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Sovereignty, Independence And Brexit 20 Years After The Vote To Create The Scottish Parliament

12/09/2017 16:12 BST | Updated 12/09/2017 16:12 BST
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When I was putting the last minute touches on my first book almost 20 years ago, the very final addition I made was to note the decision to create a Scottish Parliament. This was in the context of a discussion of sovereignty and self-determination. I questioned the salience of independence in an age of interdependence and transnationalism. What could Scotland achieve by independence that it could not achieve by having a certain amount of autonomy from the UK government while being a part of Europe? It was gaining control over certain aspects of life in Scotland while also having direct connection to European political structures. While some may have seen the new parliament as a stepping stone to full independence, I wrote that 'For those who aspire to statehood, they may be seeking a prize with decreasing salience as the twin forces of devolution and integration proceed apace.' Indeed, in advance of the 2014 independence referendum, I questioned the logic of independence.

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Some hoped in 1997 that the creation of the Scottish Parliament would dampen calls for further devolution or independence. But I also noted in my book that 'communal assertions will persist.' Indeed, the predictions of Alexander Motyl 25 years ago seem quite prescient when applied to the UK:

we should expect 'national liberation struggles' to multiply in Western Europe after 1992, with the creation of a unified market in a democratically ruled 'Europe of regions.' Not only will regionally based national minorities assert their rights to self-determination, but the dominant nations will likely experience a renewal of national pride, perhaps even hatred, toward these minorities, toward other nations and toward other states.(1)

The 20th anniversary this week of that vote to create a Scottish Parliament seems a good time to revisit that analysis from 20 years ago. After the vote to leave the European Union last year, I questioned whether the logic of independence has changed. The handling of Brexit by the current government further supports such questioning.

The twin questions of Brexit and Scottish independence are, indeed, situated within the broader context of what it means to be an independent state today. Both supporters of Scottish independence and Brexit frame their arguments in terms of control. For those advocating Scottish independence, independence allows Scotland to control its destiny - politically, economically, with regard to immigration, etc. - free of the control of Westminster - but within the context of free access to European markets and European structures upholding European values. Brexit means that for Scotland the latter - being part of Europe - is no longer possible without the former - independence.

The Brexiteers long for a day when Parliament is sovereign, when it can control its own borders, when it can free itself of the tyranny of Eurocrats - and pesky human rights laws - all the while maintaining the best access to Europe and other markets. It would be truly 'sovereign'.

Yet, sovereignty is not all it is cracked up to be. Individuals and political units are tightly interlinked with webs of political and economic structures and processes. As the Brexiteers are finding out, it is actually quite difficult to disengage the UK from European entanglements - especially without doing significant harm to the country economically. For all the bluster about getting 'better' trade deals, the reality is not straightforward. And significant damage has already been done to the British economy - witness the significant fall in the Pound and the resulting inflation since the Brexit vote. For all the rhetoric about controlling immigration, this too will be extremely difficult. On the one hand, it has become obvious that some of the supposed 'facts' about immigration are extremely specious. On the other, even after years trying to reduce immigration to 'tens of thousands' - not the most precise of numbers - the government has found it impossible. This is because people move. It's what we do. Sometimes we move because we want to, and sometimes we move because we have to. The UK is a desirable destination for both types of people - a fact we should celebrate. Keeping people out will require increasingly draconian and inhumane (witness President Trump's attempts to institute a 'Muslim ban' - and expensive - measures. And they are still destined to fail. Borders are much more permeable than anti-immigrant nationalists like to think.

Beyond the economic and immigration realms, there are other areas where attempts by the UK to insulate itself and reassert 'sovereignty' are bound to fail. Beyond the EU, the UK is embedded within an international legal realm which (like the EU) it has helped to create and from which it cannot extract itself.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of human rights. British nationalists decry the imposition of 'European' human rights laws which supposedly undermine British sovereignty - there seems to be a curious fixation on prisoners' rights, while the rights most people take for granted are ignored. These nationalists ignore several facts. First, the UK helped to set up the European human rights edifice - and ensured that it aligned with British values. Second, while withdrawing from the EU might allow it to this jettison the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, the core human rights which have been incorporated into UK law are found in the European Convention on Human Rights, and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. These are not EU institutions - they were created in the 1950s by the Council of Europe - a broader, if less deep, organisation. Although there have been threats to withdraw from the Convention and the Court, such an act would be seen as a significant repudiation of the values - and the international order - the UK has attempted to foster for decades.

And even if it did manage to withdraw from the ECHR and extract itself from the perceived stifling embrace of the Court, it is still signatory to the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - both of which are legally binding on the UK, and which provide the basis for the ECHR - as well as numerous other international human rights conventions. And if it did withdraw from these two Covenants and other conventions, which would be unprecedented and which would have the effect of signalling to the world that the UK was withdrawing from realm of rights respecting civilised nations, there is still the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UK is supposed to respect as a member of the United Nations. While not legally binding in the same way as the other covenants and conventions, it would be hard for the UK to denounce it without withdrawing from the UN. Not only would a withdrawal isolate the UK from the world which would simply not be sustainable, it would also be an immense act of self-harm - not least because of the power it would be giving up as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. And this is just one area where the reality of legal and normative interdependence comes into conflict with the fantasies of sovereigntists.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament 20 years ago was, instead, a reflection of this embedded interdependence and ambiguous sovereignty. Scotland looked to both the UK and Europe for power, authority, inspiration, support, while asserting control over certain aspects of life in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament was an act of self-determination which in fact recognised multiple selves embedded within Scottish identity and politics. While many yearned for that elusive single sovereignty of an independent Scottish state, beholden to no one - not least the rest of the UK - many were more comfortable with the multiple sovereignties approach.

But, as noted, the calculation has changed. And now the Scottish vision of sovereignty seems more reasonable - and more attainable in an age of globalisation. It seems to stand up better for British values than the Brexiteer's vision, it embraces positive values, supports human rights, embraces immigration as healthy and desirable. And it recognises the reality - and benefits - of interdependence, transnationalism, and sharing sovereignty within a united Europe. Autonomy within a closed, inward-looking UK which rejects positive immigration, which wants to make human rights subject to government fiat, and which imagines that it can reject the interdependence and transnationalism it has helped to create is the antithesis of the hopes of those voting for a Scottish Parliament 20 years ago.

There are, of course, competing visions of Scotland - how could it be otherwise? Some who support independence also supported leaving the EU, for example. And the Scottish National Party lost some support in the recent elections for Westminster. But the difference in situation and outlook overall between Scotland and the rest of the UK is stark. While Prof. Christopher Whatley is correct in noting that 'Scotland has never quite made up its mind' where it wants to go, it may have to. Otherwise, it faces directionless, confused future dictated by politicians in Westminster who also cannot make up their minds. By voting for Brexit, the rest of the UK (well England, really) has forced a choice for Scotland - a choice different than that faced 20 years ago. But it seems harder and harder to see how the spirit of that vote 20 years ago can be implemented in the emerging 'Little Britain' of today.

(1) Alexander Motyl, 'The Modernity of Nationalism: Nations, States and Nation-States in the Contemporary World,' Journal of International Affairs 45 (Winter 1992): 316.

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