After many years abroad, I recently enjoyed a return visit to Scotland. Happily, despite warnings to the contrary, the sky did not fall on my head. I am of course talking about the waning deference to a most archaic suzerainty. The early 18th Century Acts of Union that put into effect the Treaty of Union that in turn led to the constitutional establishment of Great Britain. Despite increasingly frantic denials, this constitutional construct now stands as an anachronism at odds with the demands and interests of modern day Scotland. Why would I say anachronism? Well, I for one have always been puzzled and frankly amused listening to otherwise educated Scots heap opprobrium on their own country’s right to self-determination just to fit into a concept of United Kingdom. Such stances have always struck me as odd.
Pace historical traditions, we should be under no illusion that the Acts of Union originally represented little more than an exercise in pacification and a prelude to empire. This whole process subsumed Scottish interests and later, many more in its wake to the imperatives and service of empire. Granted, this proto-imperial blueprint has adapted along the way and brought substantial benefits over the centuries but we cannot neither should we ignore the fact that the formative basis of ‘consent’ was iniquitous. Questionable foundations and the subsequent capricious functioning of this unusual invention are on their own sufficient grounds to seek an annulment. If we add in the spectacular decline of the British Empire since WWII, it becomes self-evident that Scotland’s settlement vis-à-vis what is a most peculiar form of political rule is no longer acceptable. For outsiders looking in, it is glaringly obvious that the ‘arranged marriage’ has run its course. The world has most definitely moved on and Scotland’s status no longer best serves its interests. It does no one a good turn to pretend otherwise.
Mind you, the cultural cringe runs deeper than many would like to admit in Scotland. It is of no real surprise that over the centuries a deep trepidation towards change has manifested itself. A reflexive form of acquiescence is a well-worn experience for Scots. A phalanx of pedagogues has always been on hand to justify the unjustifiable. Acting as ‘voices of prudence’ to silence, discredit and not falsely, but shall we say inaccurately, dismiss anyone critical of Scotland’s subalternism. Bruised status-quo pride has invariably scorned the idea of self-determination as dangerous jingoism.
Yet, in the case of Scotland, it is simply wrong-headed to conflate calls for self-determination with parochial nationalism. I am not making a pedantic distinction here. When members of a nation display sufficient collective awareness to call for self-determination, they are making a rational political demand. Despite the caricatures and scaremongering by status-quo forces, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is championing such a demand. The progressive and civic character of Scotland’s aspiration is categorically not a brand of the chauvinistic irredentism peddled in Serbia under Milosevic or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Let us be clear, Scotland’s desire for autonomous self-determination is not seditious bluster but a common aspiration shared by countless peoples throughout history.
In fact, those who point to opinion polls showing support for independence as consistently low may wish to consider that the majority of the polls reported by the UK media had Scottish Labour and SNP neck and neck right up until election day in 2011 and we all know what happened there. The SNP’s landslide victory in the devolved parliamentary elections of 2011 (something that was supposed to be an institutionally designed impossibility) is not some flash in the pan protest vote but rather a more telling expression of popular intent. Similar to what successive ‘peoples’ around the world have done previously, Scotland’s long and dignified struggle for recognition gives great force to a need for profound change. As Woodrow Wilson well knew, self-determination is one of the supreme political goods. We might live on an increasingly globalised and interdependent planet but nation-states still operate as the primary units of sovereign territorial rule in world affairs. Being one is still essential for both socio-economic and cultural development (1945 – 51 UN Members; 2012 – 193 UN Members).
As Benedict Anderson rightly points out, all nation-states are to a large extent ‘imagined communities’. Scotland is currently in the process of re-inventing and re-imagining a different future than its current arrangement affords. A bold political grammar of self-determination has reignited the imagination of many Scots. This has precipitated a shift in entrenched attitudes about Scotland’s place in the order of things. What we are witnessing is a destabilisation of ingrained sensibilities and the once inviolable subordination of Scotland’s national aspirations to the interests of the wider union. There is a real loosening of the psychological grip once exerted by unionist pedagogy.
The tired old scaremongering about Scotland’s inability to prosper once separated from the yolk of union simply looks like the paper tiger it always was. Even with the advent of devolution, real change has to come. If we speak truth to this situation, there is no more reason for Scots to identify with moribund constructs than say Catalans, Kosovars, Kurds or Quebecois. Whatever the time-scale the political process in Scotland is transforming popular demands into national realisation. The re-mapping of Scotland’s socio-political landscape by the SNP has locked in new co-ordinates to a different future. One that is now not only possible but currently on her way. All the talk about whether Scots keep the Queen as titular head of state or the pound sterling as national currency are largely distractions from the big game which is of course the end of Westminster rule. Of course, the most legitimate political vehicle for this is an autonomous self-determined state for the country to thrive. Even more encouraging is the fact that there is no necessity to state build a fresh in Scotland. Scotland already possesses its own home-grown parliamentary, judicial, educational and financial institutions. Nor is there any need or desire to sever the social, cultural or economic relations with our nearest and dearest neighbours.
The suggestion that a fully independent Scotland would struggle to defend itself or fail to meet its international commitments is condescending in the extreme. How would they afford it? Well, pretty much the same way every other industrially developed country does. Unless you are of the opinion that Scotland is some sort of backward, dependent freeloader. Alarmist doubts over European Union membership are also disingenuous exaggerations. Even if a formal application is called for as a matter of EU process (more than likely), Scotland is not an acceding state seeking to meet and fulfil EU application criteria. On both a practical and political level, Scotland already meets all the Copenhagen criteria and implements in full the acquis communautaire (the accumulated body of EU legislation that countries must adopt to become EU members). There is no need for a new accession treaty as Scots are already EU citizens. They have been for near on 40 years. This will not suddenly change with independence. As things stand today, negotiated amendment to exiting treaties is all that is required.
As a successor state constituted by the mutual democratic consensus of all parties concerned, Scotland’s EU membership is little more than a fast-track confirmation formality. Membership negotiations would begin immediately after the referendum vote of 2014 and most likely conclude with the adoption of full independence in 2016. Insinuating talk of blocks, vetoes and border controls is so much cock and bull. Short of malicious resentment, there is simply no valid reason for any current EU member state to reject Scottish membership on the grounds of not meeting the EU’s own membership criteria. It already more than conforms, I dare say better than some current EU member states. In fact, there is a greater risk to EU membership if Scots vote to remain in the UK and a Conservative-led government continues at Westminster.
Only the naive would assume or expect things to be all roses but anything worth doing takes hard work. A majority of Scots already intuitively know there is far more to gain than there is to lose. I wager there are few who would deny that Scotland has a long overdue right to pursue its self-determined potential within a wider integrated Europe. Just like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia have done. The few who do will probably call it unthinking nationalist myopia that has little or no chance; but then they would, would they not? It will take courage, imagination and no small amount of good fortune but Scots should embrace the prospect of a significant release of economic and creative energies. Scotland deserves finally to take its seat amongst the society of states at the United Nations, whatever that may hold. Surely, even the most ardent defenders of the status quo must realize the game is up. It just remains to accept and let go.
Dr. Paul J. Carnegie is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science Universiti Brunei Darussalam.