Is Independence Really a "Vision"?

Even the slightest hint of a possible increase in the Yes! vote in the forthcoming referendum gives me a severe attack of the heebie-jeebies.  Why break one nation in two, why partition one small island, and why turn our back on institutions which for generations have served as models for other democracies, and delivered levels of prosperity matched by few other nations on earth?

Yet, there have been hints recently that the Yes! campaign is gathering momentum, and there seem to be two main reasons for this.

One is that the No! campaign is losing its way.  The Yes! campaign is led by one single, united party; and not only so, but by a party in government, able to avail itself of all the resources of the administration (including the Government Press Office) and at the same time to bribe the electorate with sweeteners and thus create the illusion that there will be no austerity in an independent Scotland.

By contrast, the No! campaign is spear-headed (or not) by three separate parties who have never surrendered their own independence to the collective ‘Better Together’ campaign, and have never even tried to hide their suspicion of each other.  Each seems less concerned with saving the Union than with ensuring that if it is saved they will get the credit.  Naturally, then, each has spoken through its own spokespersons, with the result that the Yes! campaign has always conveyed an impression of incoherence.  At no point have Scotland’s Unionist parties acted as if the Union were the outstanding issue of our generation.

The other alleged reason for the faltering momentum of the No! campaign is that it has no ‘vision’ to offer Scotland, while the Yes! campaign, by contrast, has a clear vision.

But what is that vision?  Independence!  Come on!  Independence is hardly a vision.  Somalia is independent, as are Bangladesh, Haiti and Colombia.  Has that brought them greatness, prosperity and human rights?  Independence as such guarantees nothing.  In our case, all that is on offer is independence from England, and it will mean little more than that our politicians will be able to perform their own little dance of elected dictatorship unrestrained by the wider British view represented by Westminster and the House of Commons.  In fact, the result may well be single-party government on both sides of the Border, the Tories in permanent power in England and the Nationalists in permanent power in Scotland.

There is another curiosity here as well: one which has been carefully kept out of sight.  There will be no second chamber to exercise even a minimal restraint on the Scottish Parliament.  England will still have its House of Commons and its House of Lords, and while few of us are enamoured of hereditary peerages, an Upper House of life-peers, free of the need to spend their time securing their own re-election, can at least ensure further scrutiny of government measures, and delay the rash introduction of knee-jerk legislation.  Even the United States, founded on the great principle that ‘all men are created equal’, has two chambers to keep an eye on the Executive: the Senate, and the House of Representatives.  In an independent Scotland, should the nightmare materialise, our single chamber could pass laws of immediate authority on the basis of the barest majority.

We should not confuse the independence of the legislature with the independence of the people.  A narrowly-based Holyrood government will give us no more space than the much more broadly based Westminster parliament.  There is no species of exaction, restriction or tyranny which is ruled out by the simple expedient of independence.  Ask the people of Uganda.  And if we want to look for ominous signs closer to home, just note that under the Nationalist Government, and without any explicit Act of Parliament, Scotland’s centralised police-force can now be routinely armed.

But there may be a further reason why some opinion polls show growing support for independence.  Elections, sadly, are decided by the value of ‘the pound in your pocket’.  That means, to put it more prosaically, that the electorate have little interest in matters of foreign policy and defence.  Instead, they are absorbed in domestic issues: education, health, transport, policing.  As it happens, these are already devolved issues, and the Nationalist Government has already shown itself reasonably competent in all these areas.  But one of the tricks pulled by the Yes! campaign has been to convey the impression that independence is all about these domestic matters: even, indeed, to imply that the less a country has to do with defence and foreign policy the better.

But it is one thing to make plain that an independent Scotland would not have invaded Iraq.  It is quite something else to suggest that it can dispense entirely with a foreign policy.  Will we still have a ‘special relationship’ with the United States?  Will we recognise Putin’s new Crimea?  Will we have an extradition treaty with Peru and Chile?  What will be our attitude to Spain’s claims on Gibraltar?  Who will warn us which countries are unsafe to travel in?  Will we still have an army, navy and air force?  And if so, for what purpose?  Will the army be in permanent residence in Edinburgh Castle, or marshalled on the border with England, or deployed, if at all, only as part of a United Nations peace-keeping force?

Or perhaps, like Switzerland, we’ll glory in isolation and neutrality, blithely ignoring the upheavals around us, but happy, once the conflicts are over, to benefit from the blood shed by others.

But if not, if we decide to pursue a more honourable course, we are in for a rude awakening.  Over the centuries, the United Kingdom has built up a Foreign Office second to none: an Office with a long institutional memory, vast stores of intelligence, countless international contacts, fluency in myriad foreign languages, finely honed diplomatic skills, and embassies in almost every capital in the world.

At the moment, the work of that Office bears directly on the life of every Scot: where our soldiers go, whether we need visas to enter the US, whether we can work in Uzbekistan, whether our football-fans can travel to Qatar, on what terms we can trade with China, and much more.

Are we now to set up our own Foreign Office, recruit and train from scratch, and build our own foreign embassies?

Yes, apparently.  But don’t even think about it.  Think only of your free prescriptions and of the pound in your pocket.  There’ll be no more wars, no one will ever invade us and no one will ever threaten Scottish interests abroad.

Dream on.

This article originally appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 23rd May 2014