Sunday, 22 May 2011

The UK frying pan and the EU fire, part 2

Gerry Hassan's articles are always a must-read, and it's been difficult to keep up with him since he went into overdrive was it again?

Anyway, his critique of Scotland and its politics is particularly compelling, but as regards his solutions he often seems to have his head in the intellectual/idealistic clouds in a manner which could be characterised as Hassan-Kane-esque . One obvious manifestation of this is the paradox of his scepticism in relation to the SNP with his unbridled enthusiasm following the election of an SNP Scottish Government enjoying an unparalleled majority in the Scottish Parliament.

And this post from a few days ago pointed out the contradiction between Gerry's criticism of authoritarianism with the surely pettifogging approach of the SNP to aspects of human behaviour.

But perhaps his argument - although he doesn't state it explicitly - is that the SNP are merely the means to the independent end, and then we can get on with the real agenda of his vision for Scotland.

Clearly that's debatable, particularly in relation to what's often regarded as a large degree of progressive/centre left political consensus in Scotland, with only the independence/separatism question dividing the two dominant party political players in Scottish electoral politics.

However, as regards independence per se and the wider political ramifications, one particular passage stood out from one of Gerry's latest pieces, this one in the Guardian:

....there is the European dimension. Does Scotland remain part of the UK’s tortured, semi-detached relationship with the EU? Or does it aspire to be part of the core, integrated project, assuming it survives its current crisis?
First, as regards the independence question and the related fundamental question of sovereignty, there is of course a profound question mark over how far Scotland could be considered truly independent if it cedes significant powers to the EU, and Friday's post outlined the Nationalist contrast between the supposed unsuitability of a London-centric currency and monetary policy with the apparent desirability of the euro and interest rates decided by the bankers in Frankfurt.

Thus there's a huge contradiction between repatriating powers from Westminster/the UK and then ceding sovereignty to Brussels/the EU, which in terms of political union is like comparing the Dundee Wheelchair Taxi Association to the Transport and General Workers Union (neither of which exist anymore, I think, but you get the point).

A previous post tried to reconcile this contradiction by suggesting that the growth of support for the SNP/more Scottish autonomy was due to differences with Westminster/UK political philosophy rather than the attractions of independence/sovereignty per se - the major benefit of an independent Scotland is that it would entrench a certain political outlook which is in stark contrast with what Westminster has on offer, particularly after the new Labour years and the prospect of a Tory Government. Which of course is consistent with the voting shift from the Lib Dems (as part of the Westminster coalition) to the SNP at Holyrood evidenced earlier this month. By the same token, the perceived communitarian ethos and progressive philosophy of the EU probably seems more attractive to the Scottish political psyche than that of Westminster, hence the sovereignty paradox. And the fact that Brussels is possibly even more institutionally corrupt, bureaucratic and self-serving than Westminster is conveniently ignored.

But perhaps the UK/EU paradox can be resolved by what in another article Gerry calls "post-nationalist politics, one of shared, fluid sovereignties". Which on the one hand is probably a realistic reassessment in an increasingly complex world, whereas on the other it sounds a bit like the tension between Gerry's vision of a quasi-anarchistic society and the environmental aspect, the latter requiring strong micro and macro-level regulation. At the supra-national level the notion of "fluid sovereignties" just sounds a bit too disorderly and uncertain when global issues such as terrorism, environmentalism and economic growth require a large degree of order and certainty.

Of course, Scottish Nationalists who also support the oxymoronic concept of "independence in Europe" could plausibly argue that whatever sovereignty is ceded to Brussels is already lost via the UK's EU membership, thus to that extent an independent Scotland would at least repatriate these powers currently reserved to Westminster which are outwith the EU's jurisdiction.

A fair point, but of course there is the issue of the euro and the SNP's proposal for an independent Scotland to eventually adopt the single currency, although for obvious reasons there's certainly less emphasis on this policy these days, albeit that the party's precise stance on it remains unclear.

On the other hand, Gerry's earlier quote contrasts the "UK’s tortured, semi-detached relationship with the EU" with whether Scotland should aspire to be part of the "core, integrated project", and the language used suggests that he prefers the latter.

This approach would thus include euro membership and other measures that the UK currently excludes itself from like some employment legislation, and is presumably also sympathetic to the impetus towards the so-called European superstate. Thus so much for sovereignty in an independent (sic!) Scotland, whether of the "shared, fluid" variety or the more traditional type!

And moving away from the question of sovereignty per se, the vexed question of immigration is one EU-related issue which perhaps demonstrates the potential for conflict between idealism and reality.

