Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland?

Kieran Oberman, University of Edinburgh

Kieran Oberman, University of Edinburgh

Kieran Oberman urges us to think ‘what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?’

The Yes and No camps are busy telling us that Scotland will be made better or worse off as a result of independence.  What they both seem to assume is that “what is best for Scotland?” is the relevant question to ask.  But why?  The referendum will have an impact on people beyond Scotland’s borders.  So isn’t the relevant question to ask, “what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?” Clearly, the outsiders who will be most affected are those living in the rest of the UK.  In the event of a Yes victory, politics within the rest of the UK is set for a shake up.  Currently, Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster.   Most are Labour; only one is Conservative.  So Scottish independence is likely to shift UK politics rightwards.  This rightward shift is unlikely to take the form sometimes imagined: endless Tory majorities.  Rather Labour and the Liberal Democrats will themselves shift rightwards in search of the new median voter.

This should be good news if you are on the right.  Scottish right-wing internationalists (if there are such people) have good reason to vote yes.  But for those on the left, it should be deeply concerning.  If the left is correct in thinking that right-wing policies worsen social injustice, then Scottish independence is likely to worsen social injustice in the rest of the UK.  Scottish left-wing internationalists may have reason to vote no even if, as the Yes camp claim, Scotland itself would better off on its own.

There is a global dimension to all this as well.  Scotland, post-independence, will not be a major international actor, but the rest of the UK will retain much of its influence.  A rightward shift in UK politics will mean a rightward shift in the UKs approach to foreigners: expect more hostility towards the EU, more loyalty to the US, even tighter immigration restrictions etc.

Left-wing Yes supporters will argue that an independent Scotland will offer a left-leaning role model for others to follow.  Whether Scotland will really be all that left-leaning is questionable. Surveys of political values reveal that Scotland is not actually that different to the rest of UK.  The problem the Conservatives have in Scotland might be due less to their right-wing policies as their perceived Englishness.  But even if Scotland did offer some kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy, the role-model argument seems far-fetched.  If the rest of the world wanted a Scandinavian role model to inspire it, it already has one: Scandinavia.  Moreover, large countries tend to ignore the affairs of smaller neighbours.  The UK’s ignorance of the politics in the Republic of Ireland is rivalled only by the US’s ignorance of Canada.

Some contend that the referendum will actually have little affect on UK politics.  They point out that Scotland has only been decisive in three British elections in the last fifty years: 1964, 1974 and 2010.   Two points on this.  First, three out of thirteen elections seems significant to me.  That is almost one in four.  Second, one only knows whether Scotland is decisive or not after an election.  Going into an election, party strategists must plan for all possibilities.  Given the possibility that missing Scottish votes will prove decisive in a post-independence election, Labour and Liberal Democrats are likely to play it safe and shift right-wards.  The idea that party strategists will simply ignore the loss of dozens of safe seats and plough on as before is hard to believe.

Now to some, all of these considerations are beside the point because they will reject the internationalist approach from the outset.  For them, the question “what is best for Scotland?” is the pervasive question in the public debate for a good reason: it is the relevant question. The idea that Scottish residents should countenance voting for the sake outsiders, while anticipating harm to Scottish livelihoods, will seem preposterous, even treacherous.  Scotland, like any other country, can legitimately put itself first when deciding its own affairs.

I certainly accept that the internationalist approach goes against current orthodoxy, but I want to question whether that orthodoxy is defensible.  For the question remains: what can justify the view that Scots should show greater concern for other Scots than for outsiders?  Every one is human.  Why worry about some human beings more than others, simply on the grounds of their geographical location?

That question is rarely raised in everyday politics, but it as a question that nationalist political theorists have sought to answer.  One of their most powerful arguments rests on an analogy between nations and families.  People are often entitled to do things for their family members that they need not do for strangers.  If your mother is in hospital, it is okay to visit her; you do not have to visit other patients as well. If you want to read a bedtime story to your child, you can do so without incurring the obligation to read to every child.  Families are often entitled to put their members first.

Perhaps nations are like families.  If the analogy holds, then it would seem permissible for nationals to prioritise fellow nationals.  But does the analogy hold?  One thing that seems important about families is that they are (usually) a site of love and intimacy.  It is arguably part of love and intimacy that it involves prioritisation.  By visiting your mother in hospital, you express your love for your mother.  In reading to your child, you experience intimacy with your child.  No such argument from love and intimacy can be made in the case of nationals.  The vast majority of our fellow nationals are strangers we will never meet.  A person who refuses to award her fellow nationals priority status does not thereby miss out on a loving, intimate relationship.

