to do with utilitarianism, which opposes selfishness. It would show, moreover, that the principle underlying the SNP’s philosophy is not utility but existential nationalism. Why separate this group of people called Scots from the rest of the population unless it is for reasons of existential nationalism? Utility for us at the expense of you is neither utilitarian nor moral.

Scottish Nationalism fails the test of utilitarianism at the first hurdle. Let’s look instead however, at whether it can be argued that it is pragmatic for the people of Scotland to choose independence. The trouble with the idea of appealing to pragmatism is that it depends on the ability to foresee the future. It is likely that if Scotland voted for independence that the result would stand. There would be no turning back. The southern part of Ireland chose to leave the UK in the 1920s, but no matter the nature of living standards there today, there is no bringing back the Union that existed from 1800 until partition. Imagine however, Irish nationalists appealing to pragmatism in the years leading up to independence. How far could they see ahead? It is doubtful that they could have predicted events even in the 1920s. They certainly could not have seen as far ahead as the Second World War, the creation of the European Union, or the crisis in the Eurozone. Yet all of these events have had consequences for the prosperity of southern Ireland. It is perfectly possible to argue, given the economic consequences of being in the Eurozone that it would have been more pragmatic for Irish nationalists not to have chosen independence all those years ago. It is arguable that the Irish people as a whole would be better off today with a united Ireland within the UK. But how could anyone have predicted these matters in the 1920s? Who knows what will happen to Scotland in the coming century. No one can look ahead more than a few years at best. So on what basis can nationalists appeal to pragmatism? Perhaps, they think that under every possible future circumstance it would be better for Scotland to be independent. But this is to argue that would be better for Scotland come what may to be independent. Once more the pragmatic argument reduces itself to the existential argument.

A further argument in terms of pragmatism is that Scotland would be more likely to get a government reflecting the will of its people if it voted for independence. Thus, independence is presented to left-wing Scots as a pragmatic way of avoiding future Tory governments. This argument depends on existential assumptions about Scotland’s national status, for otherwise why choose Scotland as the base unit? Southern Scotland together with northern England might, for instance, be a more optimum political unit than either Scotland or the whole of the UK. Why then should we not set up such an independent state for pragmatic reasons? Alternatively, if Scotland were independent, there might be a region, for instance Aberdeenshire, which consistently voted differently from the rest of Scotland, should that region then not be allowed to secede from Scotland? The argument against these positions would be that neither Aberdeenshire, nor northern England joined with southern Scotland are countries, or nations. Once more we fall back on our existential nationalism.

The fundamental problem with the pragmatic argument for independence is that it is based on the idea that it is government that solves our problems and is the source of our money. This naturally leads to the idea that if only there were more government and a larger state all would be well. Nicola Sturgeon  believes that the Labour party under Tony Blair was “not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual.” This means that her pragmatism amounts to being still more left-wing than Blair and Brown, increasing public spending and debt even more than they did. Far from being pragmatic, this would be economically disastrous. The public sector in Scotland is already too large. Government spending as a percentage of GDP is already much higher than is economically desirable for the promotion of growth. Yet the lesson the SNP would take from the Brown/Blair years is that Labour were Tories in disguise, not left-wing enough and that they did not spend enough public money, nor rack up enough debt.  Are we seriously supposed to describe this as pragmatism?

Scotland is clearly an economically viable independent state, but the effect of independence financially would be about neutral. Scotland would gain from increased oil revenues, but we would lose our share of central government funding (the Barnett formula). Scotland would face the same hard choices with regard to debt and deficit as we do being part of the UK. The idea that Scotland could avoid austerity by voting for independence is simply not true. Anyone who believes this already shows themselves unfit to rule. The only result of SNP politicians continuing to favour ever increasing public spending in order to pay for still more free goodies to dish out universally as a bribe to the electorate, is that eventually we will be faced with a choice between bankruptcy and far more austerity than we have at present. Declining oil revenues, with fluctuating prices are not going to allow us to live beyond our means. Until the SNP shows that they understand the debt crisis, they are unsuitable to be put in charge of Scotland’s economy whether independent or not.

