by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jul 30th, 2014 at 08:51:50 PM EST
Scotland votes in an independence referendum on 18 September.
Whilst the debate on independence is hotting up in Scotland, I have been surprised at the lack of discussion both here and in Ireland. Indeed Irish Government Ministers have been briefed to avoid commenting on the issue one way or the other. So far the major "external" interventions have been by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, saying that an independent Scotland can't have the "British pound", and outgoing EC President Barosso saying that Scotland can't take continued EU membership for granted. Both have been seen as somewhat maladroit attempts to bully Scotland into remaining within the UK.
For those interested in following the debate in Scotland more closely, a good summary can be found here. I am interested in discussing the issue primarily from an Irish perspective, but hope this diary will provoke a broader discussion here.
On the face of it, you would expect Ireland to be exhibit A in any discussion on the feasibility of an independent Scotland: after all Ireland and Scotland are close neighbours, share a somewhat similar Celtic cultural background and language, and are of remarkably similar size in terms of GDP, area and population (Ireland 162 Billion, 84,421 km², 4.6 M; Scotland 161 Billion, 78,387 km², 5.3M).
However from what I can see, Ireland has barely featured in the discussion. I suspect that the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the embarrassing bank bail-out has reduced Ireland to the rather wayward cousin no one mentions to avoid embarrassment all round. Indeed the referendum could not have been timed better from the point of view of advocates of the Union, what with Ireland having fallen from grace, and the EU and Euro generally seen as being in something of a mess.
But if you were trying to articulate a view on Scottish independence based on the Irish experience, what would it be?
The Irish Experience of Independence
The first thing that has to be said about the experience of Irish independence since 1922, is that it all started rather badly with a bitter civil war fought between two factions (which often divided families) over whether or not to accept the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty with Britain which ceded six counties in the North East of Ireland to continued British rule as a separate Northern Irish statelet. When allied to the debilitating effects of the Famine and the centuries long struggle for independence, this meant that the Irish economy was in very poor shape indeed.
Before the 1800 Act of Union Dublin had been, briefly, the second largest city in the British empire, but by 1922 it was in many areas a slum city with a great deal of poverty and industrial and social strife which had resulted in the Dublin lock-out 1913/14. Ireland lacked the coal and steel resources which helped fire the Industrial Revolution and remained a largely rural, peasant, agrarian economy divided into many small subsistence farms.
The new Government hardly had any resources to work with, virtually no industrial base and very poor relations with their former colonial masters and chief market culminating in the Anglo-Irish Trade War 1932-38 and not helped by Ireland's official refusal to take sides in the Second World War (because of the unresolved N. Ireland dispute with Britain). I say "official" refusal, because many Irish citizens did indeed volunteer to fight in WWII, and the Irish Government was, informally, as helpful as it could be to the Allied side without actually formally taking part in the war.
Things didn't get a whole lot better in the 1950's with the dead hand of the Roman Catholic Church and a sclerotic ruling class keeping economic development to a minimum. It is worth noting, however, that despite some flirtations with fascist sentiment and an anti-communist ideology, the state did, in fact, take a very strong lead in economic development setting up numerous "semi-state" semi-commercial companies to develop public transport, airports, electricity, gas and communications grids, forestry, sugar manufacturing, peat harvesting, food production, horse racing and numerous other industries. Socialism by any other name!
The 1960s saw an end to rule by the Civil War generation of leaders, an opening up to foreign direct investment to develop the economy, and the introduction of free secondary education to provide a more skilled and educated workforce. Entry into the EU in 1973 exacerbated these trends and also led to the introduction of much-needed progressive employment, social, and environmental legislation. However it is something of a myth to say that subsequent Irish growth was fuelled largely by EU subventions. Ireland lost almost as much in potential fisheries production as it gained in agricultural subsidies, and the chief benefits of the EU was in access to wider markets, sources of investment, and a broadening of the skill base of the workforce.
The 1980s saw the onset of a severe recession brought on partly by much-increased oil prices but also by "give-away" budgets and tax reductions which greatly increased sovereign debt. It also marked a last stand by the Catholic Church in seeking to control the social agenda through passing constitutional amendments banning abortion and divorce. But by the late 1980s, the economy was growing rapidly again, fuelled mainly by FDI from companies seeking to gain access to the EU market, low corporate tax rates, and a skilled and youthful workforce.
The 2000s saw the Celtic Tiger morph into a gigantic property and public spending bubble fuelled by property-related windfall taxes and largely unregulated banks pumping credit into the economy. Even without the ill-fated bank guarantee the fall from grace would have been pretty spectacular as the property bubble burst and government property transaction tax revenues plummeted. But this more recent history of Government and regulatory failure shouldn't let us lose sight of the very significant progress which has been made by Ireland since independence. Perhaps the most significant achievements include:
- The achievement of a large degree of national reconciliation after the civil war, with public order maintained by an unarmed police force and democratic institutions strongly embedded in the national political culture. (The Cumann na nGaedheal Government - winners of the Civil War - lost power to Fianna Fail, the losers of the Civil War in the 1932 elections and handed over power to their sworn enemies without quibble or incident.)
