Scotland in a federal Britain

Screenshot of the Scottish Unionist blog

In 2009 I was asked to write one of a series of blog posts for the now defunct blog Scottish Unionist. The piece was a vague exploration of a federal model for the UK, but also touched on questions surrounding what independence means in a post-globalisation world.

As that blog has closed down, the piece is now only available on the Wayback Machine. So I thought I would republish it here in light of the upcoming independence referendum.

This was written five years ago, and I am not sure what I think of the piece as a whole now. But here it is, preserved for your perusal.

I will likely elaborate further on my current views on this website in the next few days.


Originally published on 21 July 2009.

The author of the Scottish Unionist blog prepended the following text:

This guest post, by Duncan Stephen of DoctorVee and Scottish Roundup fame, provides some interesting thoughts on national identity and his preferred constitutional model: a federal UK.


I tap out the first draft of this article on the train, travelling from my home town of Kirkcaldy for a trip to Oxford. I have to confess that this is the furthest afield I have been for a substantial period of time. I’m not an adventurous sort of person, so I probably haven’t travelled further than about 90 minutes from home for about ten years. An interesting opportunity came up at late notice, so how convenient it was for me to be able to simply hop on the train.

“So what?”, you may say, and you’d be right. It’s no big deal. No one seriously pretends that the break-up of the Union would cause any difficulties for trains running across the border. This is a globalised age, after all. If I wanted to, I could pop on the train and go to Paris — and beyond.

But in a way, that’s the very thing that perplexes me about nationalism. It doesn’t matter where you live, what the country is called or where the border is drawn. Life goes on, stuff happens, and I can get on the train. Does England feel a bit foreign? Maybe it does. But so does Glasgow. So do the Highlands. Indeed, even Edinburgh — mere miles away as the crow flies — is positively exotic compared to Kirkcaldy.

It is an oft-held misconception among some supporters of independence that if you are not a Scottish nationalist it must mean that you are some other sort of nationalist — probably a British nationalist. Not me. Ask me if I’m Scottish, British or other, and I will reply that I am simply me. I am comfortable enough with my identity not to have to attach myself to symbols of any sort. Concerns about my nationality are the least of my worries as I go about my daily business.

This is a deeply personal question about one’s identity. How you define yourself probably goes the majority of the way towards determining your views on the constitution. For instance, if you feel, as the response goes, “Scottish not British”, you are very likely to favour Scottish independence and will be happy for Scotland to have nothing to do with Westminster again.

For those of us with more nuanced (or is that muddled?) views on our nationality, we may be more likely to favour some other type of constitutional arrangement. But it is a very personal question, all about how you feel inside. You cannot rationalise it. For that reason, I find the link between nationality and government rather bogus.

The reason for the link is not because there is something magical about one’s nationality. It is simply because it is expedient. It just so happens that nationalities tend to be confined to specific geographic areas, so it makes it easy to divvy up the world along those lines.

But this is the twenty-first century; a post-globalisation world. The world isn’t really divvied up any more. Instead, we are governed by ever-more complex sets of trans-national agreements. There is no question of Scottish independence any more. No nation can hope to be “independent” in any meaningful sense today.

This reality is actually widely acknowledged. The desirability of these international relationships is recognised by the mainstream of the Scottish nationalist movement. The SNP no longer call for Scottish independence. Their concern is no longer about self-governance or home rule. It is about Scotland’s relationship with these intergovernmental organisations. They seek “independence within Europe”.

This slogan is in deference to the importance of the European Union in the governance of Scotland. No longer are we governed simply by Westminster. And the devolution process didn’t begin with the establishment of a Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. It is simply a part of an even more fundamental trend — the decentralisation of government, and the dispersal of power across several, complex layers of government.

An “independent” Scotland would not just be one that was “independent in Europe”. It would be a Scotland that was a small part of a massively complex international governance system, encompassing organisations like the EU, the UN, Nato (okay, maybe not if the SNP has its way) and any number of international organisations.

The problem for the cause of independence is that this becomes not a simple case of forging a new era of home rule. It just means tediously re-building the connections that Scotland needs to be plugged into. Just look at the debate over what would happen to Scotland’s membership of the EU if it became independent. Would Scotland have to re-apply? Some say yes, some say no. The fact is that no-one knows, so resources will have to be expended as armies of bureaucrats are charged with working out what on earth should happen.

Another question for me is, what is it that is unusual about Westminster that it needs to be taken out of the equation, and not some other layer of government? Some might say that, particularly in the past couple of years, there has been somewhat of a pongy whiff of sleaze emanating from the Westminster area. From what I gather, though, the British political system is actually among the least corrupt in the world. In many other systems, if you want something to get done, it involves knowing who is the right person to bribe. That sort of thing hasn’t been eliminated completely in the British political system, but it is hardly endemic.

So what would be gained by taking Westminster out of the equation? Well, maybe some Scottish nationalists will feel a bit better about themselves, in which case good luck to them. Perhaps there are others who believe that a politics based in Holyrood would inevitably be less corrupt, and closer to the people.

There is a fair point to that. I agree that the principle of subsidiarity is key. But another danger is too much centralisation. In this sense, independence would give more power to fewer people — a dangerous concoction in my view.

What with me being a wishy-washy type who is ambivalent about my nationality, my favoured system is, perhaps inevitably, a kind of federalist system. Subsidiarity is important, but power cannot be concentrate around a small clique. A federal system could also take advantage of the economies of scale that result from not duplicating the same administrative functions over and over.

Maybe there is an argument about whether it’s right to have a layer at that level. Why not leave bread-and-butter stuff for one level (say Holyrood), and that more ethereal, complex stuff at a more international level, with no mid-way point in between?

But there is something useful about the UK, in that the majority of it is quite conveniently defined by the geographical realities of the island of Great Britain. Throw in some extra islands (many of which would be in Scotland anyway) and you’ve got the UK (let’s just leave Northern Ireland aside because of the complex issues that are specific to that situation).

As territories go, it’s fairly neat. We share an island, and with a population of roughly 60 million it is a comfortable enough size for a country to be. There is also another fact that comes along with sharing an island, which is that it is a good idea to for resources to be pooled when it comes to things like natural disasters or outbreaks of disease.

Would it be as easy to deal with, say, the Foot and Mouth outbreak, or the current issue with swine flu, if Great Britain was governed by more than one legislature? It’s fine to leave the local stuff to devolved parliaments, but I can’t help but think that it would only be to our benefit if issues that had the potential to affect the whole of Great Britain like this remain decided at a Britain-wide level.

So I cannot be moved by the arguments in favour of independence. It strikes me as an odd pursuit. I’m a geek for constitutional issues as much as the next person, but if Scotland were to gain “independence”, it would be a hollow type of independence, and one moreover that would be costly to achieve in the medium term.

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