Tuesday, April 23, 2024

People And Things: Scotland stays


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In light of the pre-referendum polling which suggested a statistical dead-heat, I was inclined to state – when asked – that I would have been both surprised and disappointed if a majority voted “Yes” in Scotland’s referendum.

This perspective is born of a world view which has some evidentiary support in poll data and suggests that people are now less interested in disintegration and the trappings of independence, since these appear not to render short-term tangible benefits. Consistent with this trend, there appears to be a greater interest in Europe and the opportunities it offers and while Europeans are challenging the dominance of Brussels, it is equally clear that increasing numbers of younger people are moving and taking advantage of opportunities within that environment.

One’s perspective on independence and sovereignty is naturally bound up with these sentiments on integration; hence it is not surprising that recent referenda that put the issue of becoming a republic on the table in Australia and St Vincent have been rejected in much the same way that the Scots just rejected Independence.

In 1998 an analogous regional instance occurred where Nevis voted on a referendum with respect to their independence and while this vote gained the support of a majority of Nevisians it fell short of the required two-thirds majority. This outcome lends support to a theory that this is not an era in which non-tangible manifestations of sovereignty will flourish.

There are those among us who consider this global trend unfortunate. however, there is much we can learn objectively from the outcome of the Scotland vote beginning with the context of what supporters of independence actually wanted, as distinct from what they appeared to want. 

In the Caribbean we have considerable experience with independence and a proper investigation would reveal that our desires had less to do with our remoteness from the metropole and more to do with the disadvantages that our colonial status produced. It is for this reason that Clennel Wickham was not an advocate of independence, while Barrow a generation later was. Both gentlemen wanted fundamentally the same thing, but the interpretation was different and in much the same way the Scots now want what Wickham and Barrow wanted: “fair treatment”.

If one appreciates that this has always been central to our desires to pursue independence, it makes understanding the range of possibilities considerably easier.  In these instances, leaders asses the best options for their population, along with the possibilities for their own advancement and in the 60s and 70s the popular solution was independence. 

It is equally clear now that the contemporary scenario appreciates that decolonisation can effectively proceed without reference to titular trappings of independence and sovereignty.

Rise to pinnacle

It is well understood that leaders naturally wish to rise to the pinnacle of their political ladder which is to become premier, prime minister, chancellor or president.  It is, however, less well understood that people generally have little natural desire to see their leaders presented in these ways unless they themselves benefit in the process. 

Hence our delight at the lowering of the Union Jack in 1966 had less to do with our desire to see someone who looked like us leading and more to do with our expectation that we would benefit thereafter more fairly from the “wealth” that our state produced. To be sure, by this time we were already being led by a premier who we considered our leader and who influenced all major decisions on this island. 

We were, however, convinced that his titular upgrade and the symbols of independence that accompanied it would lead more quickly to the type of benefits that were otherwise elusive.

Although Scotland’s GDP is at least 35 times that of Barbados, one can be certain that the independence movement there is influenced by similar sentiments.  One can equally assume that leaders were able to convince those who supported independence that their “dependent” status influenced their material circumstances which could be improved by voting “Yes”. 

This is the nature of such debates and while the majority can here be accused of being unpatriotic, the reality is that Scotland is today no less Scottish because the concept of “Scottishness” has less to do with the expensive and complex trappings of sovereignty that Alex Salmond sought to establish.

Positive impact

In the wake of this outcome it is important that [Britain’s Prime Minister] David Cameron has committed himself to further devolution and indeed opened up this discussion in a way that can have a positive impact on the governance of not only Scotland, but Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed England.

This is perhaps the most significant benefit of this entire process which has highlighted the extent to which the highly centralised government of the UK’s unitary system alienates some localities and is counterproductive. 

The long term solution is therefore clearly to nurture various forms of local government giving people meaningful involvement in the management of their own destiny, while maintaining a focus on broad macro-economic and foreign policy.

• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).


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