Anti-nationalists, moreover, have their own analogies.  Clearly there are cases in which it is unjust to award one group of people priority status on the basis of a morally arbitrary characteristic.  Racism, sexism and sectarianism are wrong.  What makes nationalism any different?

The left, which often prides itself on its opposition to arbitrary discrimination, has had an uneasy relationship with nationalism.  This is true as much in Scotland as elsewhere.  Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has described nationalism as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”.  Strong words.  But if nationalism is to be rejected and internationalism embraced, then the Scottish Labour Party, along with everyone else, should be prepared to accept losses for Scotland for the sake of outsiders.

This article has so far suggested that right-wing internationalists have reason to vote yes and left-wing internationalists reason to vote no.  But let me end here by saying a little to redress the balance.  The SNP are promising the removal of British nuclear weapons from the Faslane naval base.  If they deliver it would add pressure on the UK to scrap its weapons altogether.  Whether that possibility lends one reason to vote Yes depends on how one feels about nuclear weapons.

Moreover, once one adopts the internationalist approach, some of the No camp arguments lose their force.  Consider the argument that an independent Scotland would lose out on being part of a country whose influence is disproportionate to its population size.  From an internationalist, and democratic, perspective, that does not seem such a bad thing.  The UK’s disproportionate influence is unfair – a product of colonialism and power politics.  The UK does not deserve its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for instance, and were the UK to lose it upon a Scottish exit, as some warn, that should be welcomed, especially if it meant a shake up in which poor countries achieved a greater say.

Finally, and most importantly, while the internationalist approach takes seriously the impact of the referendum on the rest of the world, it does not ignore the impact on Scotland.  Since it is in Scotland that the strongest impact will be felt, an internationalist would be willing to vote against the interests of outsiders, as long as the benefits for Scotland are sufficiently great. This article has proposed an internationalist approach to deciding how to vote, but it has not claimed that that internationalist approach yields any easy conclusions.  On the contrary, the internationalist approach complicates matters further by bringing a range of new considerations to light – considerations that are all too often ignored in the public debate.

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4 Responses to Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland?

  1. Pingback: Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland? | SPS Research

  2. LCB says:

    “What they both seem to assume is that “what is best for Scotland?” is the relevant question to ask. But why? The referendum will have an impact on people beyond Scotland’s borders. So isn’t the relevant question to ask, “what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?” Clearly, the outsiders who will be most affected are those living in the rest of the UK. ”

    The question “what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?” is only relevant in as much as Scots wish to consider it. Here I’m considering only the relevance of the rest of the UK on a decision to be made by Scottish people, and not an internationalist approach which the article author writes of.

    However I suppose it would seem rather pointless in a determination of whether independence is to manifest or not if the effect of the referendum on everyone, everywhere were to be thought the ultimate consideration, reigning over the question about what is good for “one”. It’s difficult to hold that ideas which may be viewed somewhat in the way of charitable dispositions ought to be the most relevant factor, whether independence or remaining in a historic, single, national union of lands is favoured.

    Consider the man or woman in a company who’s needs and potential are felt not to be fulfilled or are substantially constrained somehow. The person tninks, significantly, things are not going so well and there is a lot to be unhappy with and regret about their working life. The person considers staying with the company because they are persuaded they are thought good for it and are well liked. (Aside, it’s no irrelevant point whether the person feels liked and of worth herself.) Further, consider the person who contemplates staying ultimately because others express those notions mentioned to good extents. However, here they are said because the others in the company do not like change, or are insecure in their own identity and sense of present sense and future (obscured by a sense of being lost within what has already been), or both.

    Is there good reason in any of these cases to consider the apparent interests of others above one’s own singular potential, purpose, needs and preferences? Even where the wish of the others in the company to retain the person is based on genuinely liking things as they are, concluding that things do appear to work reasonably well enough, is this really enough to override differing, independent impulses for satisfaction and the best situation for this person?

    Further, of course, is the issue inherent this company’s identity, over such a long period during the status quo which has been, and indeed strongly evidence recently, of a desire to control and a desire to possess. This has often said to be connected with a sense of knowing what’s best for others rather than allowing them their own, final, unfettered, independent will.

