Scotland is on a journey towards post-sovereign interdependence with the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Union. The main question at issue in next Thursday's referendum on independence is whether voters decide that statehood is a necessary step towards that condition or whether it can be achieved by radically reconfiguring the UK after a No vote.
It should be recalled that the Scottish National Party wanted a third option – “devo-max” (full fiscal autonomy) – on the ballot paper but that this was vetoed by David Cameron. SNP leader Alex Salmond is a gradualist fond of quoting Parnell on the achievement of independence and willing to get there by stages. If it is a No he will use the deeper devolution now on offer at the last minute from the three main Westminster parties to argue the case for subsequent independence.
That case would be bolstered by the highly dynamic elements playing out in British politics as a general election is held next year and a likely referendum on EU membership in 2017. Since Scotland has a more positive orientation towards the EU than England, a majority vote against EU membership determined by an English majority would reopen the Scottish independence issue. In this scenario it is likely that Scotland will decide on independent statehood either now or within the next five years.
The only convincing way to head that off, if the No side wins, would be to entrench Scotland’s rights in a new federal constitutional settlement for the UK which shared sovereignty in its political system. That would resolve the systematic resentment and suspicion of London rule displayed across the Scottish political spectrum in this remarkable campaign.
“Power devolved is power retained”: this pithy phrase of Enoch Powell’s expresses perfectly the unitary and absolutist parliamentary sovereignty that stops well short of such federal entrenchment, whether in the administratively devolved union state model of Britain or the most extended home rule variety.
This can readily be seen in the Labour Party’s agonised debate about how much devolution to offer, divided between those who want to deepen devolution and the party’s London elite who concentrate on securing a UK election victory to address the social democratic values widely shared in Scotland, but increasingly less so in Conservative-dominated England. Labour has most to lose from a Scottish Yes, which would deprive it of its strongest electoral base. The SNP has deftly captured the welfare state discourse from Labour there by spinning it in national rather than class terms.
Labour’s complacency about the increasingly dysfunctional structure of the UK also makes the party vulnerable to being outflanked in debates about federalism. These need to be imaginative – about the existing UK or a diminished one – because of England’s huge predominance, the growing inequalities between the richer London and the southeast and other regions and the potential role of city-regions like Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle in a reorganised UK.
Such a federal structure may be beyond the will or capacity of its political elites to deliver, in which case a breakup of the UK is the most likely outcome. The bonds of empire, war, Protestantism and welfare that held it together in the 20th century have eroded and not been replaced by a convincing alternative narrative.
“Post-sovereign” is a term used by the Scottish political scientist Michael Keating to describe the emergent political and social condition of life beyond the traditional nation-state.
It is a better notion than “post-national”, which is empirically and politically challenged by current Scottish and English nationalist revivals.
Keating argues that most ordinary citizens of Scotland and the rest of the UK are aware of, and want, its relatively open borders, mobility and multicultural opportunities, but that their political leaders remain stuck with absolute sovereignty. Devo-max morphing into some sort of federalism would meet these realities; but it may not be attainable, he said in a brilliant lecture this week at the Royal Irish Academy.
If that is so, other Scottish thinkers, such as the veteran analyst Tom Nairn, argue plausibly it is better to vote for statehood now to reach this post-sovereign condition. As he puts it in the current London Review of Books: "Reculer pour mieux sauter: the Scots should take a step back into statehood in order to leap forward and embrace the new age, a globality where there are certain to be many more self-governing units. A Yes vote isn't for some outdated or renovated form of self-government, but for a necessarily new form of self-rule, a polity framed partly by the new circumstances themselves."