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Ross Carrick: Reconstituting Scotland: the Unethical Covenant

So much for the facts, but what of the moral and ethical nature of the present stage in Scottish constitutional (re-)specification? In this piece, I argue that the debates over an independent Scotland’s ability to be economically self-sufficient and prosperous are unduly concerned with the facticity of competing claims, which obscures important ethical concerns. I show how these concerns are valid irrespective of a worldview of economics i.e. whether you are, what is colloquially referred to as, “left wing” or “right wing”. I urge that these ethical concerns should be taken seriously by even the most patriotic or nationalist sentiments, because the referendum – as part of the continuous (re-)evolution of Scotland and Scottish identity – threatens to defame the Scottish people with hubris and greed. Finally, I show how this argument relates to the more general thesis of global cosmopolitanism, as opposed to defending it as a special case for the UK. On the contrary, the underlying premise of the argument extols the virtue of breaking down sovereign barriers between states – the process of EU integration exemplifying such cosmopolitan trends. 

It is no secret that nationalists laud the potential for Scotland to be richer and a more vibrant polity inter alia if, and only if, she becomes an independent nation-state. Scotland, it is claimed, would benefit from its oil-rich territory; and be able to compete in an aggressive international marketplace to attract corporations to invest their capital in Scotland and her people. I don’t care if that’s true. I don’t want that, and nor should I. If these propositions are correct, then what is good about them? The implicit logic in these propositions is a better quality of life for the Scottish people. If Scotland does get the oil, then there will more jobs for Scottish people, and there will be a greater yield in tax revenues to contribute to the welfare of the Scottish people. If Scotland attracts new businesses to her shores, then, again, more jobs and a greater tax yield. Whether you are a free-market capitalist (“right wing”) or a socialist (“left wing”), you can accept that logic. One reason you can be in favour of independence because of consequential economic benefits. The right wing ideology would celebrate the purported influx of corporate capital, and the jobs that would come with it. The left wing ideology would welcome the higher yield of tax for the benefit of the most disadvantaged constituencies of Scottish society. 

Yet the greater the truth in these propositions, the greater their unethical nature. To understand why we must consider the status quo. Where are these jobs and where is this capital – oil or business – now? First, it must be accepted that any economic gains from oil are currently enjoyed by the UK and its constituents. But if an independent Scotland takes full ownership of this resource, then its fruits will no longer benefit the remainder of the UK. So, there will be x jobs less in rUK, and x jobs more in iScot; and there will be y less tax revenue in rUK, and y more in iScot. In terms of attracting business, whether or not the hoards of corporations that flock to Scotland after independence come from rUK or not, they will inevitably come from another nation-state, whose people will lose out in terms of jobs and tax revenue. It may not be a straight-forward zero-sum formula, as implied above. Nevertheless, and especially with respect to oil, it tends towards that relationship; and, so much for the facts, we do see arguments from the “yes” campaign that either have that structure, or are, even more commonly, indifferent to/silent on the issue of third-country economic deficits that may occur post-independence. 

In a nutshell, then, these economic arguments are unethical because they are premised on the fundamental idea of the betterment of Scotland, but (often unwittingly) at the cost of, in particular, her English, Welsh, and Northern Irish brothers and sisters. iScot’s per capita higher tax yield will provide better education, better health care and better welfare support more generally to the Scottish people. But this then means, ipso facto, the disadvantaged people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will have less financial means to distribute and enjoy such benefits. For the more free-market-capitalist-oriented, this also, ipso facto, means less industry, capital and jobs in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The same asymmetric gains and losses apply to the attraction of corporations: more jobs and more tax for iScot; less for the peoples of rUK and other losing nation-states.

How can that be justified? I ask this question somewhat rhetorically, but with a weak sense of agnosticism – the burden of proof is now on proponents of the economic argument. The question we must ask is whether or not we, as Scottish people, want it to be a defining characteristic of our ethos, culture, and personhood that we benefit at the direct cost to other people. Drop the nationalist nomenclature, it is the lives and welfare of other people that are at stake. Do we really pride ourselves so highly and righteously? When Ireland seceded from the UK in 1922, it was not out of hubris or greed, it was out of theological and ideological oppression. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland and her people can consequently be defined as Roman Catholic and republican (qua anti-monarchy). We all know the troubles that prompted re-specification of the Irish Constitution. The Scottish case perhaps once could be said to resist unionist sentiments on the basis of oppression. But, in spite of relatively trivial trends in UK general elections, a move for independence at this stage in Scottish constitutional re-specification could be seen as introducing a covenant premised on greed. This is not to say that there are not any good (ethically speaking) reasons for independence. There may indeed be some symmetrical positive-sum economic benefits of independence, to the extent that regional economies may be able to achieve this through careful planning and economic co-ordination – although, again, the burden would be on proponents of such arguments to come forward and defend against, or differentiate from, the unethical asymmetric arguments. There are also valid arguments about identity and self-government that do not turn on, and do not advocate, strong forms of economic self-preference. Nevertheless, we must think carefully about how we will be defined as a people if we do not sufficiently address the unethical economic argument. 

To be clear, I don’t favour the UK as a “unit of loyalty” – there is no special case for the UK. To argue so would contradict a central premise in my argument: that the existence of many independent nation-states generates the conditions in which public authorities compete against each other in an aggressive market place, which leads to a “race to the bottom”; and so business entities, which are not constrained by territorial boundaries, can hold governments to hostage insofar as governments make more and more concessions to business entities to attract them to their shores, which, in turn, reduces the overall yield, globally speaking, of capital/resources that exist in public spheres. Poorer publics, richer business entities. In game theory terms, best there be as few players as possible. So, in the event of Scottish independence, yet another player would come to the table, and one which, if the nationalists are correct, will come at the expense of the other players (other nation-states), or at least try to. 

Contrast all this with the EU, which has always aimed towards pooling players to bring about mutual economic success. The Treaty on European Union’s preamble has, since its conception, been founded on the desire to “[create] an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”; “to achieve the strengthening and the convergence of [the Member States’] economies”; and “promote economic and social progress for their peoples” – distinctly ethical covenants underpinning the EU’s constitutional frame and identity. Yet even the EU may end up betraying its own principles by threatening to become a settled, territorially limited polity that perpetuates the race to the bottom, albeit at a larger scale. Even now, it can (and has) been criticised for failing to develop EU-level welfare protection. Indeed, Habermas has urged the need for a comprehensive EU Constitution so as to reach that end. Though I have always felt that the EU, with its finalité unknown, serves to exemplify to the world a method of global cosmopolitanism, which might bring about a truly global public, a truly global community/polity, a unitary global public sphere, and, thus, a global system of welfare provision that can command a greater yield and distribution. This proposition is admittedly idealistic, utopian, and, if it does happen, it is generations away. But it is the right direction to move in – it decreases the number of players, and may inspire similar economic covenants to be acted upon elsewhere. An independent Scotland, however, would be a clear move in the opposite direction.

Ross Carrick has recently obtained a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh

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