The independence debate that is going on in Scotland will change the nature of Scotland’s relation to the other parts of the UK no matter the result. If we vote Yes, we will become a new nation state and the relationship will become international, but if we vote No, we won’t go back to the place where we were before the debate began. We will rather have decisively rejected independence and defined ourselves as part of the UK forever.
The reason for this can be illustrated by the example of the US Civil War. Prior to that conflict it was common to describe the United States in the plural (The United States are) afterwards in the singular (The United States is). The Civil War fundamentally was fought over the question of whether a state had the right to secede from the Union. Force of arms answered the question in the negative.
We in Scotland are asking a similar question albeit in a peaceful way. The United Kingdom, (unlike the United States in relation to South Carolina), has given us in Scotland the right to determine whether we wish to leave the Union. But no nation state can forever be faced with an existential question as to whether a part will decide to leave. For this reason the choice will be irreversible.
Scotland will become a part of the UK in the same way that Aberdeenshire is a part of Scotland. Nationalists, who think that they can continue to push for referendums on independence every few years, will find that that the Westminster consensus on this issue will have changed. We will have gone through the crisis and Scotland will be no more able to secede than South Carolina. Secession will become something for history books. Of course Scottish nationalists could always try to persuade Scots of the merits of a unilateral declaration of independence, but the moment would have passed and they will rapidly become a dwindling band toasting the memory of their lost cause over the water.
Just as in the United States, the present struggle over independence will make the relationships within the UK stronger, but also and for this very reason much looser. Once it is recognised that devolution is not a stepping stone to independence, the process of devolving powers can be extended almost without limit. This is the prize that is becoming available to us precisely because we are going through the trauma of the present independence debate.
The problem of devolution was always that it was asymmetric. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given parliaments, but England had none. We’re all familiar with the unfairness of this situation. But with the new powers on offer to the Scottish parliament something will have to be done about England. A wide ranging discussion is therefore going to take place on how more powers can be granted to Scotland, but also to England.
Mr Salmond wants a currency union together with close ties and cooperation with the other parts of the UK. There is much in our present relationship that he wants to retain. The problem with this sort of relationship is that an independent Scotland would be sharing part of its sovereignty with a foreign power, but we would have no popular representation with which to regulate that relationship. At present the UK shares part of our sovereignty with the EU, but despite all of its faults with regard to democracy, at least in the EU we have a shared parliament and representation on the European commission. But Mr Salmond’s vision of what we would share with the other parts of the UK is far greater than what the UK shares at present with the EU. It makes much more sense therefore to have a shared parliament to regulate what we have in common with the other parts of the UK. But that is precisely what we have already. It’s called Westminster. Why would you want to get rid of our representation there? It would be like being in the EU but withdrawing our MEPs from Brussels.
There is an alternative on offer to us now. If only we reject independence there is the chance to create a federal UK. Why not have a parliament that deals only with English affairs, Scottish affairs, Welsh affairs and Northern Irish affairs, plus a parliament that deals with what we have in common. But it is precisely this that will inevitably occur once power is devolved to England. This sort of federal relationship would give us practically speaking as much control over Scottish affairs as independence, but we would still be able to influence the matters we share with the other parts of the UK.
Naturally Scottish nationalists dismiss these offers of extending devolution. They have never wanted devolution, they only want independence. It is also true that the new devolution settlement that would take place in the UK has not been put to the people of the UK either in a General election or a referendum. There is therefore the degree of uncertainty that is inherent in the democratic process. But any fair assessment shows that there is uncertainty on both sides of the independence debate.
The vision of independence put forward by the SNP depends on the cooperation of those who have already said No. Mr Salmond hopes to be able to reverse that No through negotiation, but no one in Scotland can know if he would succeed. Everything that is said about the pound and about EU membership is so much speculation governed by the bias of whether the person supports or opposes independence. But one thing is certain. These matters are uncertain.
The major UK parties could renege on their promise to extend devolution, but remember it was Labour and the Lib Dems who introduced devolution into Scotland in the first place. The Tories now have been persuaded precisely because the irreversibility of the independence referendum result takes away any risk of extending devolution.
The future is uncertain. But there is at least as good a chance of Scotland becoming part of a fully federal UK as Mr Salmond getting his vision of independence. A federal UK moreover has the virtue of the fact that we know it would work, just as it works in countries like the USA and Germany. The nationalists of course don’t want this and will try to persuade us that it is not on offer. But this proposal is quite real, sincere and naturally follows from caring about both the interests of Scotland and the United Kingdom. It is an offer for those Scots who want the maximum amount of devolution that is consistent with us remaining a part of the UK. It’s for those who don’t want to risk losing the pound or a messy divorce mucking up the UK’s economic recovery. It’s an offer that’s worth grasping with both hands as it will never come again if we reject it.