Prosperity does not depend on being independent. If it did, then it would be pragmatic for the citizens of Baden-Württemberg to seek independence. But it is clearly in their interest to remain part of Germany. Independence for Baden-Württemberg would not make the people living there more prosperous. Germany like the UK is made up of places that once were independent, but which realised long ago that it is much more pragmatic to work together. Britain like Germany has a functioning single market and enormous economies of scale. These exist because both Britons and Germans have lived together in one country for centuries. To propose giving up these advantages is the very opposite of pragmatism.

Jeremy-bentham-hdr3

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Taking wings from reality, or, nationalism's failure to understand the concept of both/and

I came across a nationalist blog recently arguing that it was not possible to be both Scottish and British. If I had not found someone actually making this argument, I would hardly have considered formulating a counter argument as I would have thought I was open to the charge of arguing against a straw man. It looks however, as if this view is seriously entertained and so it should be addressed. The essence of the argument seems to be that in a crisis situation, when push comes to shove, Scots would be forced to choose between being Scottish or British. Thus, for example,  if there were a disputed independence referendum result, which unionists and the rest of the UK refused to accept, there could be a civil war situation, which would force everyone in Scotland to choose sides. It would in this context be impossible to be both British and Scottish.
 
Incidentally, I remember a certain Lord Fraser of Carmyllie being vehemently attacked and described as if he were some sort of loon for imagining a scenario where England bombed Scottish airports. In fact, Lord Fraser’s scenario of a foreign power at war with England taking over Scotland’s airports, forcing England to bomb them, would most certainly have occurred if Nazi Germany had tried to seize such airports in 1940. The French likewise bombed their own airports in occupied France between 1914 and 1918. Such a scenario is in fact much more likely than the UK descending into civil war over a disputed independence referendum. Most Scots, apart from a few on the extreme fringes, just don’t care that much about the result of the independence referendum one way or the other. However much I want the Union to continue, I would far rather Scotland were independent than that there were a civil war over this matter.

Nevertheless, let’s explore the issue of civil war in relation to the concept of choosing one’s identity. In 1861 there began a civil war involving a country which formed a union of states. Virginia was one of the states which decided to secede from the United States. Many Virginians were at that time in the US Army and faced a choice. Most chose to join the army of the Confederacy, but some chose to remain loyal to the army they were already serving. Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army, was against secession, but with great reluctance chose to follow his state Virginia, becoming probably America’s most revered soldier and general by serving the South. On the other hand, Virginian George H. Thomas remained with the Union army, possibly owing to his Northern wife, served with distinction throughout the war and gained lasting fame as the “Rock of Chickamauga” by saving the union army from a rout.

In civil wars people face incredibly difficult decisions, which divide families and can lead to permanent estrangement and lasting acrimony. But let’s look at the issue in terms of identity. Robert E. Lee and George H. Thomas served in different armies, chose different sides in The Civil War, but both remained Virginians. After the war finished both equally were citizens of the United States. They did not lose their identity as either Southerners or Virginians, because of the difficult choices they were forced to make. Of course, some people called out traitor to the one or to the other, but when a man follows his conscience he does not listen to such slander.

In the hypothetical example of a genuine dispute between Scotland and  the rest of the UK, there might be Scots who thought the secession of Scotland unjustified. They might think for instance that the referendum result had been fixed, or had been obtained by means of subterfuge. In the same way that some people from the Southern states fought for the Union, and some from the North fought for the Confederacy, it might, in this British Civil War, turn out to be the case that some English people would fight for Scottish secession, while some Scots would fight for the Union. But Scots who fought for either side would still be Scots. They would simply be  Scots who had  followed their consciences in different ways. Of course, we’ve had this situation in the British Isles before. When Ireland chose to secede, some Irish people chose to remain loyal to the United Kingdom. But both those who remained in the UK and those who left, remained Irish. Identity is not something that a person loses because he chooses one side or another in a civil war.

