Identity charade


  By Elliot Bulmer
RECENTLY I have been paying very close attention to the referendum campaign.
It has all the elements of a political epic: a hardy people, inhabiting a windswept land at the fringes of the known world, bravely determining their future by democratic means. I refer, of course, not to the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, but to the referendum held in the Falkland Islands in March this year. The result was a predictable landslide in favour of retaining existing ties with the UK. “Like UKIP with penguins”, was one friend’s dismissive verdict after seeing the mass ranks of Union flags waving on the BBC news.

  By Elliot Bulmer
RECENTLY I have been paying very close attention to the referendum campaign.
It has all the elements of a political epic: a hardy people, inhabiting a windswept land at the fringes of the known world, bravely determining their future by democratic means. I refer, of course, not to the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, but to the referendum held in the Falkland Islands in March this year. The result was a predictable landslide in favour of retaining existing ties with the UK. “Like UKIP with penguins”, was one friend’s dismissive verdict after seeing the mass ranks of Union flags waving on the BBC news.

Superficial climatic parallels aside, the Falklands referendum sends an important message to voters, activists and campaign strategists in Scotland: that those who feel strongly, patriotically British do not have to be opponents of genuine self-government. As John Fowler, deputy editor of the main newspaper on the Falkland Islands, wrote: “What we were so overwhelmingly voting to maintain was a status which admits our dependency on Britain for defence and foreign relations, but otherwise permits us almost complete autonomy.”

The Falklands Islands do, indeed, enjoy “almost complete autonomy”, on a scale that puts the half-­measures of “devolution plus” and “devolution max” to shame. Subject to a modern, written constitution that entrenches fundamental rights and democratic procedures, the elected Legislative Assembly has complete control over all aspects of domestic policy. No Barnett Formula or useless “tax-varying power” here: the Islands are entirely self-funded for all internal purposes. There is even a Falkland Islands pound.

Only foreign affairs and defence remain the responsibility of the British Government, although even in these matters the Falkland Islands Government liaises closely with London to ensure that the needs and interests of the Islanders are protected.

Closer to home, 30,000 Gibraltarians enjoy the same full autonomy. Gibraltar’s written constitution, adopted by a popular referendum in 2006, is a fine example of modern democratic constitutional design. As well as outlining the main processes of parliamentary government, it includes an enforceable bill of rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and other fundamental European Convention rights.

Under this constitution, Gibraltar is fully self-financing, raising and spending its own revenues for all domestic purposes, and the Parliament of Gibraltar can legislate freely on all matters except foreign affairs, defence and security (for which the UK Government, acting through the governor, is responsible).

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, is a fierce defender of Gibraltarian sovereignty and autonomy. In a 2012 interview to local media, the Oxford-educated barrister, who leads the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) in a coalition with the centrist Liberal Party, stated: “We are the party that is going to defend Gibraltar’s sovereignty and legitimate interests to the hilt and make no compromise.”

Even in foreign affairs, the UK has an obligation to consult with the Gibraltarian authorities. The preamble to the 2006 constitution promises “that Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”. In the words of Juan-Carlos Perez, chairman of the GSLP, this provision ensures that “we [the Gibraltarians] have complete autonomy and complete control of our destiny”.

Voting in favour of this new constitutional settlement by a 60/40 majority, the people of Gibraltar were choosing to reassert their national sovereignty and to extend the devolved autonomy they had enjoyed since 1969, while remaining part of a wider British union.

The parallels between the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Scotland should not be pushed too far. The Falkland Islands and Gibraltar are still technically colonies. The UN’s Committee of 24 on decolonisation continues to review their statuses, which remain contested by Argentina and Spain.

Nevertheless, the experience of these and other similarly-placed jurisdictions belies the idea that constitutional choices must come down to nationalism and identity. It shows that there is no necessary contradiction between defending a continuing sense of British identity on the one hand, and asserting a right to the greatest possible democratic self-determination on the other.

It is here that the Yes campaign’s strategic challenge lies. Many already see the risks and dangers posed to their economic security by the UK Government. As shown by the failure of successive UK governments to reform the electoral system, the House of Lords, and the Crown prerogatives, the Westminster-Whitehall establishment is unable to rethink its assumptions and has no appetite for recasting UK-wide institutions to meet the ecological, demographic and economic challenges of the 21st century. In place of real solutions to the poverty and insecurity faced by growing numbers on both sides of the Border, it offers only royal pageantry and history programmes about supposedly better days.

Given this chronic inability and unwillingness of the UK to reform itself, it should be easy to convince the majority that independence is the best, most practical and pragmatic solution. The Scottish Government assures us that a Yes vote will lead to the creation of a new state, which will better serve the common weal, being based on a liberal-democratic written constitution.

If it is to win on these grounds, however, the Yes campaign would be wise to create a clear distinction between the constitutional case for independence and the politics of identity. At present, this distinction is blurred: the minority who report their identity as “Scottish, not British”, are much more likely to vote Yes than the majority who combine Scottish and British identities. The rational, pragmatic arguments for independence might be overwhelming, but the heart, in such matters, is often much stronger than the head. If the electors are forced into choosing between their desire for constitutional change and their continued sense of British identity, the Yes campaign could face grave difficulties. Such a binary choice would only leave the majority – who are frustrated with the current half-measure of devolution, but are happy for overlapping Scottish and British identities to coexist in their hearts – feeling ignored and disengaged from the debate.

