Scotland’s Place in the World and the Problem with British Isolationism

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By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, November 3rd 2012

Europe has been in the headlines in the last two weeks. There was Salmond’s little legal controversy on EU matters, followed by David Cameron’s problems with his backbenchers on Europe, while some Labour politicians charged Ed Miliband with opportunism for siding with Tory Euro-sceptics.

If it is possible to rise above Scots insularity and petty partisanship which we have seen in the last week, it would be helpful to note the wider European and international dimension in which the Scottish self-government and independence debate, is now located.

This is about how Scotland sees itself and its geo-political position, or to put it more simply, how it sees its values, relationships and alliances across the European continent and globally.

Countries all over the word rethink and reposition themselves all the time. Finland has done so several times in the 20th century, as has modern day Turkey, and the Central European countries after Communism and the rediscovery of ‘Mitteleuropa’.

This week Britain’s problematic relationship with the European Union took another significant step in its eventually unravelling, with David Cameron defeated for the first time in this Parliament as his Euro-sceptics voted with the Labour opposition on the EU budget.

This has caused David Cameron huge problems with his backbenchers and wider party, eroded his authority and thrown up questions about his leadership, but it is a product of much deeper, historic dynamics than present day politics.

Britain’s strange relationship with Europe is deep rooted and pre-exists the EU. The UK has long had trouble in seeing itself as a European country, for centuries viewing Europe as a warring, divisive continent of hostile interests, in turn fighting the Spaniards, then the French, and over two world wars, the Germans. This led them to see Britain as a ‘world island’ which had bigger horizons, most importantly, the Commonwealth and the ‘special relationship’.

The UK eventually joined the EEC or ‘Common Market’, as it was in 1973 at the third attempt. By then the Franco-German axis had become institutionalised in the corridors of Brussels and Britain was never quite trusted. It was always seen as the reluctant, petulant European trying to spoil the party – an image the UK has been more than happy to play into.

The dynamics became more pronounced in the late 1980s with Jacques Delors’s ‘social Europe’, an agenda which Thatcher characterised in her 1988 Bruges speech as ‘socialism by the back door’. This speech, along with Labour’s conversion to being pro-European, dramatically changed the debate and was seen as a clarion call to the emerging Tory Euro-sceptics.

Thus began the modern day Tory obsession with Europe, one which had echoes with previous party divides such as India and tariff reform, which similarly hurt the party.

There was Maastricht, John Major and trouble with his ‘bastards’. Then along came Cameron who, in opposition, challenged the Tory Party to ‘stop banging on about Europe’.

It hasn’t worked because an unfolding Euro crisis has given permission for the deep Euro-scepticism of parts of the Tories to let rip with their prejudice. This has become the Tory mainstream: Home Secretary Teresa May announcing her intention to opt out of 130 European justice measures, a Government ‘audit’ of EU powers and their impact on the UK, and Tory detesting of a whole host of European institutions from the Charter of Fundamental Rights to the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights (which covers every European state bar Belarus).

Britain’s relationship with the EU has to be resolved and the only way will be via a European referendum. In this the modern Tory Party, growing more Euro-sceptic by the year, will either position itself for withdrawal, or a dramatic detachment of the UK from Europe.

All of this matters to the Scottish debate because it has consequences for what kind of country the UK is and what kind of nation Scotland aspires to be.

Scottish self-government is about a number of external dimensions. First, there is the British element, and the problem with the British state, centralisation and over-concentration of power in London and the South East.

Second, there is the European dimension, and how Scotland sees itself as a European nation. Third, the American-Atlanticist tradition, from the challenge of defence, security and Trident, including the issue of NATO membership, to the world of American style market fundamentalism which has so damaged British society and politics.

Fourth, is the Commonwealth, and connections made through the legacy of Empire and today’s trade and commerce. And finally, there is the northern European dimension of small nation social democracy.

Scotland increasingly sees itself as a part of each of these intersecting circles, historically similar to the way the UK used to see itself as a ‘world island’ before it became so introverted and happy to talk to itself.

The UK European referendum will be a defining point on whether that British inward retreat becomes irreversible or not.

What can be said is that the European and Scottish referenda are interwoven and interconnected. They are about what kind of country and unions people want to inhabit.

Many Euro-sceptics want to withdraw from the European Union but defend an unreformed British union in the name of an absolutist, out of date notion of sovereignty. The Scottish independence perspective is about a Scotland of soft power in a multiplicity of unions and comfortable with the idea of shared sovereignties.

The only separatists in this argument are the ‘little Britishers’ and ‘little Englanders’ who imagine a fantasyland UK pulling out of Europe and relocating itself into the mid-Atlantic as a tax cutting, deregulating, free marketeer country.

Any potential UK withdrawal from the EU, of course won’t happen before 2014, but what kind of country the UK is has huge consequences for how we decide what we want Scotland to be.

For years Scots of all persuasions have thought they have the power to decide their future, their degree of self-government, and how we express our desire to be a modern, European country. But it isn’t that simple.

For what do we do if the real, petty, dogmatic and insular nationalists turn out to be those running Westminster?

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan – http://gerryhassan.com