Let’s take another example. Imagine Scotland voted for independence, but a part of Scotland, for example Fife, chose to vote for independence from Scotland. There might be conflict. Some Fifers might want to stay loyal to Scotland, some Scots outside of Fife might try to prevent Fife from seceding by force of arms. People in Fife would have to make choices, but whichever choice they made, no matter which side they fought for, such people would remain both Fifers and Scots.

The idea that you can’t be both a Scot and British if true would mean that someone could not be both a Bavarian and a German, a Sicilian and an Italian. There are any number of nation states in Europe and the world which are made up of countries which formerly were independent. To say to these people, I’m sorry you’re mistaken, you can’t be both Norman and French, you have to choose, is to say something that would be met with genuine bemusement. Normandy was once an independent country and it had a great history, including being quite successful as an invader of one of its neighbours. Only a tiny number of Normans however, would maintain that they are Norman and not French. For a person to seriously claim that he was a Norman and not French, would be to invite derision as if I had delusions of being William the Conqueror. It should equally invite derision for person to claim he is Scottish and not British, as if he wanted to play at being William Wallace.

The claim that someone can not be both Scottish and British goes against the experience of millions of Scots, who feel both identities. The fact that some Scots out of warped patriotism have chose to reject their British identity, does not change the experience of the rest of us. We love our country, and count it to be both Britain and Scotland. It is the love of both these things, which makes civil war in the UK unthinkable. This is the case for apart from the few who would create division, nearly everyone realises that in a British Civil War we would be fighting against ourselves.

Duck-rabbit_illusion

A sense of Scottish identity does not require independence

There are many reasons why people support Scottish independence. Some think that it would be economically advantageous, others think it would be politically advantageous and would make the sort of society they long for more likely to occur. But I get the impression that most nationalists see all these things as fringe benefits, even as ways and means to try to persuade other Scots to vote for independence. If I could convince a nationalist that Scotland would be just about the same economically as an independent state as it is now, or if I could show that politically things would be much the same, would I thereby convince him that he should vote against independence? I doubt it.  A nationalist sees independence as a good in itself. Why is this? The answer, I think, lies in how such a person sees himself. Most typically Scottish nationalists, define themselves as exclusively Scottish. This sense of Scottishness, which they feel, they consider to be constrained by Scotland not being an independent state. Nationalists tend to see Scottish patriotism and Scottish nationalism as one and the same thing. Thus, at times they might even resort to questioning the patriotism of those who oppose independence. They might even consider that such opponents are betraying Scotland, that they are somehow traitors.
 
Some time ago I had an interesting experience while on holiday, which gave me a new insight into identity and issues of nationalism and made me compare and contrast my experience here with my experience there. I spent two weeks in the Bavarian Alps in a small town called Berchtesgaden. It’s a wonderful spot, perhaps known chiefly for the fact that it was the site of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest and thus a monument to the darkest side of nationalism. But perhaps because of this historical situation, it was possible here to see people expressing their identity in a way that I found quite touching.

One day I came across a village celebrating its anniversary. Four or five hundred years ago, that village been founded. Nearly every man was dressed in traditional Bavarian lederhosen. Each had a hat with a feather. Nearly every woman wore a dirndl, the traditional dress for that region. These people were clearly comfortable with their Bavarian identity. They spoke the Bavarian dialect, indeed even I learned a few Bavarian phrases. Were these people patriots? Were they nationalists? There were Bavarian flags everywhere, blue and white. But there were lots of German flags, too. No one had a problem speaking High German rather than dialect, no one had a problem with the idea that being a Bavarian meant that they could also be a German. The lesson about nationalism had been learned and perhaps less than one percent of these Bavarians wanted independence from Germany.