As independence is the salient issue in Scottish politics, one’s stance on this issue also defines one’s whole political identity. For a voter to change their opinion on independence is perceived as a shift from the Unionist to the Nationalist camp – not a matter of calm calculation or rational argument, but of deep emotional wrangling, often involving a whole change in world view.

Many know from experience that to declare public support for independence can have implications not only for party allegiance, but also for one’s circle of friends, perhaps even one’s career prospects. In these conditions, the trick to winning the independence referendum, from the Yes campaign’s point of view, is not to convert British Unionists into Scottish Nationalists, but instead to persuade those who consider themselves to be both Scottish and British, and who wish to remain so, that voting Yes will produce concrete advantages without stripping them of their identity.

Judging by the speech he recently delivered at Nigg in Easter Ross, Alex Salmond has realised this. Salmond’s gradual strategy presents independence not as a rejection of Britishness, but as an opportunity to build anew a constitutional order that better serves the common weal and better equips us to face the challenges of the future within a porous web of local, Scottish, British and European identities.

To interpret this move as a retreat from the SNP’s core principles would be a mistake. From its foundation, the SNP’s aim was to give Scotland the same degree of autonomy enjoyed by Canada and Australia at the time: “dominion status” as defined by the Statute of Westminster. There was nothing remotely “anti-British” about this position. Indeed, the SNP has long nurtured inclusive, internationalist thought within its ranks, and has rarely repudiated Britishness as such; it has only rejected institutional forms of the UK state through which Britishness has hitherto been expressed.

The question before us in 2014 is not whether Scotland should be a nation, but whether it should form its own state. So it is wrong to think of independence as “leaving Britain”. Norway did not “leave Scandinavia” on becoming an independent state in 1905. Jamaica did not “leave the Caribbean” when it became independent from the Federation of the West Indies in 1962. There is still a West Indian cricket team, a University of the West Indies, and now a Caribbean Court of Justice.

Likewise, Scots in an independent state would continue to have close cultural, social, economic, family and linguistic ties with the rest of the British Isles. This is not going to change.

An independent Scotland would also continue to be part of a British political entity, albeit a very different one from the UK. Scotland would co-operate with the other jurisdictions of the British Isles through the British-Irish Council (the secretariat of which is already based in Edinburgh). No doubt there would be some shared services – paid for jointly by the governments north and south of the Border under mutually agreed contractual arrangements. It is expected that the existing reciprocal arrangements with regard to freedom of travel and dual citizenship between the UK and Ireland would also be extended to an independent Scotland. Scotland would use its own pound sterling – just like the Falkland Islands pound, the Gibraltar pound, the Isle of Man pound, the Jersey pound, or the English and Welsh pound.

An independent Scotland would almost certainly continue to be a member of that most British of international organisations, the Commonwealth. It would belong to a family of nations dedicated to the democratic and humane principles of the Commonwealth Charter. Together with 16 other independent states around the world, an independent Scotland would, at least until the people decided otherwise, continue to share the same British monarch as head of state. This does not mean, however, that the more egregious aspects of the monarchy, which offend our democratic principles, would need to be retained. With a modern written constitution in place, the “Queen of Scots” would have a narrowly defined, “ceremonial-only” role. Much of the unnecessary pomposity and flummery of the British monarchy, as well as its unaccountable and poorly defined powers, could and should be done away with.

An independent Scotland would not only remain integrated into a British context and culture but it also, according to the Scottish Government’s proposals, continue to be allied to other Western countries through Nato and the European Union. Far from retreating into “separatism”, independence is an opportunity to join the world as an equal, progressive and constructive partner. At this time of ecological and climatic challenge, Scotland, speaking with its own voice and conscience, has the moral authority to be force for good.

Independence would end the centralised 18th-century “union of the parliaments”, offering in its place a new “union of the isles” based on the equal partnership of self-governing and freely co-operating states. Within this new union, a sovereign Scottish state would have freedom, under a modern democratic constitution, to make its own laws, raise its own revenues, determine its own policies, and have its own representation on the world stage, while continuing to share powers and interests with its neighbours across the British archipelago.

Independence, as presented by the Scottish Government, is the new “devo max”. It promises exactly what Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands already have: full legislative and fiscal autonomy over all matters of domestic policy, without having to sacrifice the British connection. It also offers the “best of both worlds” that the majority of people in Scotland have, in poll after poll, signalled they desired: the power to stop the bedroom tax, to stop Scottish soldiers dying in neo-colonial wars, to protect the NHS, regulate the banks, reindustrialise the economy with sustainable technology, and reform the welfare system in a more humane way – without having to “leave Britain” to achieve it.

First published in the Sunday Herald – Reproduced courtesy of Elliot Bulmer

Dr W Elliot Bulmer is research director of the Constitutional Commission. His book, A Model Constitution For Scotland, is published by Luath Press, £9.99