Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Scottish Referendum: Two Images of the State

Tomorrow, Scotland votes on whether to become a state independent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What is most interesting to me about the campaign is the underlying clash between two different images of the future of the European state implicitly supported by the two sides. This clash, although masked by practical questions (e.g. currency, debt, treaty accession/succession) that have captured the most media attention, gives rise to those very questions, as they are little more than tension points where the two images don't match up.

What do I mean by this?

The two images offered by the opposing sides are each conceptualizations of the role of the nation-state in the European regional system of states. On the side of the nationalists, the promise of continuity in some areas (economics, (im)migration, currency) and change in others (sovereign status) is an implicit blueprint of a minimalist, entangled, semi-sovereign state. On the side of the unionists, the concerns about economic disruption, the threat to withdraw access to the pound, and the prospect of EU accession ab initio reflect a more traditional view of the state.

To a largely unacknowledged degree, both sides are arguing about an independence cost/benefit equation that is inherently unsolvable. It cannot be solved because it is dependent on the image adopted by the analyst. When the nationalists argue that an independent Scotland is viable, what they are actually saying is that the cost/benefit equation produces a net benefit if their image of the state is true. The unionists are arguing that independence would be a net loss if their image of the state is true. 

Which image is reality? The correct answer is that either image could be true if relevant actors (London, Edinburgh, Brussels, and the other EU capitals) willed it to be true. The nationalists are correct if the actors agree to negotiate on good faith, amend treaties quickly, and proactively welcome Scotland into the European family. The unionists are correct if the actors decide to make Scotland into a warning against further secession within the European Union. If Madrid makes EU accession difficult, if Westminster makes access to the pound difficult, if Scottish industry moves across the border, then independence will come with a high price tag.

But what is important to realize is that the nationalists are promising a bright future conditioned on a social reality that is beyond their ability to create unilaterally, and the unionists are threatening dire consequences which they have every ability to mitigate.

While outsiders like myself have no vote in the referendum, we will definitely be affected by the result. As such, I have an opinion on which outcome would be best: independence. This is for two reasons.

First, the weak image of the state is more conducive to further European integration and the consolidation of the supranational project. The more states within the union, the better the argument for qualified majority voting and the weaker the voice of individual states. I do not realistically see an option for Madrid to block Scotland's accession indefinitely because the moral opprobrium would be enormous. This is not the same thing as Greece blocking Macedonian accession -- Scotland's importance is central, not peripheral. And if what remained of the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, that might actually spur greater integration through the removal of a perennial spoiler in the club.

Second, the European family of nations needs to accept a fundamental reality of international politics: any system that cannot change will be rife with either conflict or injustice. Without means for peaceful change, any status quo grows vulnerable over time to its accumulated tensions. In the UN-era, the means for peaceful change were vested in the International Court of Justice, in Security Council responsibilities, and in now-outdated entities such as the Trusteeship Council. To an important extent, the failure of states to accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ and constant gridlock in the Security Council have contributed to an inability to manage and legitimize peaceful change.

The European regional system has always prided itself for pioneering more progressive norms than the global system at large. If it continues in this project, it must be willing to talk openly about peaceful change and how it is to be brought about. Further, with the EU's deep commitment to human rights, it has a moral responsibility to ensure that Scotland's individual citizens are not economically and socially disadvantaged despite wishing to remain part of the European community. The fundamental problem is that the legitimacy of state action now has two arbiters - the sovereign will of the people on one hand, and the responsibilities of international law and the expectations of peer states on the other. Finding a balance between the requirements of these two arbiters is the individual responsibility of each state, but also a multilateral problem that is systemic in nature. Reconciling the will of the Scottish nation with the existing framework of the European community must be a give and take, not a simple rejection.

That's all. Let's see how tomorrow goes down. My strong suspicion is that the "No" vote will win based on past polls, barring a strong enthusiasm gap leading to higher turnout for "Yes".