What I learned on my trip also was that nationalism did not have much point in this region. The nearest major city was Salzburg in Austria, but on the short trip there, it was scarcely possible even to notice a border. I didn’t even see a sign. The whole trip from Germany to Austria was as near to being a trip within one country as makes no difference. Everything was completely integrated. The same money, the same tickets, the same everything. Only an accident of history meant that Bavaria and Austria were separate countries, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone living there. They scarcely seemed to notice. Really, by all normal standards they might as well have been in the same country. They have no reason to unite, because they are already united. But by the same token Bavaria has no reason to divide itself from the rest of Germany. These people seem to have moved on from these questions. I imagine they would find our debate in Scotland all rather baffling. Bavarians can express their separate identity, without denying that they are a part of whole. They fought a war with the most of the rest of Germany as recently as 1866, yet no one goes on about sending the Germans homeward to think again.

In Britain we have just the same experience as I found travelling between Germany and Austria, a land without borders. The Germans have learned their lesson about nationalism and they want nothing to do with borders. When countries are as integrated as Germany and Austria, questions about unification or separation become meaningless. This is the direction which Europe is moving towards. At times it must be said that the journey Europe is making is a struggle.  National difference and especially the lack of a common language is hindering them on the path to European integration. But it’s possible to admire the attempt, even while retaining concerns about the fundamental nature of the European Union. The goal of creating a free, democratic Europe without nationalism, may turn out to be impossible, but it is a fine ideal nonetheless.

We in the UK already have what Europe so desperately wants. We have unity, we can travel from one part of the UK to another and barely notice the difference. We can work and live where we please and only an accent distinguishes those who live here. But we have not yet learned that we can express our identity without demanding separation. We have not yet learned the lesson about nationalism, that was given to the Germans and the Austrians. For this reason we squabble over matters of no consequence, ungrateful, willing perhaps to squander the unity of centuries for a mess of nationalism.

Flag-pins-germany-bavaria

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Are the SNP the heirs to Michael Foot?

Reading one of the most popular nationalist blogs, I began to realise that the author and the people leaving comments were hoping for a lot more than independence. The reason for their support for Scottish nationalism, was not merely that they wanted Scotland to secede from the rest of the UK, but perhaps more importantly, they wanted Scottish politics to shift much further to the left. It became more and more obvious that many of the people who were attracted to the SNP were attracted precisely because they were disappointed former Labour party voters. They now considered the Labour party to be a party of the right. Independence for many of these people was thus a way of bringing about “Socialism in one country” leaving world revolution for another day!

There are clearly people in the SNP with a variety of political viewpoints, but if supporters are declaring that the present day Labour party is a party of the centre right, then it must be that the SNP is a party of the centre left in a different sense to that in which most people understand the term. Moreover, they must be on the centre left in a different way from other European centre left parties. I always supposed that the the transition which the Labour party made in the 80s and 90s was from democratic socialism to social democracy. Thus, they made a transition from the left with some elements of the far left, to the centre left. But if the Labour party is considered by SNP supporters to now be a party of the centre right, it must be that they think that their “centre left” SNP occupies the position of the old Labour party around the time of Michael Foot. By normal definitions this is no longer a centre left party at all. 

I never understood the almost universal SNP opposition to nuclear weapons until I realised that they truly were a left-wing party. What have nuclear weapons got to do with independence? It all seemed to be a bit of a debate from another age along with grainy black and white footage of CND marches. I hadn’t much thought about the issue of nuclear weapons at all since the election of 1983, certainly not since the end of the Cold War. Labour went into the election of 1983 proposing unilateral nuclear disarmament and was decisively defeated. Thereafter Labour realised that it had to reform in order to stand a chance of being elected. Through a succession of leaders gradually all the policies which made Labour unelectable were discarded. Thus, the opposition to nuclear weapons was dropped, Clause 4 was dropped, the idea that everything must be nationalised was dropped, legislation curbing trade union power  was accepted and finally some basic understanding of  the nature of business and economics was obtained. Eventually, Labour became a social democratic party and became electable. It would seem however, to many Scottish nationalists that all this was a dreadful mistake. Labour should have remained the party of 1983 and the fact that they have failed to do so means that it is necessary to vote for the SNP, which now remains the equivalent of Old Labour circa 1983. 

