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Nothing to lose lots to gain

Alyn is confident that Independence can only bring further benefits to Scotland


Published by Independence Magazine, September/October 2012

I spent part of the summer touring Scotland. Among other things, I visited agricultural shows, caught up with how the farmers are doing and carried out some research work.

I also had a fun evening at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I went head to head with Tony Benn to debate the merits of independence in an international context.

I really enjoyed the discussion about how the status quo isn’t working for us and how we could do better internationally. I’m not sure I convinced Tony, but I certainly won over a few folk in the audierethinking_the_union_2_resized.jpgnce!

He did rather lose the crowd when he referred to his family connections to Scotland, suggesting that was some sort of logical reason for allowing Westminster to make our decisions for us.

I’ve said before that we need to be conscious of the feeling of sadness - rejection even - that some commentators south of the border feel at our growing independence. But while we need to be sensitive, we should assuredly not let their sentiment hold us back from building a country to be proud of.  

Why anyone on the left would be more interested in preserving Westminster rule than building a progressive social democracy we can all be proud of is beyond me, but there we are.

The question we were set was “will an independent Scotland lose clout on an international stage?”  To answer that we need to assess where we are now, independently and as part of the UK, and whether that settlement actually works for us.

So what influence do we have at present?  Well, for a start – and don't underestimate the importance of this – people around the world like us.

We exist in the global imagination in a way that many other countries don’t – and if that leads to Holywood making great animation movies about our flame-haired Highland princesses, then there’s no certainly harm in that.

 We’ve signed international co-operation agreements on various things - with Malawi on international development, for instance, and with the Maldives on climate change, where we’ve committed ourselves to help a country in pretty dire straits cope with a largely western-made problem.

We’ve cut a dash internationally in other ways, too. We have the most ambitious global climate change targets.  And we’re the world’s most science and research-intensive nation – go to NASA or CERN, for example, and they know exactly where we are on the map.

We’re also making Scotland a global leader in renewable energy. In our latest win, the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney has just signed a co-operation agreement with Incheon Prefecture in South Korea to help them with - and, indeed, learn ourselves about – the development of their marine energy resources.

I was at the Copenhagen climate change summit back in 2009, and our Minister Stewart Stevenson is just back from Rio where we pushed for greater ambition than we’ve seen to date.  The problem is that, in the strict terms of the question, none of this would actually class as ‘clout’.

We’re also presently part of the UK.  So what influence does Scotland really have over Westminster’s foreign policy?

The stark truth is: damn all.  The UK is a unitary state and foreign policy is exercised under the Royal Prerogative. The views of the constituent parts of our disunited kingdom are neither sought nor required by Her Majesty’s Government.

So in both our roles – as a self-contained, devolved Scotland and as a constituent part of the UK - any objective assessment of our current international firepower has to provide the same verdict as every school report card I ever had: Could do better.

Do we, in our heart of hearts, think that we are distinct enough as a nation to need international representation?  Yes. Of course we do!

Lets start with the big picture.  Hundreds of thousands of people marched through our cities in protest at the Iraq war, and yet our troops are still in harm’s way in two theatres.

I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which an independent Scottish Parliament, of any political complexion, would have consented to their involvement in this way.

The fact that thousands more marched through the streets of England underlines my point, not weakens it.  Westminster is a dysfunctional and unrepresentative system which doesn’t serve its own country well, much less mine. We, though, have another option.

More domestically, - and I use the term advisedly - I see in Brussels a succession of UK Ministers coming over and getting it wrong.  I say domestically because as an MEP I’m not dealing in foreign affairs, but in home policy on a bigger canvass. 

As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not a diplomat, but a domestic Scottish politician representing our interests in a larger environment.

On a weekly basis these UK ministers come over, make speeches for the benefit of the Daily Mail, try to out-UKIP UKIP and don't realise the damage they’re doing to British interests, much less Scottish.

Here is the real fault line of devolution, and why it can’t hold much longer.  Holyrood is responsible for implementing EU agreements, yet doesn’t play any remotely significant role in their negotiation.

Ministers might be included in the UK delegation, but so what? Our Scottish ministers may be in the room on occasion, but the UK line is the UK line, set by the UK apparatus, usually with only a cursory nod to Scottish interests.

There may be all sorts of glitzy ways in which we can reform devolution, but the hard fact is that when it comes to the EU, you either are a member state or you’re not.

So, to answer the question ‘would an independent Scotland lose clout internationally?’  Emphatically not.  The so-called clout presently exercised on our behalf isn’t working for us and isn’t representing our values or aspirations, and we could do better.

Having said that, the primary arguments for independence are not about our place in the world.  That’s not the point of our nationalism and anyone who thinks it is doesn’t get it.

Independence is about the simple logic that we’re not currently the best we could be.  The people who care most about the future of Scotland are the people who live here.

By being independent, our country of five million people will have a more responsive, representative and effective governance than we do under the system we’re currently part of.  We’ve done well with the powers we have, and we could do still better by taking responsibility for more of our own affairs.

We’re greener, more social democratic, more internationalist and more progressive than the centrepoint of UK opinion.

We implemented the smoking ban because it was the right thing to do to improve our shocking public health.  And I confidently predict we’ll lead the way also on equal marriage because this will make our country fairer, more tolerant and more respectful.

We abolished prescription charges because a tax on being unwell offends our values. We abolished tuition fees because education isn’t a private luxury but a common good and the more educated people we have in our society, the more we’ll all benefit.

These decisions have already made us a different place.  That process will only accelerate in future.  It is therefore only logical that the international aspects of reflecting that will need to alter to best reflect our domestic reality.

Look at the wider world, globalising by the day.  In a world where borders matter less, power counts for more.

The ability to represent yourself – to have a government which actually does reflect your values - is a prerequisite necessitated by globalisation and not undermined by it.

Climate change, food security, pollution, crime and umpteen other issues will not be solved by any one country acting alone. The world is already full of small nations which have realised this and are playing their full part as responsible global partners.

Everything we gained on the passing of the Act of Union 1707 - the right to freedom of trade, movement, capital and the like - we keep under the Treaty of Rome.

With independence we retain all those rights, but also gain the additional power to decide our own priorities. These include choosing how we pool our sovereignty and which international structures - the EU, NATO, the UN or their successors - best reflect our needs.

The future is multilateral, and smaller states do that better. Scotland has nothing to lose and an awful lot to gain. We could do better. And – believe me – when we’re independent, we will.