Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
It’s not only Scotland. In Catalonia, hundreds of thousands marched for independence last Thursday, notwithstanding a long-time nationalist leader’s embroilment in a corruption scandal. Even Italy’s Veneto region, heir to the Republic of Venice. voted for independence earlier this year. Is this the start of a new Venetian irrendentism? Should we imagine that an ambitious young Doge will infiltrate Dubrovnik and Heraklion by deploying unmarked troops posing as tourists, assault rifles hidden in rolled up beach towels and grenades clipped to special issue bikinis?
Croats and Cretans need not worry, they won’t find themselves incorporated into La Nuova Serenissima, as this new empire might be called in imitation of Putin’s Novorossiya. This new separatism is a very much a diet drink.
Where Alex Salmond wants independence, but to keep the Queen and pound; the Catalan nationalists want independence, but to remain part of the Spanish football league. Venetian nationalists surely desire that Treviso retain the opportunity to lose to Irish and Welsh (and occasionally beat Scottish) rugby teams in the Pro-12 championship.
Instead of the sacred trinity of language, blood and soil, this new kind of nationalism is about a UN Seat, internet top level domain, and a permanent representative at the International Olympic Committee. Even national airlines are no longer in fashion (Air Caledonia, anyone?).
It was Nigel Farage who uttered the uncomfortable truth: “independent Scotland” wouldn’t be independent at all, if it joined the EU. The even more uncomfortable truth, for Farage at least, is that it wouldn’t even be independent even if it stayed out, any more than Norway or Switzerland are.
All countries have to pay attention to international markets: to sell goods across a border, you have to abide by the other side’s regulations. Trade, telecoms and international travel all have rules set by international organisations.
International security is to all intents and purposes provided to Europe by the United States. Venice, Scotland and Catalonia will be just as able to get a free ride on US security as Italy, Spain and even Britain already do (under this government, British defence spending has fallen below NATO’s target.)
Macroeconomic policy is set by international financial conditions. Having a central bank of its own gives a country a little flexibility, but it still needs to maintain a credible fiscal posture to avoid its interests rates rising fully. As Dominic Lawson has pointed out (£), an independent Scotland would have to adopt the market-friendly and fiscally prudent economic policy that Salmond has so far promised Scots they would be able to avoid.
These days “independence” gives a country the right to run up debts it cannot afford to pay back; exclude itself from military alliances that protect it; deny itself access to markets for its goods or supplies of hard-working labour. To be independent is to give oneself a right that one knows it would be foolish to take up. But these are rights that no sane country exercises, or at least would exercise for very long.
But it’s precisely because this independence is illusory that it’s so tempting. There was a time when declaring independence brought with it the risk of invasion, military occupation and the public execution of rebel leaders; years of markets closed to trade; and the need to construct the institutions of government from scratch. In the West at least, this is no longer true. There would be short-term costs as economies adjusted. There would be pointless duplication of diplomatic and intelligence services. Ad-hoc committees would be needed to manage cross-border electricity and water supply, but these are no big deal.
The same is true of America. Were Texas to secede, or the Pacific Northwest to form its own republic, life would, after a small period of adjustment, get back to normal. We might as well all be duchies and prince-bishoprics in a revived pre-Reformation Holy Roman Empire, when it mattered relatively little to the inhabitants of either territory whether, say, the Duchy of Luxembourg and the Margravate of Hesse were ruled by the same or different individuals.
If this makes secession relatively safe, it also makes it pointless. Leaving the Union won’t improve things for Scots. As long as the new socialist dawn that Salmond has been promising disgruntled Labour voters doesn’t come to pass, their lives won’t get appreciably worse (though Prime Minister Salmond’s will get appreciably better).
As Henry Kissinger once said of academic rows, the demand for secession is so intense because stakes are so low. Voting yes is either self-indulgence or delusion, and would only acquire for Scots a set of freedoms it would be self-defeating to actually exercise. It wouldn’t even improve Scottish rugby.