Citizen Essay by Alf Baird
Anyone can see from recent events the constitutional powerlessness of Scotland as a nation, and how empty is any notion of Scottish sovereignty.
Almost two-thirds of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, a democratic decision totally ignored by Westminster. And the SNP were elected on a mandate to deliver a second independence referendum, securing a Scottish majority at Westminster and at Holyrood to back this up. Westminster simply chooses to ignore the democratic decisions of Scotland’s people. Despite the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999, the democratic deficit that that institution was supposed to end, remains.
Clearly a devolved parliament is just that, devolved. The Scottish Government tested the relevance of the Sewel Convention during the recent Supreme Court case on the triggering of Article 50. This ended with the Court asserting the right of Westminster to legislate on any matter in Scotland, devolved or not. Its inclusion in the Scotland Act gave the Sewel Convention ‘recognition’ but no legal effect.
The Supreme Court’s ruling asserted the sovereignty of Westminster. The outcome of all this is that the Scottish Parliament is not a sovereign body. Such powers as it has, are simply powers devolved upon it from Westminster, the latter being the sovereign parliament. The First Minister rightly described claims about Scotland being an equal partner in the UK as nothing more than empty rhetoric and that the supposed ‘statutory embedding’ of the Sewel Convention has been shown to be worthless.
So, a ‘union of equals’ the UK is clearly not. Recent events suggest that, rather than being a sovereign nation and people, Scotland is more akin to a colony in that decisions taken by the Scottish people can simply be pushed aside by an ‘administering power’, which is Westminster and, in terms of voting power, Westminster is effectively England. There is therefore no ‘union’ to speak of, which now seems a charade, a pretext, implying that the term ‘unionist’ is also a misnomer. This therefore raises the serious question that, if there is no union as such, is Scotland a colony? This question can be relatively easily answered and the remainder of the article seeks to do just that.
More than 80 former colonies comprising some 750 million people have gained independence since the creation of the United Nations. At present, 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories (NSGTs) across the globe remain to be decolonised. Thus, the process of decolonisation has come a long way but is not yet ended. Finishing the job involves a continuing dialogue among the administering Powers, the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, and the peoples of the territories involved, in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions on decolonisation.
Reflecting its impatience with the administering Powers, the UN still refers to what it views as “the scourge of colonisation”, calling on member states, and notably the UK, to end this as soon as possible, and for them to be “on the right side of history” in such matters. To a large extent independence and decolonisation are therefore one and the same. Relevant here to Scotland’s present situation is the fact that the UN considers Ireland to be a ‘former colony’; this further indicates that Scotland may indeed be little different given that Ireland was likewise at one time deemed to be a part of the UK ‘union’.
So, what defines a colony? Historians distinguish between two overlapping forms of colonialism, namely: Settler colonialism involving large-scale immigration, often motivated by religious, political, or economic reasons, and; Exploitation colonialism which may involve fewer colonists and focuses on access to resources. The definition of colonialism builds on this and involves three key elements: “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” Here each of these elements is analysed in the context of Scotland.
Full or partial political control
It seems indisputable from recent events that Westminster (i.e. England) controls Scotland politically and is therefore in effect Scotland’s ‘administering power’. This ‘political control’ is evident whichever party is in power in Westminster, as they can do as they wish with Scotland, despite having few (if any) MP’s elected in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are merely devolved ‘creatures’ created by Westminster, with limited powers, which in any case can be overruled by the administering power, as the recent Supreme Court decision confirmed.
The Scottish people may vote however they wish, but their decisions in referenda and national elections can be ignored and overruled by the administering power, as we have now seen to be the case on numerous occasions. Any perceived sovereignty of the Scottish people does not exist within the current ‘arrangement’ as Scottish sovereignty is not recognized by the administrative Power, the latter considering any sovereignty over Scotland’s territory and people to reside only with Westminster. The administrative power may claim Scotland has representation via a supposed ‘union’, however, in practice the administrative Power ultimately controls the politics of Scotland irrespective of democratic decisions made by Scots. Scotland is therefore in the exact same position Ireland was prior to the latter’s independence, when Ireland was also part of the ‘union’, whilst post-independence the UN considers Ireland to be a ‘former colony’.
Scotland is therefore under the full or partial control of an administering Power (England), and hence meets this initial defining feature of a colony.
Occupation by settlers
Historical census data tells us that the largest single ethnic group of migrants coming to Scotland over the last one hundred years and more has been people from rest-UK, mostly England, and particularly in the professions (science, engineering, education, managerial etc), the latter a typical norm of colonial administration. In recent years inbound migration of people coming from rest-UK to Scotland appears to have accelerated; over the twenty-year period between 1995-2014, around one million people moved from England to Scotland, with peaks of over 70,000 people a year. These recent trends suggest that a further half a million people could migrate from rest-UK to Scotland during the ten-year period between 2014-2024, resulting in a total figure of some 1.5 million migrants over just a 30-year period. For a nation with a population of little over 5 million people, such inflows are indeed very considerable. Over the same period there has been a somewhat lesser outflow of migrants from Scotland seeking opportunities elsewhere. Clearly, though, the population of Scotland is both being boosted and replaced through ‘occupation by settlers’ from rest-UK, primarily England.
