Friday, January 27, 2012

Nationalists Are Like Snowflakes?

My post earlier today got a rapid response from some Scots/allies who seem to think I don't know much about Scottish nationalism.  And they are right.  I have not studied the Scottish independence movement as it has not been violent (at least for the past few hundred years).  All I know about Scotland comes from my wife's stories about her year in Aberdeen when she was in college and from the Highlander movies and TV shows.

But I am just a bit familiar with secessionist movements.  I do dare to compare because even though nationalists think that their movement is unique* (hence the snowflake title), the dynamics of nationalism and the problems that separatists encounter are often comparable (not identical but compare-able) to such folks elsewhere.
*  Unless it is politically expedient to think otherwise.

Let me focus on just a few points need further elaboration:
  • The folks commenting on my blog seem to find 55% as a threshold for a successful referendum vote (that is, 55% of those voting have to say yes, rather than 50%) to be a bridge too far.  Due to past decisions or whatever, it seems as if barely scraping by to get a very slim majority is sufficient for massive political changes.  But there are heaps of problems with 50% plus one:
    • It increases the temptations to cheat.  A two vote swing is sufficient for either rejection or acceptance of independence.  So, hide some ballot boxes from less separatist areas.  Or stuff some ballot boxes.  Yes, folks could cheat to get from 54.9% to 55%, but there is much more certainty that the decision has a majority of public support at 55% however it is rounded then at 50.00001%.
    • What I call the drunk frat-boy factor: that with a razor's edge margin, you can get some people voting one way just for entertainment value.  This is probably what gave Jesse "The Body" Ventura the Governorship of Minnesota in a three-way race.  Again, if there is sufficient interest to get close to 55%, then a few folks who think it would be fun to vote against their sober preferences are not as consequential.
    • In the history of separatist referendums, nearly all clear 50% easily, 55% easily, 65% easily, 75% easily and so on.  The only referenda that didn't manage widespread support were the ones lost by the Quebec separatists and Montenegro which just cleared 55%.  
    • Whether the 55% precedent that the EU set with Montenegro applies to Scotland is a good question.  Perhaps the EU will not get involved as there is little risk of violence, but I have also made it a habit in my career poking fun at the inconsistency of the EU in how it sets conditions.  If 55% is good enough for Montenegro, then the EU should expect the Scots to do the same.  
    • Basically, the point is that if you want to make a significant political change, I think you need to do more than crawl barely over the most minimal threshold possible.  I think you need to make an argument that gets significant support that will not change a day later due to buyer's remorse. I am a stronger believer in protection from tyranny of the majority.  If the majority is only of one, it needs to be more restrained than if it has an overwhelming mandate for change.
  • While Scottish nationalists would like to vote and then become independent, they will have to think about what the Brits want.  Why? Because the reality of the situation is that there would have to be much bargaining over how to divide assets and debts, manage the border and customs, and deal with other complications that come with turning the line between Scotland and England into a real international border.  
    • Canada has had to contemplate this, and both the courts and the parliament have essentially said that a key requirement for such negotiations would be a clear mandate for independence--the Clarity Act.  Parliament, which would have to pass various legislation to manage the division of stuff, has a reasonable expectation to engage in such bargaining if there is a clear mandate for independence.  The 1995 referendum in Quebec fell far short of providing such a mandate, not just in terms of votes but also because of the question.  
    • If Scotland's referendum asks: do you want Scotland to be independent from Great Britain/United Kingdom or whatever the relevant other is, that would be a fine question.  If there is a question that asks if Scots would prefer some change to its current status that might mean independence but also could mean autonomy, well, that would not be clear.  
    • The danger, of course, is that a clear question reduces support for independence as the Quebeckers have found out.  Still, I do expect the SNP to put forth a clear question.
I am not saying that Scotland should not be independent.  I am simply saying that there are lessons to learn from the experiences of other places and that the Quebec experience is particularly salient as UK/Canada is about as apples and apples as you can get in the world.  Why bother?  Because history cannot be re-run.  Whatever Scotland does cannot be undone completely--decisions alter the context so that new decisions are constrained by the new context--path dependence. So why not learn from the experience of others so that one gets it right the first time?  Otherwise, one might have to have a referendum every 15-20 years or so, which damages the economy by creating heaps of uncertainty.  Oh, and then all elections focus on this rather than providing good governance.

1 comment:

Angus McLellan said...

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Or maybe it just seems that way when you're unhappy?

I did say "alas!" when I said the UK wasn't Canada. And I meant it. If Scotland had enjoyed the powers of a province in addition to its historic differences we probably would't be where we are today. But there is no UN, no EU, no long-established and independent supreme court likely to intervene here. Apart from an unwritten consitution and an untried supereme court there are only the two governments. One is run by a party whose goal is independence. The other is run by two parties. One has "Unionist" in its name and the other of turned its back on a coalition deal in Scotland in 2007 at least in part because this would have meant signing up to a referendum.

So what sort of compromises are likely or possible between separatist parties and parties who have always opposed a referendum on independence?

It seems highly unlikely that a No vote in the referendum would settle anything. Some recent polling shows a majority of respondents in England would like Scotland to leave the Union. Increasing numbers want an English parliament. A recent poll found a majority of respondents across the UK believed the UK would not last twenty years. Optimists to the end.

And to some degree, every election in Scotland since 1974 or thereabouts has been about the constitutional issue. Why should that change? The SNP are no more likely to give up after one defeat than were the nationalists in Quebec. We'd be here again soon enough.

There are reasonable arguments for all of the things you propose, but we're not likely to see them implemented. If this scenario had been considered in 1997-98 when devolution was implemented - hardly unthinkable when the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland had laid out some rules for referendums on Irish unification - we wouldn't need to discuss these things today. But the ostrich strategy has been the rule. So they weren't considered and now it is too late.