- A strong infrastructure of state enterprises developing almost every sector of the Irish economy.
- An almost unrivalled infrastructure of industrial dispute settlement (since the 1980's) and national wage bargaining which have led to the entrenchment of employee rights and low levels of industrial disputes.
- State FDI attraction agencies which have succeeded in attracting virtually every emergent technical leader in the ICT and biopharma industries to set up their European Headquarters and very significant manufacturing and service industries in Ireland (Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, Google, Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, SAP, Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer, Genzyme etc.).
Now we see the re-emergence of growth (c. 3% GDP) despite an enormous sovereign debt load (c. 120% GDP - up from 25% in 2008) and very considerable headwinds in both the EU and global economies, much more jaundiced attitudes to the EU, and much friendlier relations with the UK following the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The old imperial/colony relationship has been replaced by a much more reciprocal "equality of esteem" partnership and there is no longer a visceral inclination to "diss" the Brits at every opportunity.
Implications for Scottish Independence
So what is the significance of all this for the debate on Scottish Independence? A few general observations seem appropriate:
- For all the difficulties in the world and the EU at the moment, Scotland would be gaining independence in a far more propitious environment than Ireland did. There are no world wars, trade wars, or civil wars on the horizon, and no economic devastation comparable to the Irish Famine and its aftermath (1 million dead, 1 million emigrated, 20% reduction in population, no industrial base).
- Developing the full institutions of an independent state and the expertise to manage them can be a long, difficult and painful process, but can lead to a much more self-confident, informed, and engaged citizenry.
- Scotland will have to ensure it has the institutions and expertise to develop the economy away from reliance on oil, British defense industries etc. and to fight its corner within an increasingly central-European–dominated EU.
- Some degree of "national reconciliation" may be necessary to bind the wounds of a fractious debate and to get all strands of Scottish society pulling in the same direction. This includes a need to define the terms of an amicable and yet real separation from England.
The Scottish Debate
In reading through the list of topics which has emerged during the Scottish debate, one is stuck by how infantile some of them are; how much scaremongering there is; and how little confidence some people appear to have in the ability of Scots to perform some of the basic functions of Government. It is as if Scots have had no hand act or part in the Governmental activities of Whitehall and will have to learn to do everything from scratch.
There is a strange mindset behind such fears, especially when articulated by predominantly English media: that the Pound, Whitehall, and all the organs of British Government will be retained by England, and that if the Scots want independence, they had better start again from scratch. It is as if the English are conceding that it is the English who have effectively ruled the Scots over the past few centuries, and that the Scots clearly have no experience or expertise to do this for themselves.
This rather gives the lie to the current ruling ideology that the UK is run by all for the benefit of all without regard to national background, because if that had been the case the Scots would have been as proficient at Government as the English and would merely be moving the main location of their part of the operations from Whitehall to Edinburgh.
For all the more recent wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the failure to regulate the banks, the bank bail-out, and the sense that the EU is being run primarily for Germany's benefit, very few Irish people regret independence or would want to go back to some kind of rule from Westminster. If anything, there is the stirrings of a debate about ceding less power to Brussels and reinforcing national independence. Even that open sore that has been N. Ireland in the minds of many nationalists is receding into the background.
In the past, Irish nationalists might have looked on with glee as the UK tore itself apart and risked losing Scotland, and who knows, perhaps N. Ireland some time after that. A weakened England/Britain would have been seen as a good thing, and an independent Scotland a kindred state. But now, insofar as there has been any engagement with the issue at all, there is a real sense that it is up to Scots to come come to their own decision and that we will be supportive whatever way they choose to go. Ireland and the UK are close allies within the EU and there is no point in stirring up a hornets nest in Northern Ireland again. Far more worrying, from an Irish perspective, would be a UK exit from the EU.
My own personal view is that Scotland should go for independence, but I am far from certain they have the self-confidence, cohesiveness, and balls to make that decision. The status quo is always the safer option, and this is not a time of great visions and great leadership. It will come down to a grubby little debate about how it effects each individual personally in the short term, and a few baubles in the form of "enhanced devolution" thrown out by the British Government will probably be enough to sway the majority to play it safe.
In a peculiar way the Scottish independence debate may come to mirror the British withdrawal from the EU debate: a lot of huffing and puffing, but in the end a grubby little fudge in Brussels providing a "Better Deal for Britain" will allow everyone to save face and carry on much as before. Oh the horror!