by Hazel Lewry
In the first section of Dump the Debt we took a slightly more than cursory look at what should be Scotland’s share, if any, of UK debt. The answer to this question appeared to be that Scotland should not inherently assume any liability for Westminster’s fiscal and policy incompetence.
The subject appears to be producing ongoing heated debate, and not solely within the pages of Newsnet. As research continued it became self evident that Scotland’s perspective as a nation should simply be, “So long, and don’t come knocking.”
Other nations with Westminster ties have historically been ‘asked’ – or the attempt has been made upon them to force these countries by treaty – to pay Westminster’s debts. This as they simply tried to leave the burden of London’s corrupt, scandal-bound parliament behind.
Canada, Ireland, Australia and New-Zealand are all prime examples.
The premier example of concern to Scots is Ireland. Ireland was an incorporated member of the London-centric Union, by treaty, in 1801, just as Scotland had become over ninety years earlier and in largely similar highly dubious circumstances. It took two close votes for the Irish.
Ireland by 1820 was effectively in an identical treaty situation as Scotland finds herself today. They had matched obligations and burdens, but with one major advantage over the Scots, twice the representation in Westminster.
Before the main investigation and reasoning can be worked, there is a need to fundamentally understand just what is “Britain”, otherwise known to most of us as the UK. We discover they are not the same at all, and while one has been a constant the other is a political, fluid, amorphous political construct.
It is this fluid, political, amorphous construct that owes the debt. It is not Scotland’s debt in any shape, manner or form that is either legally deducible or even a moral obligation.
In fact offsetting any debt demand potential from Westminster could be a demand for return of a potential overpayment to the Whitehall Treasury amounting to anywhere between £100 billion and £4 trillion through the life of the Union, but most likely is in the £250 billion range.
We should simply accept neither payment or repayment are on the cards.
What is “Britain” the “UK”? – legally
Is “Britain” a country – no, it isn’t.
Is “Britain” a state – no, it isn’t.
That lends the question of what exactly “Britain” is. It is, historically, a chunk of land or territory.
Free dictionary Britain describes it as “The island of Great Britain during pre-Roman, Roman, and early Anglo-Saxon times before the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899). The name is derived from Brittania, which the Romans used for the portion of the island that they occupied”. Most of it we know today as England.
Historically “Britain” appears to be part of or the mass of the largest island of the British Isles, that’s what the Greeks referred to as an island group called Nesoi Pritannikoi, which reflects a probable Celtic Pritanni. This name was borrowed by Latin as Britannia, nominally located south of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman times. Caledonia being referenced as the territorial region on the north of the Wall.
The nations of Scotland and England did not in fact exist until the best part of a millennia after the main Roman invasion.
“Britain” is a land mass, a group of land masses if speaking of the British Isles, a single one if speaking about Great Britain, which comprises three separate nations. To argue that “Britain owes” is therefore ludicrous – land masses don’t have sovereign debt, only the individual nations within those land masses can have sovereign debt.
Britain therefore can’t have debt – Britain doesn’t exist as a sovereign entity.
The “UK” is a different matter entirely. Most people other than avid historians are unaware that the UK is simply a fluid political construct of multiple treaties which have come and gone over the last three centuries. “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” can accumulate sovereign debt.
When situations are fluid, as they are with the Westminster government and its constituent nations or geographical sphere of influence, two things become paramount in international law. These are precedent and core responsibility. What has gone before and on whose behalf documents are signed.
As Westminster is a “Sovereign Parliament” it can therefore accumulate “Sovereign debt” – things are reasonably straightforward. Westminster borrows and we (Scotland, England, N. Ireland and Wales) all have to share the repayments.
We’ll be making those payments either now, or after independence. This is the fatally flawed Union argument.
We need to remind ourselves who owns the debt – it’s the UK parliament – Westminster.
Now we must look into who, or what, is the UK to determine if an independent Scotland owes or not.
In 1707 under the Treaty of Union Article 1 states “That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN.” In legal jargon, almost everything is in the name.
Article 1 did not state that the Scottish and English nations would cease to be – the individual countries continued under the auspices of a political invention through supposedly mutual agreement to create a single kingdom – one monarch. It was “forever after”.
1707 effectively saw, by contemporary accounts, a forced marriage of the Scots to the English. Certainly as Daniel Defoe’s own memoirs of the time recount, the Scots themselves did not want a Union with England.