    Long has this strong disposition been connected with a history that has seen the company mostly forcibly, sometimes a little more amicably, commandeer control of a vast amount of other sovereign companies in building the hugest conglomeration of companies throughout much of the extent of where companies can possibly be found. It’s not to say the person considering leaving the company did not find themselves similarly defined during the long history. However what is very, very clear is that this is not, or at least should not be, about the past. Present and future should never be about the past.

    These points ought to make one at least question, if not be very wary, of assessing one’s own interests with a preference for considering as most relevant the apparent, purported or estimated interests of the noted others as well.

    What these essential considerations may further highlight is that certain others, despite what they may proclaim in good, better, worse or worse still faith, may not really have much of an accurate clue what is even really in their interests. Let alone what they strongly propose to be, for one, in one’s own best interest.

    My own instinct is that the prevailing and ever increasing entrenchment in awareness of the identity of this nation which seems to be somehow made up of smaller, distinct and distinctly regional, quasi-independent defined strongholds has become something, no, very much of a farce. Today I read in the Financial Times, bizarrely, but I suppose with some wit and much acuity, that the UK has become a truly multinational nation. The FT is referring to the ever growing strength of distinction, of fierce separatism in identity within pat least parts of the four lands which make it, rather than global corporate issues.

    If the FT have gauged things accurately, and I think they have, it is making clear to me I don’t think I wish to live in a political entity which appears to be more or less a complete contradiction in terms. Typically what’s painted now is an irresolvable, living paradox, where, over there and over there and over there, other nations seem not to be defined by such a baffling, intrinsic paradox or contradiction, simply.

    I always liked the idea of the UK, the four regions, yes regions, within a predictably arranged nation (just the one, please; any more when referring to the same “country” is bound to confuse the children at least). That is, one nation where there is only one sovereign nation. Where there truly is more than one nation, let’s think, can’t we be honest about this and bring ourselves into a position of defining units accurately, properly, sympathetically for what is felt, meant, desired? By all means, if we are to continue to fiercely describe, and seemingly just as fiercely prescribe, that our land is made of four nations rather than that our nation is made of four regional parts it is easily time to move to something at least a little more honest in the constitutional books, to be written wherever.

    Again, I always liked the idea of the UK, the four regions, yes regions, within a predictably arranged nation, just like most others nations. The day has long passed, however, since when that simple sentiment, once thought an overriding, unquestionable, fundamental and simple reality has been trodden down. It has become impossible to me to see that country, UK, anymore, except in terms of something of a legend. In the good days now I remember it was real, though.

    Those days are a lot better than what is more usually allowed through in the modern psyche of the mid twenty-teens, that that simple, perhaps typical nation, UK, only ever was a legend. This not being a good state for things, my best estimate is that this is truly a time which can best embrace change, and perhaps really needs to. Not for economic benefits, that’s not the point, the estimates see things changing not at all to only slightly there. But for the things which make and use the money which makes any economy or economies: human beings.

    I wonder, are many people really convinced of the reasons given to avoid such change? Or are they simply holding on emotively for they haven’t yet really attained a position of sight, insight and foresight in being able and calmly awake enough to assess really meaningful reasons for or against change? This means identifying who they are by way of what they truly want and what and how they want to be, with the most thought, but without being emotionally blinkered.

  3. RevStu says:

    “First, three out of thirteen elections seems significant to me. That is almost one in four.”

    It’s a highly misleading assessment, though. The actual effect of Scottish votes in those elections were trivial. The 1964 and 1974 votes produced weak Labour governments with tiny majorities which only lasted for a combined total of about two years. Without Scottish votes, similarly weak and short-lived Tory administrations would probably have resulted.

    (In 1974, Labour could have simply allied with the Liberals from the word go to provide a majority, rather than forming the Lib-Lab Pact later.)

    And in 2010 the difference was pretty insignificant. Without Scotland we’d have ended up with David Cameron and George Osborne in charge. Well, lucky we dodged THAT bullet, eh?

  4. sandra brown says:

    No one seems to be thinking about what will happen if the vote is very close, such as
    49% to 51% , if nearly half of Scotlands population do not get the outcome they had hoped for , are they just going to except what has happened ,or will there be a lot of
    anger and outrage, and rather than uniting Scotland, it could tear the country apart
    None of the politicians will of course will be concerned about this , because they are all only interested in their own egos.

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