Sovereignty

4. The difference between having and using

Is a gun still a gun if you don't shoot it? Is it still a gun if you don't load it? What if you put the safety on when the gun is loaded – is it still a gun then?

What about a chocolate bar? If you have a chocolate bar and you keep it in the drawer and don't eat it is it still a chocolate bar?

Or Britain. If Britain has no control over its terms of trade with the rest of the world is it still a sovereign state? Is it still a sovereign state if it can't unilaterally fire its own nuclear weapons? If it can't spend any money in its own domestic economy that another country might call 'state subsidy', is it a real country? I mean, Britain can't even invade other countries and claim them for its empire any more. Is it really an independent country?

The answer to these questions is incredibly simple; a gun is a gun whether you shoot it or not, chocolate is chocolate whether you eat it or not and sovereignty is sovereignty whether or not you choose to sign agreements that commit you not to use certain aspects of your sovereignty.

So what the hell is it (once again) with Scottish exceptionalism? Why would it be a uniquely Scottish trait that if we set up a deal to maintain a sensible approach to running deficits in the early years of independence (as we should anyway – so long as we're clear about the difference between capital and revenue spending), that means we're not independent?

It has become a tiresome aspect of the independence debate, almost as irrelevant as discussing whether London is really going to bomb our railways stations and kidnap our pandas. But still it persists – some commentators who should really known better insist on seeing Scottish sovereignty as fundamentally different to the sovereignty of all the 193 other countries in the United Nations. This argument keeps coming back like a confidence-sapping cousin of Project Fear itself – better no' bother cuz wull no' be a real country anyway.

So let us take apart the forms of sovereignty that Scotland would cede to other bodies (there's a Reid Foundation report that discusses some of this which you can read here). We would cede almost all powers on the terms of international trade to the World Trade Organisation. As we have seen over the last 20 years, that involves a truly enormous hand-over of power to (in effect) global trading corporations. Likewise, the degree of control over the domestic economy which is lost when various pacts on 'state aid' and 'fair competition' are signed up to (WTO, IMF, EU) is startling. I mean, who thought that we'd be potentially prevented from setting a minimum pricing for alcohol (all alcohol, no protectionism here) for our own citizens? Then of course there is the very extensive series of domestic laws which as subservient to EU law or which have implemented EU law through our own legal system. These are very significant hand-overs of power from sovereign state to supra-national bodies.

Apparently, however, the loss of interest rate-setting and the need to hold to a reasonable pact on deficit are the red line that must not be crossed. Neither of these things are anything like as fundamental to the operation of the state as the loss of control over trade, state investment or domestic law, but for some reason we are supposed to hang our heads and give up. It's not real independence.

Except it is. We can choose to join the EU. And then, if our citizens will it, we can choose to leave. That's sovereignty. We can join the WTO but, if we really wanted to, we could pull out – and accept the consequences. We can join a Sterling Zone. And then we can choose to leave. That's sovereignty. I've heard from Better Together-sponsored academics that this can't be, that all the terms of the Sterling Zone will be set by Westminster and we won't be allowed to leave until they let us. But firstly (as I hope I'm demonstrating in this blog) it is Scotland which is in the stronger position to agree the terms. And in any case, as I've demonstrated earlier (see here), nation states pulling out of agreements and renegotiating conditions is the norm, not the exception. Scotland, as a sovereign state, will be free to renegotiate or go. Yet again, the narrative set assumes that Scotland, uniquely among the world's nations, must act in good faith at all times; it is almost assumed that the UK will seek to trick and cheat to get its way. Just not us.

I really wish it was possible just to kill off this garbage with clear, rational thought. There are only two constitutional positions; sovereign and not sovereign. Being a nation state puts you into the former of these categories. What you do with your sovereignty – and for how long you do it – is then up to you. Hence 'sovereignty'. Britain has given up much more sovereignty already than even the most cautious SNP position proposes we additionally give up post independence. Germany has given up even more. In fact, Germany will probably have given up more power than Scotland when all is finalised. Is Germany a sovereign state? How do the poor Germans get through the day when they realise that their 'independence-lite' constitutional status is barely worth having? You'd think they'd have phoned London by now, seeking to be 'Better Together' by merging with a truly powerful independent country like Britain.

The revelation that there is no such thing as 'half sovereign' has two implications for what I'm trying to do with this blog. The first is the confidence point; why are we allowing a certain group of people to present cross-border agreements (the norm in international relations) as another sign of Scotland's weakness, it's patheticness? It's just more 'pretendy country' black-ops, a chance to ask Alex Salmond on the TV questions David Cameron would never be asked ('Mr Cameron, let's face it, Britain isn't really a country at all, is it?”).

But the second is the corollary. A sovereign nation is in control, not just now but indefinitely. If Scotland joins a Sterling Zone-pact and if that pact is badly negotiated and 'ties us in' to the pact for say ten years, we can just change our mind. We can leave whenever we want, irrespective of what we've agreed. It's called realpolitik and it happens day and daily. That we bother with this pact at all is predicated on us wanting Sterling. If the pact becomes a pain and once the campaign to get the Scottish people on their knees is over, I strongly suggest that walking away will feel pretty easy.

This is part of the No gambit, the idea that our future will be defined at what we're led to believe will be our weakest moment. The No Campaign wants us to believe that in those two years after an independence vote we'll be a beggar nation, that we'll have to settle for what we get and that we'll be stuck with it for a generation.

But I've seen the movies. So long as the good guy still has a gun he still has a chance. Sovereignty does not need to be exercised in every aspect on every day. So long as we have it we can use it if we need to. Which is to say, so long as Scotland has sovereignty, we're in control. Unless we choose not to be.

Just like everyone else.

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