Edinburgh Book Festival: The Independence Debate with Kirsty Wark

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Edinburgh Internatonal Book Festival
Kirsty Wark (Chair)
Nicola McEwan, Juliet Karrbo, Professor Tom Devine, Jeane Freeman, Blair Dougal
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Although the run-up to the 2014 Independence Referendum has barely begun, the length of the queue for this event suggested a lot of serious interest.

With Kirsty Wark in the chair, proceedings were kicked off by expositions by Nicola McEwan of the Politics Department at the University of Edinburgh, and her colleague, Juliet Karrbo.

McEwan, who spoke to the question of how an independent Scotland might fare in relation to its immediate neighbours, referred to the ‘embedded partnership’ that the United Kingdom represents. It was clearly feasible for Scotland to become an independent country, but independence would unavoidably depend on cross-border good will. Genuine partnership is always easier if the partners are equal and there are no significant differences in available resources.

Much would depend on negotiations with the Westminster parliament, and there would be limits on Scotland acting independently in a number of areas, particularly if a Sterling currency union were to be created. However, McEwan, pointed out, such limits could be amenable to change over time, although this would be dependent on a continuing level of good will and mutual advantage.

Juliet Karrbo talked about the future of an independent Scotland in the wider world, particularly with reference to the EU and to NATO. The ability to make independent policies is, according to Karrbo, a defining aspect of a sovereign state. She went on to cite the policies of a number of Scandinavian states, which had in various areas found collaboration and co-operation to be mutually beneficial, despite the limitation of independent action this entailed.

Opportunities would arise for an independent Scottish government to explore various types of alliance with other small states. This could result in any future Scottish government having to limit its objectives and work with other states to achieve these. There could be opportunities to become the headquarters of an international organisation, as Holland (the Hague) and Belgium (the EU) have done. Such options, however, would have to reflect the priorities of any future Scottish government.

Following these opening statements, the debate then turned to the three main speakers; Professor Tom Devine, who in his public persona at least, declared himself undecided at this stage, Jeane Freeman of Scottish Women for Independence and Blair Dougal of the Better Together campaign.

Professor Devine spoke first, pointing out that even the level of independence suggested by the National Party has more scope than that enjoyed prior to the Union of 1707. Although a currency union might be established, Holyrood would decide fiscal policy.

Jeane Freeman argued that independence offered Scots greater choice in the kinds of policies politicians would be able to put before the electorate.

Blair Dougal argued that there was little clarity in some pro-independence arguments, particularly in relation to ‘shared sovereignty’ and any possible currency union. The latter might be achievable but Westminster would have the potential to dictate large parts of the Scottish budget.

Professor Devine pointed out that geography would always have a significant bearing on the Scottish economy, as would demography, and wondered what independence might mean when the majority population of the present United Kingdom would continue to be English and continue to view policy in terms of English interests.

Jeane Freeman responded that other countries with contiguous borders with larger neighbours contrive to manage their own affairs without reference to these larger countries. Rather, they reflected the choices made by their own voters.

Blair Dougal replied that voters would have to decide, as in the referendum, what they felt was best both for themselves and the country at large, and did raise the question of the advisability of the promise of a lower rate of corporation tax in an independent Scotland.

Professor Devine urged the hastening of the White Paper which may clarify the proposals for an increased level of devolved government, but whether, as Blair Dougal clearly hopes it may, this document would kill the National party’s case dead, must surely remain a very open question, given the results of previous efforts.

More positively, Professor Devine pointed out that although Scotland’s population is 8% of the UK’s total, it enjoys 15% of the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council)’s total annual budget, thanks to the way this competitively awarded funding is administered by the Scottish government. He also suggested that parts of the north of England (Cumbria, for one) were actively seeking a rapprochement with the Scottish government should independence become a reality.

With the somewhat obvious statement of one economist that ‘independence would be a risk’ ringing in its ears, the audience were, for the second time, asked to express their opinion - for or against independence or undecided.

This was the second of two votes, the first having been taken at the outset of the debate. No surprise, given the nature of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the majority of its attendees – grey of hair, haute bourgeois in outlook and largely drawn from the leafier parts of the city centre, that the vote was once again overwhelmingly not in favour, although those for may take some comfort from a small shift of the undecided toward ‘yes’.