What does sovereignty mean for Scotland and its people?

Continuing our special week of coverage on self-determination, Sean Bell explores whether an independent Scotland would equal a sovereign Scotland? And what would it take it to achieve sovereignty in reality as well as principle?

HALFWAY through Nicola Sturgeon’s statement before Holyrood on Wednesday [24 April] – an address otherwise framed in scrupulously diplomatic terms of apparent outreach, inclusivity and attempted consensus – came an unexpected echo of the constitutional radicalism of a different era.

In making the case for a potential second plebiscite on Scottish independence, agreed and recognised by both the UK and Scottish governments, Sturgeon argued that a vote of such “unquestioned legitimacy” would respect the principle enshrined in the 1989 Claim of Right – “that the Scottish people are sovereign.”

Scholars of the document – initially drafted in 1988 by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which would soon give rise to the Scottish Constitutional Convention – might recognise the political profitability of Sturgeon making reference to the Claim, which was signed by almost all Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians at the time. Their willingness to consider new and untested constitutional futures for Scotland stands in stark contrast to unionist parties’ lukewarm or half-baked reactions to Sturgeon’s challenge that they bring forward their own proposals for reforming the devolution settlement.

However, the context in which Sturgeon employed the Claim as an inspiration for her current and painfully cautious strategy renders it somewhat inappropriate: whilst few deny its significance, the Claim never carried any legal force, and did not pretend to. Its power lay in the gauntlet it threw down to those in power; in declaring the Scottish people as sovereign, the awkward task fell to the British state to either acknowledge or challenge that conclusion.

In contrast with the SNP of the 1980s – who were marginal in their influence over the Claim, and swiftly left the Scottish Constitutional Convention over its refusal to consider the possibility of independence – the modern SNP not only understands the Claim’s significance, but its usefulness, as in 2012 when Sturgeon as deputy first minister called on all parties to “recommit” to its principles, or last year, when the SNP Westminster group engineered a debate which saw the House of Commons accept a motion recognising “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”

Such admissions are embarrassing for the UK Government and unionist parties generally, because they prompt implicit questions: if such sovereignty is accepted, to what extent can it be put into practice? What is the actual reality of this particularly, peculiarly Scottish sovereignty in the Union where even the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, of any kind and in any nation, has been murky at best since the English Civil War?

However, just because Sturgeon’s recent rhetoric prompts such fascinating questions does not necessarily mean they will be adequately explored in the weeks and months to come, as past experience has shown us. In the wake of Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum, many Scottish politicians and activists sympathetic to the Catalan cause talked far more of the “right to self-determination” enshrined by the United Nations than they did during the campaigns leading up to Scotland’s own vote in 2014.

Similarly, when Gordon Brown ominously warned that an independent Scotland would be forced into a “neo-colonial” relationship with its neighbours – borrowing a concept from Ghana’s revolutionary first president Kwame Nkrumah, who argued that the mechanisms of globalised capitalism could subjugate a nation just as effectively old-school imperialism – few asked why precisely Scotland (or, for that matter, the UK) did not suffer from neo-colonialism already?

The SNP and the Scottish Government will, in all likelihood, focus more on making headway in achieving a binding, recognised referendum than in debating the theoretical underpinnings of the independence being voted on; they have form, in that regard. So if the nature of sovereignty in the context of Scottish independence is to be properly interrogated, it may fall to the Scottish independence movement to do so.

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In recent years, the concept of national sovereignty has been much used and abused in the discourse surrounding Brexit, which was framed by many of its more pop-eyed supporters as a means of seizing sovereignty back from the European Union. Yet as Ralph C. Bryant noted in a 2018 article for the Brookings Institute, De jure sovereignty cannot guarantee that a nation will be able, de facto, to prevent external influences from shaping events and decisions taken within its borders… De jure sovereignty is frequently irrelevant. Effective U.K. autonomy depends more on the complex web of economic, social, and cultural interactions with the rest of the world than it does on the U.K. government’s formal political power.”

So while criticisms of the undemocratic nature of the EU and the economic and political restrictions placed upon its member-states have been well rehearsed on both the Left and Right, it would be naïve to suppose that Scotland or the UK achieving a national political sovereignty, such as in the case of Brexit, would equate to actual autonomy, unless it was accompanied by an economic sovereignty, from which its interactions with the rest of the world would be conducted.

The closest modern example of such an achievement arguably came in 2017, when Bolivia under Evo Morales declared “total independence” from both the IMF and the World Bank, culminating over 60 years of Bolivian resistance struggles against the economic policies demanded by those organisations. The paucity of proposals amongst Lexiteers for how a UK or an independent Scotland free of the EU would then address, say, the WTO, or any other globalised agency of organised capital, have rendered these arguments all the more urgent.

Achieving a sovereignty that yields actual political and economic autonomy does not mean isolation – indeed, it would hardly be conceivable or desirable if it did. In fact, historical efforts towards achieving and maintaining such practical sovereignty have been most successful when underpinned by an internationalism of mutual aid and respect.

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In order to stand up to economic forces often far more powerful than the government of any single nation-state, the Non-Aligned Movement – the international bloc chiefly composed of countries born from struggles for self-determination - has for decades adhered to a “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”. In practice, this has meant mutual non-aggression, non-interference in domestic affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence as both goals and guiding principles. If an independent Scotland were to protect whatever sovereignty it established, then the argument could be made that its approach to foreign policy and geopolitics would be enormously relevant.

Of course, as the Scottish independence movement will need no reminding, there are different interpretations of how sovereignty could be interpreted and protected on a basis that extends beyond the individual nation-state. Earlier this month, while making a case for EU membership that also served as an indirect defence of the controversial Growth Commission, Andrew Wilson wrote in the National that “true sovereignty means acting in your interest, not acting alone”, arguing that the pooling and sharing of sovereignty is in the collective economic and social self-interest of small nations.

That point – along with Wilson’s characterisation of the EU as a “community of equal partners” – may be arguable, but as a defence of the Growth Commission’s prescriptions for an independent Scotland, it falls flat. As the economist Richard Murphy has pointed out, an arrangement in which an independent Scotland would have no control over its money supply and interest rates, would be forced to earn the currency of another state to service its debts, and where the fate of the Scottish economy would be tied to both the consequences of Brexit and London’s deference to the needs of the City, is not what any honest analysis could describe as the sharing of sovereignty amongst a community of equals.

Much of this relates to a sovereignty of the nation-state – but what of the sovereignty of the Scottish people, articulated by the Claim of Right, idealised by so many since, but rarely realised? All that can be said for certain is that it would fall to the political system of an independent Scotland to ensure and guard that sovereignty. For what can a nation be, distinct from its people?

Picture courtesy of Martin Burns

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