Thus elsewhere in Gerry's Guardian article he also mentions the "American-style market fundamentalism which has disfigured British politics". Yet there can be nothing more fundamentalist in (labour) market terms than the mass immigration resulting from the EU's free movement of workers policies, but in this case he's presumably alluding to other aspects of the market while ignoring inconvenient aspects of fundamentalism.

Of course, the progressives and idealists generally view immigration in cultural terms, using positive terms such as 'integration', 'tolerance' and 'inclusiveness', while ignoring the economic consequences of decreased earnings and hence conflict between indigenous and immigrant workers, with those pointing out the latter problems often deemed racist.

Therefore that is perhaps one example of where a one-dimensional idealism could be stoking up problems in an 'independent' Scotland as part of the EU. Of course, the same people who will be shouting 'racist' at the mere suggestion that immigration can be in any way problematic will point to the fact that issues evident in some northern English cities (say) simply aren't apparent in Scotland.

A reasonable response, but the point is that immigration per se simply isn't so obvious in scale in Scotland, and it's surely fair to say that the issues evident in some parts of England - such as the rise of the BNP - would be more prominent here if immigration was simply more significant in numerical terms, which could well be the case in future if an independent Scotland was a fully-paid up EU member while the residual UK moves towards a more restrictive stance on immigration.

Thus clearly not a perspective likely to be particularly popular in a Scottish nation now apparently imbued with 'civic' nationalism, but just one facet of the idealistic new spirit of Scotland which could well blow up in someone's face one day.

And indeed the lack of clarity and uncertainty over precisely what an independent Scotland would mean is likely to be detrimental to the pro-independence movement over the forthcoming couple of years; voters prefer certainty and a united front, and once the debate gains some momentum and as hard choices have to be made in the run up to a referendum, the tensions are likely to come to the surface.

At the moment the euphoria of the victory has managed to keep such potential splits largely under wraps - and the online Nationalist community has predictably managed to shift the blame onto the Unionists for trying to foster division, which is to an extent plausible - but once the debate gets down to the nitty gritty and difficult decisions have to be made, what price a less united front becoming more evident? By the same token, the anti-separatism movement will exploit this lack of clarity and division for all it's worth.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. The party is still in full swing for many, but the harsh realities will soon bite. Europe is a nightmare for any party. How can the SNP convince the voters that they will be part of the EU but will have to do what they are told?

Andrew BOD said...


More good analysis. I too keep up with Hassan. His articles are often thought-provoking, but can also be conflicting. However, this inner turmoil coupled with a well-informed mind and eloquent pen, means that we really are having serious debate about our future long before the wasteful politicking ahead of the independence referendum.

There is currently a political vacuum in Scotland, one that the traditional UK parties are unwilling to fill because of their natural ties with Westminster.

Why don't the Lib Dems push their federal beliefs with greater fiscal autonomy? Has the ground shifted enough for Labour in Scotland to undo their Westminster shackles and begin to get a feel for how Scotland is really thinking? Unless the Tories really have aspirations to govern Scotland again, don't they just need a strong leader who will promote the status quo? Can't do much worse. And is there no appetite for brand new Scottish parties? Ones offering a different but specific view on independence or greater autonomy?

Stuart Winton said...


Thanks; indeed, and it's interesting the way Alex Salmond is going hell for leather on the new powers angle when of course during the campaign that aspect (and independence) was kept largely under wraps. I wonder how it will play with voters if he keeps banging on about these matters rather than getting on and using the powers he's got to run Scotland? Could blow up in his face, but of course it's early days yet, and it could be a long honeymoon....


Thanks again. Indeed, Gerry's clearly hugely knowledgeable and a great analyst, but he strikes me as being too idealistic by far, althought when I was half my current age I would have lapped up that sort of thing ;0)

Indeed, the Unionist parties have some serious thinking to do, but I can't really see that happening during this parliament - they just don't have the people. Thus I suspect the 'no' campaign will be largely negative, and if the big hitters have to come from Westminster then that probably won't play particularly well with voters.

And the problem with having too distinctive a Scottish identity is that it sort of undermines the rationale for Unionism; for example, if Scottish Labour has a raft of different policies as compared to Westminster Labour then what's the point of a UK-wide Labour movement?

Unless of course it's just a different logo and a bit of tartan, but that might be counter-productive as well.

Interesting point about a new party; who knows, the 'no' campaign might throw up something of that ilk given the weakness of the three Unionist parties.