Tuesday 17 January 2012

Terms of the divorce

Whilst the laws and unwritten constitution of the UK clearly support the view that Scottish (and the same applies to Wales) Independence is a matter which the UK Parliament would have to ‘allow’, I’ve never been in any doubt that the decision belongs to – and will be taken by – the people of Scotland.  Ultimately, ‘sovereignty’ can never be withheld from a people who wish to reclaim it, no matter what any law may say.  (I suppose that the use of military force might provide an exception to that, in the short term at least; but it’s not a realistic option in the UK context.)
Some have tried to compare independence to a divorce, arguing that that makes it a matter for both (or even all) parties.  It’s not a wholly unfair comparison; but those using that argument should bear in mind that whilst the terms of any divorce are indeed a matter for negotiation – or even acrimonious argument – the fact of the divorce can be decided by one partner acting alone.
Clearly, those opposed to independence have every right to seek to persuade the people of Scotland that divorce is a bad idea.  They even have a right to be awkward and petty about the terms of the divorce, although I’m not sure that it would be the wisest thing for them to do.  But arguing about the right to a divorce is an irrelevance; it’s missing the point.
If we start from the premise – as I do – that ‘sovereignty’ belongs to all of us, individually and collectively, rather then being bestowed miraculously on the head of state, then it follows that we can change the way that we choose to exercise that sovereignty.  We can choose how much to share or pool at community level, at national level, or at international level; and we can change those decisions as and when we like. 
It’s a very different model from that under which the laws and constitution – and those who enjoy power under them – currently operate; but those laws and constitution only operate as they do with the consent of the governed, even if we don’t always realise that.  (Perhaps if we did realise it more often, the governed might withhold consent more often as well.)
Thus far, I suspect that most nationalists would agree with what I’ve said, even if ‘unionists’ (perhaps ‘constitutionalists’ would be a better term here) might disagree.  How far do we take it though – because I’d go a lot further.
Part of my difficulty is that I find it hard to define a ‘nation’ in terms that are not, in the final analysis, based on subjective self-identity, which also means that I reject the idea that people can have one and only one ‘nationality’ in an exclusive and neatly packaged way.  For me, Wales is a nation because sufficiently large numbers of Welsh people believe it to be so.  For sure, place of birth, history, territory, descent, community, family and language all come into the process of arriving at that self-identity, but nobody can have that self-identity forced upon them.
It follows from that that I’d challenge the idea that ‘sovereignty’ is something which can only be exercised at a ‘national’ level.  What if the people of Ynys Môn (I pick on them because of their neat island status – I could equally have picked on the ‘down-belows’ of Pembrokeshire, or even the inhabitants of Upper Cwmsgwt) were to decide that they wanted to exercise full sovereignty – independence for Ynys Môn?
I can think of lots of reasons why it might not be the brightest idea ever, but I cannot think of any reason why anyone else should be able to refuse it, if it was what the people wanted.  And that has surely to be the driver for what power we individually and collectively cede to which institutions at the different levels – the will of the people.  If sovereignty truly belongs to the people, there can be no argument against them exercising it at whatever level they choose.
There is another side to sovereignty though, and that’s about accepting the consequences.  The relationships between sovereign states can only be decided bilaterally or multilaterally; not unilaterally.  It’s back to the question about the terms of the divorce.  Scotland, Wales – even Ynys Môn – can become independent if they wish, but there are consequences to that.
To date, those consequences have often been discussed in axiomatic terms.  For as long as it was little more than a theoretical possibility, it’s been possible to make sweeping statements about the economic consequences with little solid basis in fact.  The developing situation in Scotland will inevitably shed more light on the detail, and lead to more rigorous challenge of some of the underlying assumptions and high level numbers which have been thrown around – on both sides.
That can only be a good thing.  I remain as convinced that ‘small is beautiful’, and that the advantages of exercising more power locally outweigh the disadvantages, as I was in the 1970s.  The trend to increasing globalisation since then has only served to reinforce that view.  Welsh self determination is a step along that route rather than an end in itself, but it has often felt as though devolution has diverted attention from consideration of that step.  The debate in Scotland brings it very much back into focus; we need to have the courage to follow where they lead, not continue to hold back.


Anonymous said...

One argument I'd use against 'allowing' independence would
if the community arguing for independence is a community which has recently moved into the locality of a defined historic geographic nation. And if that community has been able to move there because of the used or perceived threat of military back-up by their stronger 'home' nation. I'm thinking of Russian communities in the Baltics or of Transnistra, or, dare I say, were it to come to that situation, Anglophone communities in Wales/Scotland.