The Scots and the English devolved their governments to Westminster. This new political construct was known as “Great Britain”.
1707 – The kingdom of Great Britain is “created”. In time this Parliament assumes Sovereignty (and Debt).
Many of us don’t know the original 1707 Treaty was supplanted in 1801 with a new Treaty declaring these Islands and its monarchy to be “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. On January 1st 1801 the Kingdom created by the 1707 Treaty officially ceased to be.
“Forever after” lasted 93 and a bit years.
Ireland then became a principal incorporated participant in the Westminster parliament with more seats, and therefore more say, and better enfranchisement than Scotland.
Ireland therefore lends itself to being as close to an ironclad test case as is feasible with which to examine Scotland’s position with regards to UK debt.
1800 – “The Kingdom of Great Britain” ceases to exist, on or about midnight of December 31st.
1801 – “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” comes into existence, on or around 12:01am on January 1st. Part of the agreement was “that the Crown of Ireland is forever annexed to the imperial Crown of England”. They appear fond of the “forever” word in London.
With the inclusion of Ireland, and a new uneasy amalgamation of states came to be.
The parliament in Westminster now acts on behalf the entire British Isles as a governing body and accrues sovereign debt.
The debt is taken on by the UK-GB&I government under the auspices of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. This is because Westminster has effectively declared itself sovereign.
The creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain was the primary raison d’être of the Union Treaty of 1707. Merging parliaments was somewhat secondary.
As the Scots had no independent vote in this new construct, and the Kingdom specifically set up in Article 1 of the 1707 Treaty. In fact by its very prominence the treaty’s raison d’être now ceased to exist. That could lead to additional interesting constitutional anomalies that appear to have never been fully explored.
After “The Kingdom of Great Britain” ceased to function on December 31st 1800, all of the obligations, treaties and debts were assumed by the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, based in Westminster.
Westminster is recorded by history as having been the driving force behind the Irish Union. Contemporary chronicles indicate it may have been forced into being by Westminster to prevent Ireland becoming a French ally during the Napoleonic period.
It was remarkable however that Ireland entered “The Union” with nominally twice the representation delegated to Scotland – further substantially disenfranchising the Scots and disadvantaging the 1707 Treaty against the Scots.
Ireland, the newbie, became a nation on better terms and standing within this Union than our own Scotland, enjoying all the terms and conditions Scotland now does, but with amplified representation and thereby amplified standing.
The “Second Union Flag”, what’s referred to as the Union Flag, was born of this Act – for some reason it was never modified after Ireland left. This new flag celebrated the “new” umbrella of individual nations.
Interestingly the Westminster parliament didn’t finally undo or repeal that 1800 legislation until 1983. By 1983 the Irish Republic had long since said its farewells, none too fondly, to what was now the rump UK.
At best the temporary Irish incorporation into Union would be described as even more uneasy than that of the Scots.
Of interest to the Scots in the present day are the terms of the Irish exit, and how it was accomplished. It should also be clear that the Irish exited from a stronger position within the Union than Scotland now inhabits. Of particular note was Westminster’s success in enforcing alleged debt.
Dissolution of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”
The Irish Free State only came about after the proclamation by the Irish in 1919 of an Irish Republic and Westminster’s attempts to thereafter thwart the will of the Irish people.
The Irish did not “break away” from a “mother country”, there has never been a “mother country” as such. The Irish, like the Scots, are/were party to a legislative/governmental construct from which they could withdraw. In the case of the Irish it took substantial violence, culminating in open war to create the break.
Scotland and England remain after Ireland’s departure as anomalies on the world stage. They are nations without sovereign powers. Ireland remedied that situation between 1918 and 1937 starting with the Irish Free State, definite echoes of present day Scottish “devolution” took place. Basically Westminster backed off but refused to release.
Westminster, it has demonstrated, does not easily or willingly let go.
In 1922 the Irish converted from “Union” to “Dominion” status, it may appear a retrograde step but was obviously one that could be lived with. It did take a civil war after all. It was basically a compromise Westminster could swallow.
1922 – Effectively saw the dissolution of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.
1922-1926 – Let’s describe it as “The period of confusion”, no official descriptor, the old corporation was dead.
1922 – 6th December, N. Ireland opts out of the Irish Free State. “The period of confusion” continues.
