- international politics geek

09/09/2014 Scottish independence – The beauty of uncertainty

Sure, it's none of my business. Just like Barack Obama and Tony Abbott, I should let the Scots decide what is the Scots'. But having spend a hugely formative year of my life in Edinburgh, I do feel this debate is – maybe none of my business – but somehow close to my heart. That sure was not the case before I lived there, even though I had spend a summer milking goats on a farm near Glasgow when I was a teenager. I even had to check Wikipedia to understand the difference between Great Britain (the translation being commonly used in German) and United Kingdom (hardly ever heard in German). So how did I come to feel for that northern part of the British island?

Looking back at the year in Edinburgh and the many times visiting my London based brother, I must admit that a lot of my experience was rather British than distinctly Scottish. The grey façades in the cities, much of the culinary pleasures and nightmares, badly insulated windows, the usual chatter of football, politics and the (bad) weather – I am having a hard time distinguishing both capitals based on these everyday aspects of life.

Still, in my memory the place I got my Masters at is marked as Scottish, not British. That would not be surprising had it all been about Whisky and Ceilidh. But all the rest? I think it is owed to a kind of hugely successful word of mouth marketing: People I met in Edinburgh – honestly more foreigners than locals – who presented everyone and everything to me as Scottish, somehow managing to keep me from even questioning whether things might be the same further South. So maybe that is the whole point about identity? It does not matter how different we are from those we call foreigners, nor how similar we are to our compatriots. As long as we feel different, even the people around us perceive us as such!

So if there are no substantial differences between Scots and the other nations in the United Kingdom, why should they break the union? I will refrain from repeating all the arguments from North Sea oil to NHS and Trident submarines. But there are many, and many of them have been talked about many times. What I somehow failed to spot in all the debate is what I, was I a resident of Scotland, would consider the one unbeatable argument for independence: Scotland is Socialist – to the point this term can be used to describe any electorate in Britain. The rest of the UK is more centred, some would even say right wing. So what better way to realize left wing policies at home, than telling voters in the rest of the UK to mind their own business? You may call it a form of Gerrymandering, but a rather reasonable one, I would argue. That is what I would do, was I a Scot.

Now I'm not a Scot. But I have something in common with the majority of Scottish voters: I favour the political left over the right, be it concerning domestic policies from taxes to women's rights, or policies affecting the outside world, such as international development, justice and defence. (I'll answer your obvious objection before you ask: No, I did not support Blair lying over weapons of mass destruction to gain support for the invasion of Iraq! My preference of left wing foreign policy over the right is of course a very broad generalization, exceptions notwithstanding.) So should I support the Scots going as left as the Scots would like to go? Sure, there would be a new international player with rather leftist tendencies. I won't speculate about an independent Scotland's actual stance on actual issues, but if I was to, I'd be more optimistic than for an independent Bavaria (with its long term right wing dominance). +1 on the list of left wing dominated international actors – all great is it not?

But these Scottish voters would not appear out of nowhere. Until September 18th – and maybe after that – they will be part of a UK political landscape, that over the last couple of decades has been somewhat balanced between left and right wing majorities. This balance is why we still consider the UK a democratic country, when its electoral and governance systems are better described as an

elective dictatorship. How would the departure of the Scottish electorate affect this balance? Would it lead to a structural disruption or a merely temporary variation? Honestly, I have been too lazy to look for sound statistics on that matter. So I rely on a very indirect indicator: Providing a former high profile politician like Alistair Darling as head of the “Better Together” (a new slang word for “no”) campaign, the Labour Party apparently cares about the outcome of this referendum. Of course they try hard to stress strictly non-partisan benefits of Scotland remaining within the UK – and rather end up focusing on potential risks of independence. But I think Labour would be stupid to neglect the effect of Scottish independence on their chance of having a say in Westminster. And I don't think they are.

So UK Labour would lose some MPs if the Scots declared independence. Shouldn't that make the Tories advocates for the “Yes” campaign? As far as I have read, it apparently does not. Why not? Is it pity for the Scottish Tories, who may become hopeless bystanders under a Labour and SNP dominated Edinburgh government? I don't think so. I rather assume the Tories' “no” to Scottish independence is motivated by fear of the potential negative impacts on the rest-UK as a whole. Should this be their actual motivation, I'd have to credit the Tories for favouring the UK's general interest over party interests. As a result, UK left and right are united against Scottish independence. Labour seems more motivated though, because they don't face the conflict between party and country interests, as the Tories do.

After this bunch of speculations on why who in the UK favours which outcome, let me get back to the international picture. So an independent Scotland would be a new, left wing dominated international player. A relatively small one though (like Lebanon or Singapore, according to population size). On the other hand, according to my above speculations, the rest-UK would noticeably tilt to the right. And it would still be a major power in international affairs, no matter what happens to North Sea oil and the Trident fleet. My post-independence world order in summary:

[current world order] + [small left wing Scotland] – [big balanced UK] + [still quite big right wing rest-UK] = ?

If you ask me, it's quite simple: [current world order] ≈ [post-independence world order]. Sorry, not as great as I thought.

Finally, I'd like to discredit all my arguments for Scottish independence and reveal what a politics nerd like me really thinks: A country democratically declaring independence, isn't that exciting by itself? Okay, we've had South Sudan only recently, and it's not been going so well. But I only see one – remarkable – parallel to the British case: the smaller, poorer, but oil rich part of Sudan attained independence through a referendum. In Scotland there would be so many challenging questions to figure out, as well as in the rest-UK. Even writing that word, rest-UK is fun to me! How could you call that country, which is part of Britain plus Northern Ireland? And the flag? I sure would want to get rid of the Scottish white and blue. Those are just interesting superficialities. The real fun starts when you think of EU membership or currencies! Sitting in East Asia with my German passport in pocket, I would love observing all these unseen political questions being debated and settled after a “Yes”-vote. Without being affected myself, of course.

Is my nerdy excitement really that far from what Scottish voters should care about? I do not think so.

Being the diehard optimist I am, I must disagree with Alistair Darling and his no-campaign: sure, there is a lot of uncertainty in how independence would actually work out. But the Scots should not only be scared, should not limit themselves to seeing potential risks for coming generations. I wish them the ability to see the real beauty of uncertainty: so many things you have the freedom to shape! So many things that are wrong in the UK now, and you can get them right!

03/12/2012 Cartography

Note the size of my hometown Lübeck compared to Hamburg on this map from Renaissance Florence!