Sunday, 18 October 2015

In Scotland we admire the things that don’t work


One of the odd things about political discussion in Scotland is our attitude to the EU. During the Referendum it was accepted by both sides that it would be some sort of disaster if an independent Scotland were not to retain membership of the EU. There was therefore lots of speculation as to how or when or on what terms Scotland would be a part of the EU. The underlying assumption was that being part of the EU was obviously a good thing and indeed that the EU itself was clearly wonderful. Contrast this with Scottish political attitudes to the UK. SNP supporters are clearly hostile to the UK. They want to break it up. While even many No voters are at best lukewarm about the country in which we live. They may accept the benefits of the UK, but often do so rather grudgingly. There’s little actual positive feeling for Britain.

Contrast the reality however. I recently got back from a trip to Spain. I usually go to a small town on the north coast of Tenerife. This town is beginning to die. Everywhere there are signs on homes or former businesses that say “Se Alquila” [for rent] or “Se Vende” [for sale]. This town used to be popular with Germans and there were loads of German bars and restaurants. But many are now being sold. There is a market twice a week where people turn up to sell what they can. Some of what people try to sell can only be described as rubbish. People are desperate to sell a video from the 1980s for one Euro or some children’s toys that nearly everyone in Scotland would simply put in the bin. I contrasted this with my local Red Cross shop in Scotland which is given almost brand new clothing. There are still a lot of tourists like me who go to Tenerife. It’s warm in the winter. But it’s obvious from the beggars on the street and the general look of dilapidation that even this relatively wealthy part of Spain is struggling badly. It sometimes feels like one more step down and they’ll be in the Third World. I haven’t been to mainland Spain for a while, but I imagine off the tourist route it is still worse. Greece, of course, is in a much worse position than Spain.

The EU for quite a long time worked well for Spain, but it is obvious now that it is harming the Spanish people very badly.  The only real benefit they are getting from membership is the right to live and work in a country like the UK that has the jobs that they do not. Why is Spain being harmed by the EU? The answer is obvious.  The Euro is acting like some sort of depression machine and is preventing countries like Spain from recovering. Spain desperately needs to devalue in relation to countries like Germany. But of course it can’t so long as it remains in the Euro.

As an ideal I can see the attractions of a United States of Europe with a single currency and a fully democratic system of government with each member state having federal membership. Bringing down international borders is fine as an ideal. However, it has consequences, which when spelled out few of us would choose.  But whatever the ideals, it has to be recognised that the EU at the moment simply is not working. It’s working well enough for Britain and to a lesser extent for northern European countries like Germany and Denmark. But it is creating economic catastrophe in countries like Spain and Greece.

There are lots of positives about EU membership. Access to the EU single market is vital to the UK’s economy as is the fact that EU citizens can freely travel and work here. People from places like Poland who fill our job vacancies create economic growth in the UK rather than in Poland. The UK has an aging population and we desperately need these people. The downside is not for us, but rather for Poland. Older people living in a Polish village in the countryside where there are no longer any young people may not be quite so positive about this exodus.

The trouble with the EU is that all of the things that I like about it were already there when we joined. A group of European nations working together to achieve free trade is a great idea. But why didn’t we just stop there? Why for the last twenty or thirty years have we been turning what was a good idea into an economic nightmare. It’s the continual attempt to create “ever closer union” that is causing such harm, not least because the logic of this is not followed through. If the EU is on the road to becoming a United States of Europe, then it has to start treating everyone as countrymen rather than as foreigners. If that were the case the Eurozone crisis would be solved in an instant. Germans would transfer money to Greece in the same way that they transfer money between Munich and Dresden. But we’ve learned that Germans and other northern Europeans do not view the matter in this way. It is this above all that makes the Eurozone the worst of all worlds.

