On Scottish “Independence”

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, in preparation for next September’s independence referendum, released a 670-page white paper last month outlining the course an independent Scotland would take on the world stage. It’s a bold, perhaps overly optimistic document that envisions easy continuity of relations with the European Union, NATO, and the United Kingdom. The Scottish government pitches independence as the nation’s chance to set a different path from its southern neighbor:

Independence means that the decisions about Scotland that are currently taken by governments at Westminster – often by governments that have been rejected by the majority of people in Scotland – will be taken here instead.

This is true, in a way. But this claim sidesteps how much influence over economic, foreign, and defense policy will still be wielded by non-Scottish actors.

Let’s assume Salmond and the SNP get everything they want. By sharing the pound sterling with Westminster, Scotland would be wedding its much of its economic policy to that of a foreign government’s. (Gordon Brown once called the SNP plan “self-imposed colonialism.”) Like the 27 other member states, Scottish foreign policy would be heavily influenced by its role in the European Union. Scottish businesses and industries would still be fully subject to all manner of EU economic and trade regulations. Holyrood would still abide by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Scottish defense policy would be determined largely by its role in NATO. As Scotland’s first prime minister, Salmond may discover in 2015 that he simply swapped Westminster for Brussels and Washington. This can hardly be called independence.

A better solution would be to structurally overhaul the United Kingdom itself. This idea is not new. One hundred years ago, British political discourse was dominated by the question of Irish Home Rule: should Ireland have its own parliament within the United Kingdom? Proponents hoped that a sub-national parliament in Ireland would bridge the gulf between nationalists and unionists. Eventually, Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Bill, only to see it delayed by the start of World War I and eventually scrapped after Irish nationalists rose up in 1916. Modern Scottish independence activists, conscious of the historical symbolism, scheduled the referendum for September 18th, 2014 — one hundred years to the day after the Third Home Rule Bill became law.

Irish Home Rule sought to address systemic flaws in the British system, but others saw the logic behind local parliaments and suggested more extensive reforms. In 1912, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed what he called “Home Rule All Around” to federalize the United Kingdom:

Another great reason for the settlement of the Irish question in the present Parliament and for disposing of the Home Rule controversy now, while we have the full opportunity presented, is that the ground is thereby cleared for the consideration of claims of self-government for other parts of the United Kingdom besides Ireland.

[…] I spoke of the establishment of a federal system in the United Kingdom, in which Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and, if necessary, parts of England, could have separate legislative and Parliamentary institutions, enabling them to develop, in their own way, their own life according to their own ideas and needs in the same way as the great and prosperous States of the American Union…

Churchill’s proposal envisioned a United Kingdom divided into between ten and twelve parts, each with their own local parliament for local concerns. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales would each gain a parliament; the other seven to nine would be carved from England, perhaps corresponding to the seven ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. Above them all would be the national parliament in London, which would then be free to focus on national matters.

I am perhaps at an unfortunate age for making a prophecy. I am ceasing to belong to the young men who dream dreams and I have not yet joined the ranks of the old men who see visions; still I will run the risk of prophecy and tell you that the day will most certainly come — many of you will live to see it — when a federal system will be established in these Islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs, which will free the Imperial Parliament from the great congestion of business by which it is now pressed, and which will resound and conduce to the contentment and well-being of all our people.

He wasn’t far off. Scotland and Wales gained their own regional legislatures in 1998 under Tony Blair’s Labour government. (Northern Ireland also gained, lost, and regained one in the 20th century, with its current Assembly established by the Good Friday Agreement.) But England, in whole or in part, still lacks a legislature exclusively dedicated to English issues. English issues are instead debated in the British parliament, where Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs can vote and debate on them.

The solution to the English question is as simple as it is obvious: a devolved English parliament, separate from the Parliament of the United Kingdom and coequal to its Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish counterparts. But looking more broadly, it would reshape the debate over Scottish independence and British sovereignty. No longer would devolution be seen as a stop-gap measure to appease separatists, but rather a genuine and more equitable means of governance.

An independent Scotland would still be inextricably linked and shaped by the United Kingdom, to the European Union, and other forces beyond its control. In many ways, the Union will still exist whether Scotland wants it or not. Why not work instead to make sure it’s a good one?