1927 – “The period of confusion ends when “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is born. Our present state is, legally, only some 84 years old.
Almost immediately the Irish Free State pushed the boundaries of its status as a Dominion. It ‘accepted’ credentials from international ambassadors to Ireland, something no other dominion up to then had done. It registered the Westminster treaty with the League of Nations as an international document, over the objections of the United Kingdom, which saw it as a mere internal document between a dominion and the United Kingdom.
Scotland should perhaps investigate doing likewise with the UN in regards to the Scotland Acts and other items of significance that arise from interactions between Holyrood and Westminster. It would certainly create interesting base points for discussion. The Acts could be registered with the protest that Scotland wished full autonomy but was denied such in 1952 and 1977. The precedent exists.
The Irish negotiations: the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 basically gave a form of recognition to the Irish Free State but the Irish were obligated to pay some of Westminster’s debts. This debt payment was primarily in the form of port fees from Irish facilities. With Crown troops on Irish soil it is best described in light of subsequent events as extortion.
In the 1931 Dominion Act Westminster gave many colonies, “the Dominions”, the right to make and pass their own laws without recourse to Westminster. Westminster did not suddenly do this from an act of charity, it did so because its ability to hold the Dominions was severely eroded during World War I. Westminster largely financed that war through sales of overseas holdings and borrowing.
By 1938 Ireland’s premier De Valera had renounced any crown oaths, removed Ireland from any such future onerous obligation using the powers of the 1931 Dominion Act and had basically performed a Unilateral Declaration of Independence [UDI] from the UK. The legality of this Act was challenged by Irish Loyalists themselves. They lost the initial challenge and again on appeal.
In 1938 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland finally negotiated an end to the simmering hostilities with the fledgling Republic of Ireland, on terms which were exceedingly favourable to the Irish, including voidance of all fiscal/territorial obligations under the “Port Tax”, with removal of the rump British presence from the “Treaty Ports”. It has been rumored that there was an unofficial agreement that Ireland would maintain neutral in any upcoming conflict.
The Scots situation parallels the Irish almost precisely.
The legal precedent is clear and would be remarkably difficult to dispute. The Irish with greater enfranchisement walked away from the United Kingdom and its onerous systems and obligations. The Scots with less enfranchisement should do likewise.
Having for the most part apparently clarified the legal position and obligation, clearly demonstrating that any course of debt acceptance from Westminster would be voluntary, other than as either moral obligation or conditioned acceptance of inherent propaganda, should Scotland accept any Westminster debt?
The moral obligation – does it exist or is it fantasy. Scotland is approximately £1.5 billion in the black, this has potentially been a nominal average – that equates to around 1.2% in an economy officially worth £132 billion. That’s a low surplus, as Westminster allocates much of Scotland’s income to the City of London and has Scots responsible for items we never independently use or would never purchase, such as Trident.
Better figures might be somewhere in the region of £155 billion GDP and £10 billion – £14 billion surplus. We will use the Whitehall numbers. £1.4 billion. This is from a nation consistently in surplus. Scotland was paid for assuming England’s debts at the time of Union, not the other way around. Scotland, the nation, effectively had no debt.
Taking the above low estimate, inflationary adjusted utilization of that number into today’s pounds as a surplus number (ie, a total overpayment to the Westminster treasury during the Union), it would appear that Westminster owes Scotland somewhere in the region of £425 billion in today’s currency. It could be lower or much higher.
The moral argument from Westminster that Scots should assume any UK debt doesn’t wash. Scotland has partially financed UK wars, everything from the old Crystal Palace to the 2012 Olympics and the London. Westminster expects?
The only remaining argument for Scotland to assume any UK debt after the logic and precedent of reasonable investigation appears to be based in the acceptance of ongoing conditioning and propaganda by the individual Scot. This is a ludicrous situation.
Utilizing historical precedent It appears what is on the horizon is the following:
2014/2015 – The Scots vote for Independence.
2015/2016 – Westminster baulks.
2016/2020 – The Scottish people declare UDI
2020 – Westminster reformulates itself once again, this time to become “The United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. Where “Britain” is that part simply south of Hadrian’s wall, comprising England and Wales.
The debt, that sovereign catastrophe – it will simply do what it has done in the past – it will remain in London, at the seat of the again re-named and re-geographically focused “United Kingdom”.