Browsing the BBC’s magazine offerings last weekend, as I often do; I came across a piece by writer and philosopher Roger Scruton discussing whether the English should have a say on whether Scotland should be independent. It is an interesting piece, coming from an Englishman looking on the referendum with a nationalist frame of mind of his own – but it makes many failings that I’d like to address (to be considered alongside a rebuttal today from Murray Pittock). I’m not committed to either side of the referendum debate at the moment, but I do think the debate should be framed as accurately as possible – something that isn’t apparent from Scruton’s article.
The referendum in September will ask voters “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The referendum is only open to those living in Scotland because they are the ones who should be free to choose to which state they belong: Scotland or the United Kingdom. If the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland were involved in the vote it would be a breach of the freedom of self-determination that the Scottish people should enjoy. If Scotland were to vote for independence and be denied of their wishes because of those of the rest of the UK even some of those that voted for the union would be outraged. To do so would be entirely undemocratic. As Pittock’s article points out, all recent international independence referenda have been sole matters of the nation seeking it. Scotland’s should be no different.
As a side note, many have commented (although not Scruton) on an apparent unfairness that non-UK citizens living in Scotland will be able to vote in the referendum although Scots living outside Scotland will not. I disagree with this standpoint as I believe that if/when a non-UK citizen casts a vote in the referendum they are doing so on behalf of the many other non-UK citizens that will visit Scotland to work or study in the future. Letting Scots who live in the rest of the UK or abroad vote would not only be a logistical headache for the Electoral Commission but would also not reflect the wishes of the people living in Scotland – which a Scottish state would primarily serve.
Without a doubt a Yes vote in the referendum will affect the people of the continuing UK. An argument could be made that it would affect those of many other countries as well, although to nowhere near the extent that it would the continuing UK, but there is no clamour for them to have a say. Being independent is an issue of sovereignty: what group of people rule themselves. If the people of Scotland were not sovereign even in the decision to create their own sovereign state, then the entire exercise would be undermined to a point of worthlessness. As much as I understand the wish of some people to take part in issues that affect them, if they do not hold the right to do so, they should not. For that reason the Scottish independence referendum should only be open to those that are in Scotland.
The West Lothian Question is a valid argument about a minor inadequacy of the current UK political system – but it is a foible that doesn’t affect the workings of Westminster all that often in practice. The vast majority of legislation discussed in the UK Parliament affects the whole of the UK and not England alone. Of course Scottish MPs should have a say in these UK-wide matters. One of the key arguments for Scottish independence is that the people of Scotland aren’t represented enough on a UK level.
Scruton makes the point that “the English, who have voted Conservative more often than Labour in post-war elections, have to accept a block vote of Labour members of parliament”. Scotland has undeniably been a stronghold for Labour, but to suggest that Labour governments have only happened because Scotland has decided so is simply false. A government is formed by the party(ies) that command the most support of the whole country in an election. Our country, for now, is the United Kingdom – which includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour governments have always had to secure a sizeable support, if not a plurality, in England to be voted in to power. England has many more seats in parliament than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It is this imbalance that has led to the current Conservative-led administration despite returning only 1 member of Parliament from Scotland (and 0 from Northern Ireland).
I disagree with Scruton’s assertion that Scotland’s economy is “subsidised by the English”. In a panel immediately right of this paragraph entitled “The Economic Angle” two statistics are quoted about Scotland’s economy – one quoting Scotland’s public expenditure per capita vs. the UK as a whole (£12,100 vs. £10,900) and one showing per capita GDP for Scotland vs. the UK (£26,424 vs. £22,336). This shows that Scotland generates more for the economy than the UK average (which would include Scotland’s figures as well). Even with higher public spending our net contribution (GDP per capita minus public expenditure per capita) is higher at £14,324 vs. £11,436. This is proof that Scotland is at least pulling its weight, if not subsidising the economy of the rest of the United Kingdom instead of the other way around. These figures do include oil and gas revenues, and without them then the UK net contribution would be higher – but this point is irrelevant in an economy where oil and gas is a major sector.
When it comes down to it, only those living in Scotland will be able to cast their vote in the independence referendum this September – despite what Roger Scruton and many other commentators believe should happen. It is up to the people of Scotland to choose their destiny: to become independent or remain part of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And so it should be.