Scotland is experiencing substantial, focused, and rising occupation by settlers from the administering Power, and thus exhibits the second defining feature of a colony.
Aided by prevailing laws enacted by the administrative Power, Scotland has experienced, centuries of highly concentrated land ownership, much of it speculative and wasteful, prohibiting economic development, and this continues today. Resultant inflated land values have constrained development and led to other economic limiting factors such as a shortage of affordable housing, now made worse by relatively low wages for many people unable to secure mortgages.
In terms of Scotland’s natural resources, oil and gas represents a loss of enormous financial proportions since the 1970s, squandered by Scotland’s much larger administrative power in its failed attempts to overcome its own seemingly endless economic distress. The administrative power intentionally suppressed information given to Scots concerning the true worth and potential of its oil and gas reserves. This exploitation continues today, e.g. with extensive gas reserves off Shetland effectively ‘sold’ to international firms yet with little of the value gained from the resource flowing through to Scotland’s people. Aggregates and fisheries are other important areas of exploitation where ‘rents’ have been intercepted by corporate entities thanks to regulations designed primarily to work in their favour. UK regulation of power supply has meanwhile tended to hinder development of renewable energy in Scotland whilst ensuring continued surpluses for private energy suppliers given strategic/monopolistic positions in the country.
Scotch whisky is a unique location-specific high-volume global export product, and the UK’s major food and drink export, yet likewise any benefits accruing to the Scottish economy remain questionable. Largely automated, the industry’s ownership has been allowed to move outside Scotland, offering opportunities for transfer pricing which makes stated export values seem rather less than what they should be, with any taxation raised going directly to the administrative Power. Interestingly the Scotch Whisky Association key personnel appear to be drawn from the UK Foreign Office and other Ministries within the administrative Power, signifying the strategic importance of this sector, not least to the UK trade balance.
Since the 1980’s the privatisation (i.e. sell offs) and inadequate regulation of Scotland’s major public utilities (energy, ports, airports, housing and certain other assets) has resulted in numerous examples of market failure including exploitation of users by private monopolies. Poor regulation and industry self-regulation has led to excessive corporate profits with consumers left worse off. Low initial sale prices achieved for state sell-offs meant successor firms became asset rich overnight with the public (owners) not receiving due compensation. Frequent sell-ons of these public utility assets since at higher/inflated prices (e.g. to secretive offshore private equity ‘funds’) reflects their regulatory and monopoly power and high profits, rather than infrastructure quality, the latter suffering now from historic lack of investment, partly due to highly leveraged transactions. Scotland today has some of the highest energy prices in Europe, effectively hindering commercial/industrial competitiveness, whilst creating rising fuel poverty. Privatised utilities making limited investments in new infrastructure means Scotland’s infrastructure is now increasingly outdated, obsolete, inefficient, congested, and costly to maintain and operate.
Heavy industry in Scotland was mostly shut down by the administrative Power, unfortunately just prior to the global boom in steel and shipbuilding during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some of these communities have not yet recovered. Replacement jobs, where they exist, tend to be low wage, with today’s relatively low unemployment levels masked by masses of people on zero hours contracts and others pushed into self-employment, with in-work poverty rising.
Corporate law reforms and deregulation policies introduced by the administrative Power facilitated numerous takeovers of major Scottish businesses since the 1980’s, many of which were subsequently closed down with resultant job and skills losses and diminished exports. Many firms, including privatised utilities operating in Scotland, are now registered offshore in UK crown dependencies so pay little or no tax. The City of London deregulation and ‘light touch’ emphasis championed by the administrative Power helped pave the way for the virtual collapse of the Scottish financial sector after the deregulated UK banking system failed in 2008.
Falling exports suggests there has been inadequate trade facilitation and trade development initiatives undertaken by the administrative Power or its devolved agencies. Trade development has been constrained by the privatisation of ports in Scotland, with owners unwilling to make investments in what are now high cost, obsolete (mostly Victorian) ports, unattractive to international shipping services. Routing of remaining Scottish trade through distant ports in the south of England has proved to be high cost, and subject to increasing congestion and road/rail capacity limitations. These supply chain constraints added to high factor costs especially in energy has made manufacturing in Scotland uncompetitive. Most of Scotland’s imports by value enter the UK through southern England ports and proceed through logistic centres in middle England prior to despatch to Scotland. This practice helps create transport and supply chain jobs in England whilst the extra land transport costs adds to Scotland’s logistic expense.
Ongoing economic practices and policies imposed by the administrative Power therefore act to hinder Scotland’s international competitiveness, resulting in the current zero growth position. Scotland’s economy is again heading into recession, further disadvantaged through being tied to the administrative Power’s high inflation and an ever-weakening currency.
Scotland is subject to ongoing economic exploitation by the administering power, and therefore meets the third and final defining feature of a colony.
Based on this analysis the answer to the initial question posed undoubtedly appears to be yes; that is, Scotland demonstrates the essential features of a colony. Scotland is clearly subject to full or partial political control by another country; Scotland has been and continues to be occupied by significant numbers of ‘settlers’, and; Scotland is exploited economically by the administering Power.
Alf Baird is a retired professor and a regular contributor to Newsnet’s comments section.