I do not think either that immigrants have any right to change the constitutional status of their adopted country. 'Immigrants' in this case would be for instance, Arab communities in France, Turks in Germany etc. Highly unlikely. But a distinction needs to be made between immigrants who move to a country without the 'strength' (military, politically, linguistically) like Turks, Pakistanis etc and others like Russians in the Baltic. This distinction is rarely made in the UK press.

I think there is also an ever more difficult to define criteria, and that is one of global 'worth' of that state's independence. Would the global community of nations be strengthened in its diversity if say Ynys Môn went independent (what from an independent Wales so as to avoid being too Welsh?) and would this independence be used to undermine a unique (and possibly weak or fragile) linguistic and cultural community? Lets say, a Spanish speaking enclave in the Basque Country or Francophone island within the Tahiti archipelago. That is, the 'loss' of a small piece of land and population within a large powerful linguistic community would be 'less' of a loss to the world's linguistic diversity than that unit staying within a weaker linguistic community.


John Dixon said...

Difficult waters, S.

There is clearly a relationship between a 'nation' and an area of 'territory', but to what extent must people accept the definition of 'nation' which comes with the territory? The issues are never going to be clear-cut in a matter so dependent on subjective self-identity. But if the prime driver is the will of the people, then on what basis can a minority within a large territory, which happens to be a majority within a small part of that territory, be denied the right to determine their own future if they so choose?

There was a debate on WalesHome a year or so ago about the status of Monmouthshire, initiated by an English nationalist. The argument got silly, because so much of it depended from his point of view on interpretation of arcane law, and because whatever the history does or does not say, there is simply no indication of any significant body of opinion in Monmouthshire that the county should be moved into England from Wales.

But, just for the sake of argument, let us suppose that 90% of people in Monmouthshire declared clearly and unequivocally (through whatever mechanism) that they wanted the county to be transferred into England. If sovereignty over the area in which they live belongs to them, on what basis could their wishes be over-ridden? And, if we do over-ride their wishes, would we not be saying that our definition of the nationality of that part of the world and the people in it is more important than their own definition?

And if we take the second view - that we as the rest of Wales will not allow them to secede, then what is the difference between that position and the position of a UK government refusing to allow Scottish secession?

I'm being deliberately provocative, of course; but I think we need to challenge ourselves and others more often on the principles and beliefs which underlie a particular view of the world. I'm clear that my own starting point is that it's down to the people to decide their own future, and that 'nationality' cannot be forced onto anyone. I can't say that I'm entirely comfortable with all of the conclusions to which that leads, but I'm not hiding from them either.

Anonymous said...

It's a difficult one to define in terms of international law. Kosovo is still 'disputed' in theory whereas Montenegro attained independence without significant opposition from Serbia, some people think Palestine should belong to Israel (and others vice versa), and what about self-determination for Ulster? Or is Ireland one country? What about the Malvinas/Falklands and the issue of territorial claims? Or Iraq's claim on Kuwait which dates back to the British Empire? Russian-speakers in Moldova or Latvia...Kurds in Turkey or Turks in Cyprus, or Assyrians in Kurdistan...in Africa it's "normal" for a country to contain a multitude of cultures and ethnicities. And in Bolivia certain sections of the upper classes have invented seccessionist movements out of thin air to try and hoard resources.

Then on the other hand what if a legitimate cause for self-determination gets skewed and manipulated by a foreign power that wants to weaken the parent state for their own ends? It gets even murkier in that case. See the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua for an example, and how they were encouraged by the CIA to rise against the Sandinista revolution which itself was fighting for the independence of Nicaragua.

Challenging perceptions as John says is a useful exercise, but i'm struggling to apply a 'world standard' which would please everyone or even have a common legal basis. It gets even harder when things like imperialsm and colonialism come into it, because there are other international laws covering decolonisation. It leads to difficult conclusions as John notes. In Wales though it can't be disputed that we are already a nation, not a territory, as is Scotland, and there is a certain kind of acknowledged legitimacy inherent within that definition.

Anonymous said...

From your example of Ynys Mon, if the powers to be were against YM's voice for self determination, they then transported like minded people to live there thus distorting the electorate. What should be done?

John Dixon said...


Your point is one I had considered, and highlights the difficulties surrounding the issue. The problem is defining who can over-ride local opinion, and in what circumstances. It's a double-edged sword.