Time to clear up confederal confusion


by Ken McNeil

Like most people reading this, I thought I knew what the word Independence meant and how it related to the constitutional position of Scotland. I was pretty clear too about what Independence meant to the main political proponents of it, the SNP. Apparently not.

Recent newspaper articles by various commentators such as Jim Sillars, Professor James Mitchell and others have perhaps not of themselves, but by their interpretation by others, particularly the Unionist leaning media, caused confusion. I believe it is important that the SNP get a grip of the situation to maintain control of the debate. So what is confederation, or independence lite, if you prefer?

The Wikpedia definition is:

‘A confederation is an association of sovereign member states that, by treaty, have delegated certain of their competences (or powers) to common institutions, in order to coordinate their policies in a number of areas, without constituting a new state on top of the member states. Under international law a confederation respects the sovereignty of its members and its constituting treaty can only be changed by unanimous agreement.’

So is this what the SNP is proposing for Scotland? Not as far as I can see. The important aspect of confederation is that sovereignty may be maintained but it can also be shared. A confederal state can delegate its powers. Let’s look at some of the areas mentioned by commentators discussing confederation/independence lite, such as the Monarchy, armed forces, currency, social security benefits and foreign affairs.

The Monarchy. This has always been clear SNP policy. An independent Scotland will be a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as head of state as she is in the UK and about 15 other Commonwealth countries. Even if there was no political UK the Queen would still be the Queen. This doesn’t affect the sovereignty of the Scottish people who could always opt for a republic in the future if they wanted.

Armed forces. There is no suggestion that Scottish forces would be part of British forces. What is being suggested is that Scotland might share military bases with UK forces. Precisely this kind of sharing agreement is in place throughout the world. Only recently the UK government floated the idea of sharing Scottish air bases with Norway. This does not entail either relinquishing or sharing sovereignty.

Foreign affairs. The armed forces scenario above ties in to foreign affairs. There is no way Scotland would allow the UK to deploy Scottish forces. William Hague won’t be in charge of Scottish foreign policy. What has stimulated comment on this subject is the idea that the UK and Scotland may share premises such as embassies.

Social security benefits. It is likely that when Scotland becomes independent she will initially maintain the existing benefit structure. This makes sense. We should be protecting the most vulnerable whilst the changeover to an independent state takes place. The Department for Work and Pensions undertakes this task in the UK and it would make financial and administrative sense to outsource the Scottish benefit system to them. Again this is not confederalism. Scotland would
decide who gets benefits, what benefits and at what level.

Currency. The SNP’s position has been clear on this for a long time. Scotland will continue with Sterling and consider switching to the Euro in the future if that is deemed beneficial. Such a change would also be subject to a referendum. This is similar to the position Ireland adopted when it became independent, initially tying the Irish pound to Sterling, then letting it float to find its own level and eventually joining the Euro.

This is the only area that is confederal, i.e. sharing sovereignty. If we tie to Sterling then we are allowing London to determine our interest rates. This of course is exactly what the Euro member states do by giving responsibility for rates to the European Central Bank and no one is suggesting they aren’t fully independent states. Of course they can withdraw from the Euro if they wish just as Scotland could ‘leave’ Sterling.

Of course the UK may not wish to cooperate in these areas or any others that could be shared, e.g. the DVLA. If they don’t then Scotland will have to set up its own institutions. These areas cannot be finalised until separation talks take place. But none of these ideas other than the currency situation involves any diminution in Scottish sovereignty, loss of control or detracts from the principles of an independent state. How is this confederal?

So why is any of this important? It’s a bit like the end of WW2. While our dads and granddads were hacking their way through the Burmese jungle or fighting their way across the North German Plain, there were people back in blighty planning the post war world. Out of this we got a plan to rebuild the country, the NHS and the UN. All well and good, but this didn’t mean a lot to the aforementioned dads and granddads who were concentrating on winning the war which if they hadn’t done all the planning back home would have come to nought.

It’s the same with independence. Of course it is right and important that we think about and debate about the kind of country and society we aspire to, but it is only so much hot air if we don’t actually achieve Independence. So let’s concentrate on the fight. Most of what has been stirred up has come from non SNP sources or members and we can’t do anything about that, but what is happening is political opponents and opposed MSM are picking up on this apparent confusion amongst Nationalists as to what Independence means.

This has led to articles in papers like the Scotsman and quotes from Unionist politicians like David McLetchie and Anne Maguire undermining the Independence lobby. What they have written and said has been complete tosh, of course, but that is not the point. In an article I wrote for Newsnet (Keep calm and carry on 9/5/11) one of the points I was making is that in order for the undecided, and many nominally in the no camp, to come over to Independence they needed to lose their fear
of Independence and the unknown and that they would do that if they had all facts without the propaganda. If the negative comments from the Unionists and the apparent confusion amongst Nationalists is what they are hearing and reading they are not going to have the confidence to vote for Independence and will stick to the status quo, it’s easier, it’s the comfort zone.

So what should the SNP do? I think they could counteract much of this by publishing an outline of how independence would look and making it clear it is independence and not any kind of fudge.

There is a suggestion that the party is perhaps trying to convince or perhaps con the voters that somehow what they are suggesting really is independence lite and that we will still have UK institutions and this isn’t really separation. Indeed we shouldn’t use words like separation (fourth time I’ve done it). If so they should be disabused of this notion forthwith. The electorate have just dumped a party that has treated them like idiots, don’t make the same mistake. If we are going to be
grown up boys and girls I think we can handle what Independence means. Try to avoid that and the Unionists will have a field day.

The SNP should appoint a referendum supremo who should deal with all the referendum issues. That keeps the message clear and also shows that the rest of the Government is getting on with the job and not being distracted by the ongoing debate.

So let’s drop the pseudo political psycho babble and give the troops the ammunition to get the job done.