No-one in the United States would accept that there could be a higher court than the Supreme Court. It is a fundamental part of democracy that ‘we the people’ have the power by means of democracy to change laws that are unpopular. What I find strange is that we in Scotland have an endless debate about sovereignty, while apparently being indifferent to the fact that unelected bureaucrats and judges already control so much of our lives. Human rights must be underpinned by democracy. The debate about independence in Scotland suggests that people care about sovereignty. But then it is time to reflect on what the EU at present is doing to the sovereignty of a country like Greece. I didn’t see much sovereignty being exercised there during the recent crisis, nor much independence. It is simply perverse for people in Scotland to be so desperate for all decisions to be made in Edinburgh, while being indifferent to the fact that most of them are already made in Brussels. No-one suggests that in order to be a good Asian, Japan has to be ruled by Beijing and form an ever closer union with North Korea et al. Why then in order to be a good European must our island be ruled from Belgium or rather Berlin?

What’s peculiar is that attitudes in Scotland simply do not reflect the reality. But then this has become the pattern of Scottish politics lately. The EU which is becoming more and more dysfunctional is universally supported, while the UK which is one of the few EU member states to have actually recovered from the crisis in 2008 is disliked by large sections of the population.

The problem in part is that the UK which worked well for centuries has been destabilised politically by lopsided devolution. It is this above all that has created the conditions where nationalism has grown in Scotland and where Scots have begun to feel ever more that they don’t live in the same country as people elsewhere in Britain. At the same time the condition for the possibility of nationalist independence movements in the EU is the existence of the EU. The EU which was supposed to erase nationalism from Europe instead fuels it. The reason for this is that if both Spain and Catalonia are in the EU, Catalan nationalists can argue that Catalan independence does not radically alter the rights of Catalans in  relation to Spain. After all, even Finns have much the same rights in Madrid as Spaniards. The same, of course, applies to Scotland. Far from Brexit leading inevitably to an independence referendum, it in fact makes such a referendum impossible. 

Why is it that Scotland is better off than so many other parts of Europe? It is in part because, despite the advice of Alex Salmond, the UK stayed out of the Eurozone. But it is more than that. The UK at present is acting like an offshore USA. We are attracting poor people from all over the Europe and the world, because we have a system of business and economics which makes us prosperous. This system is the very one that vast numbers of Scots would like to overthrow. Overthrowing it is the motive for many of those who want independence. It’s because Britain has a relatively free market that businesses are able to create the jobs for the rest of the world to do. The consensus in Scotland is the opposite. The one thing that makes us a prosperous part of the UK is the one thing the majority of politicians in Scotland look on with distrust. Free market capitalism is what makes poor people richer, but politicians in Scotland always think the state knows better. Most Scots agree. 

The SNP and indeed the whole of the Scottish left is the one thing that is preventing Scotland from arriving at the condition for the possibility of independence, which is that Scotland more or less breaks even. So long as the SNP remain in power we will under-perform in relation to the other parts of the UK, because we reject the free market solutions to the problems of education, health and welfare that might actually bring more prosperity to Scotland. The biggest hindrance to independence turns out to be the SNP. 

People voted for independence because they hoped for the Scottish government to share more of Scotland’s oil wealth. They hoped that the Scottish government would raise other people’s taxes in order to pay them more. Now the oil looks more like a liability. It will cost more to decommission the rigs than we’ll earn from now on. But nothing changes. Instead of realising that our path to prosperity is making the UK work better, we strive for ever more power to make it work less well. The thing that makes us prosper we reject, hoping beyond hope to turn our country away from capitalism so we can look on smugly as the English engage sordidly in trade. We admire what does not work, whether it’s the EU or state socialism, while we can’t stand what does work such as the UK and free market economics. It’s almost as if whatever the English do we have to do the opposite. Well that might make us feel unco Scottish, but it’s unlikely to make us unco successful. 

  

2 comments:

  1. The intellectual capacity of the average SNP voter is simply not up to understanding the dichotomy of desiring independence from rUK but insisting on being part of the EU (regardless of the fact that membership would by no means be automatic). I am reminded of small children who do the opposite of what you tell them for no reason other than they don't like to be told. If rUK had a referendum which voted to boot out Scotland, you can guarantee there would be a clamour to remain - we can't have the hated English and even more hated Tories telling us they don't want us!

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  2. Very difficult to argue with this analysis Effie.

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