One reason that many nationalist supporters give for supporting the SNP is that the rest of the UK has drifted hopelessly to the right. There is no chance of that changing anytime soon. Therefore, the only chance of bringing about socialism to Scotland is through independence. Given that these supporters are choosing the SNP because of their dissatisfaction with the new Labour party, it must be that they reject the reforms that the Labour party has introduced since 1983. These policy and doctrinal changes by Labour were an acceptance that much of the legislation and other forms of change introduced by Margaret Thatcher were painful but necessary. In order to change Labour had to accept that Britain in the late 1970s was a place desperately in need of reform. The world had moved on and the old ways of Old Labour were simply not working anymore. Especially in the 1990s the Labour party finally accepted, as did nearly everyone else, that the experiment of socialism had been shown to have decisively failed and that the only sensible economic model was variations on a theme of capitalism. But then if  SNP supporters reject these Labour reforms, which brought about the party of today, it must be that they would prefer to turn the clock back to the ideology of Old Labour. What would this practically speaking mean?  It must mean that they would prefer greater power for trade unions, the nationalisation of much of Scotland’s industry, the reopening of coal mines and steel works, indeed the reintroduction of Clause 4 bringing about the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” for the workers of Scotland. 

That the SNP really is outflanking Scottish Labour on the left, became clear to me with the debate about universal benefits. Johann Lamont put forward, what seemed to me to be, both a sensible and moderate view that it would be better to target benefits towards those who really needed them. This was portrayed by the SNP as if she was just another Tory wickedly doing the Conservatives work for them. Indeed, they presented Lamont as being somehow worse than the Tories, as she was betraying her own class. What this fundamentally showed was that while the modern Labour party are gradually coming to terms with the present economic crisis, the SNP have drifted so far to the left that they are barely even aware of the economic needs of Scotland. When someone wants to discuss the economic needs of this country in a serious way, explaining that the present levels of debt are unsustainable and therefore will not be sustained, it is as if they want to stick their fingers in their ears and sing “la la la, we’re not listening.” Labour are beginning to get the debt crisis, the SNP meanwhile are taking a sharp left turn towards their own MacSocialist utopia.

The choice facing the people of Scotland in the independence referendum is the choice between who is likely to govern us for the foreseeable future. If the majority of the Scottish people choose independence they will also be choosing the SNP as the natural party of government. The idea that the SNP will somehow break up after a triumphant independence referendum and that we will end up with a new political consensus with new parties of the centre-right and centre left in Scotland is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future. Rather, the SNP would be the equivalent of Fianna Fáil, the party associated with bringing about Irish independence and entrusted with power for most of Ireland’s history. A vote for independence would thus see Scotland going much further to the left, with an attempt to create a much more left wing society than that which is envisioned by almost anyone in the present Labour party. It is for this reason that those on the left and far left, such as the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party are willing to side with Alex Salmond. 

People on the left and the far left, people far to the left of the average supporter of the Labour party and the Lib Dems, must be delighted that at last they have the chance to bring about the society they have so long dreamed of. A socialist utopia is within reach. It’s only necessary to wait a couple of years, just so long as the vote goes their way. The rest of us should consider very carefully before embarking on such an experiment. It is an experiment after all, which has been tried and failed before in the UK. It is an experiment which Labour itself has recognised does not lead to prosperity. If Scotland chose to go down an economic path so radically different from the rest of the UK, it would be impossible for our economies to retain their present convergence, their present single market and their present currency union. The SNP and their supporters oppose everything the modern Labour party has done to make itself fit for the modern world. They see Labour’s modernisation as a betrayal of the left. Sometimes, as when they debate about nuclear weapons, I almost experience a sense of time travel. I half expect to see Alex Salmond with wild white hair and a donkey jacket, for don’t be fooled: the SNP really are the heirs of Michael Foot.
Michael_foot