Saturday, 15 December 2012

Is the utility of Scottish independence pragmatic?

There is beginning to be a debate about the pragmatism or the utility of Scottish independence. I strongly suspect that the argument is being made by those who would support independence come what may. They realise however, that the number of “existentialist” nationalists in Scotland is quite small, limited to the more committed members of the Scottish National Party and they have to try to reach out to the waverers and uncommitted in order to win the independence referendum. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Unionists, too must try to reach out not only to our core support, who would support the Union come what may, but also to those who might be contemplating independence or who have once or twice even voted for the SNP.
One problem with the nationalist appeal to utilitarianism is that it rather forgets one of the central tenets of the philosophy which was developed by people such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The essence of their idea about morality can be summed up by the quotation from Bentham’s A Fragment of Government: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Let’s look at how this principle might apply to the issue of Scottish independence. Imagine that as a consequence of independence, the sum of happiness decreased in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the basis of utilitarian principles, Scottish independence would have to be rejected even if it led to an increase in happiness in Scotland. The reason is that anything which leads to an overall decrease in happiness is wrong by the principles of utilitarianism. Thus, for instance, if Scotland’s failing to share its oil revenues led to a decline in living standards in the rest of the UK, this would be considered by utilitarians to be wrong, because the sum of overall happiness would have decreased, even if it meant that the happiness of those in Scotland was greater than it otherwise would be. The principle of utilitarianism, after all, is not that it should lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number in Scotland. If the SNP were to maintain that they were only interested in happiness in Scotland, this would show that their philosophy has precious little to do with utilitarianism, which opposes selfishness. It would show, moreover, that the principle underlying the SNP’s philosophy is not utility but existential nationalism. Why separate this group of people called Scots from the rest of the population unless it is for reasons of existential nationalism? Utility for us at the expense of you is neither utilitarian nor moral.

Scottish Nationalism fails the test of utilitarianism at the first hurdle. Let’s look instead however, at whether it can be argued that it is pragmatic for the people of Scotland to choose independence. The trouble with the idea of appealing to pragmatism is that it depends on the ability to foresee the future. It is likely that if Scotland voted for independence that the result would stand. There would be no turning back. The southern part of Ireland chose to leave the UK in the 1920s, but no matter the nature of living standards there today, there is no bringing back the Union that existed from 1800 until partition. Imagine however, Irish nationalists appealing to pragmatism in the years leading up to independence. How far could they see ahead? It is doubtful that they could have predicted events even in the 1920s. They certainly could not have seen as far ahead as the Second World War, the creation of the European Union, or the crisis in the Eurozone. Yet all of these events have had consequences for the prosperity of southern Ireland. It is perfectly possible to argue, given the economic consequences of being in the Eurozone that it would have been more pragmatic for Irish nationalists not to have chosen independence all those years ago. It is arguable that the Irish people as a whole would be better off today with a united Ireland within the UK. But how could anyone have predicted these matters in the 1920s? Who knows what will happen to Scotland in the coming century. No one can look ahead more than a few years at best. So on what basis can nationalists appeal to pragmatism? Perhaps, they think that under every possible future circumstance it would be better for Scotland to be independent. But this is to argue that would be better for Scotland come what may to be independent. Once more the pragmatic argument reduces itself to the existential argument.

A further argument in terms of pragmatism is that Scotland would be more likely to get a government reflecting the will of its people if it voted for independence. Thus, independence is presented to left-wing Scots as a pragmatic way of avoiding future Tory governments. This argument depends on existential assumptions about Scotland’s national status, for otherwise why choose Scotland as the base unit? Southern Scotland together with northern England might, for instance, be a more optimum political unit than either Scotland or the whole of the UK. Why then should we not set up such an independent state for pragmatic reasons? Alternatively, if Scotland were independent, there might be a region, for instance Aberdeenshire, which consistently voted differently from the rest of Scotland, should that region then not be allowed to secede from Scotland? The argument against these positions would be that neither Aberdeenshire, nor northern England joined with southern Scotland are countries, or nations. Once more we fall back on our existential nationalism.

The fundamental problem with the pragmatic argument for independence is that it is based on the idea that it is government that solves our problems and is the source of our money. This naturally leads to the idea that if only there were more government and a larger state all would be well. Nicola Sturgeon  believes that the Labour party under Tony Blair was “not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual.” This means that her pragmatism amounts to being still more left-wing than Blair and Brown, increasing public spending and debt even more than they did. Far from being pragmatic, this would be economically disastrous. The public sector in Scotland is already too large. Government spending as a percentage of GDP is already much higher than is economically desirable for the promotion of growth. Yet the lesson the SNP would take from the Brown/Blair years is that Labour were Tories in disguise, not left-wing enough and that they did not spend enough public money, nor rack up enough debt.  Are we seriously supposed to describe this as pragmatism?

Scotland is clearly an economically viable independent state, but the effect of independence financially would be about neutral. Scotland would gain from increased oil revenues, but we would lose our share of central government funding (the Barnett formula). Scotland would face the same hard choices with regard to debt and deficit as we do being part of the UK. The idea that Scotland could avoid austerity by voting for independence is simply not true. Anyone who believes this already shows themselves unfit to rule. The only result of SNP politicians continuing to favour ever increasing public spending in order to pay for still more free goodies to dish out universally as a bribe to the electorate, is that eventually we will be faced with a choice between bankruptcy and far more austerity than we have at present. Declining oil revenues, with fluctuating prices are not going to allow us to live beyond our means. Until the SNP shows that they understand the debt crisis, they are unsuitable to be put in charge of Scotland’s economy whether independent or not.

Prosperity does not depend on being independent. If it did, then it would be pragmatic for the citizens of Baden-Württemberg to seek independence. But it is clearly in their interest to remain part of Germany. Independence for Baden-Württemberg would not make the people living there more prosperous. Germany like the UK is made up of places that once were independent, but which realised long ago that it is much more pragmatic to work together. Britain like Germany has a functioning single market and enormous economies of scale. These exist because both Britons and Germans have lived together in one country for centuries. To propose giving up these advantages is the very opposite of pragmatism.


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