Monday 2 October 2006

Michael Fry

In yesterday's Sunday Times, the Scottish conservative historian Michael Fry wrote about his conversion to the cause of Scottish independence. Mr Fry has kindly agreed to answer some questions posed by Freedom and Whisky.

1. I read that in researching your new book you ended up by becoming a nationalist. Would you elaborate on that and tell us what in particular has brought about this unexpected change in your views? Have you been contemplating this change for a long time?

Like most conservatives I don’t find nationalism, as such, to be alien territory. In fact it is part of the conservatives’ stock-in-trade in all countries of the world - with the sole exception of Scotland, where the Tory party has got itself into the untenable position of being an anti-patriotic party. Its resulting electoral record speaks for itself, and is little recommendation for other conservative parties to follow its path. I myself have been by no means unsympathetic to devolution, but hoped that it might be the means of combining two patriotisms, Scottish and British. That consideration has, however, been in my mind swept aside by the sheer awfulness of the Scottish Parliament, combining pork-barrel politics with political correctness. The conviction has been growing on me for several years that something more thoroughgoing has to be done to the government of Scotland for the situation to improve. What my studies of the Union have taught me is that the choice between Union and independence is not simple and clear-cut, not in 1707 and not now. It is a matter of weighing up the situation and the possible ways of changing it. An ambiguous preference for Union in 1707 turned out to be of great benefit to Scotland in the end; an ambiguous preference for independence seems to me the more likely to have the same effect now.
2. You have rejected joining the SNP because their policies are anti-liberal. Do you think that there is any likelihood of a radical realignment in Scottish politics? I’m thinking of some kind of merger between the “liberal” forces in the SNP and those Scottish Conservatives who are frustrated by the current state of their party. Might we even see a low-tax, small government party in Scotland while England dithers under Mr Cameron?
I don’t think a realignment of parties in the present Scottish Parliament likely. They are all still frozen in the postures of the period before 1999. That, precisely, is one reason for favouring independence. It would at once bring home to the Scottish people the choices they face, some of them rather stark – the economic ones in particular. Only in these circumstances are liberal policies for Scotland likely to look realistic – indeed they would, in my view, be the sole way out of the fiscal crisis that would face the new Scottish state. In those conditions we might expect Tories to revert to the ideal of small government and enter into alliance with those latent forces in the SNP, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, which look with dismay on a bloated and wasteful public sector.
3. Many English journalists, both in print and in the blogosphere, see Scotland as an economic basket case. It seems to me that the Scottish GDP per-capita isn’t too far from the UK or European average and that our problem is too much government spending and control rather than a fundamental weakness in our ability to produce. Do you agree?
I do agree. Scotland is an average region of the UK and of the EU. It can improve its position only by the means which independence makes possible, rather than by the lobbying of a central government sited elsewhere.
4. Many of the aforementioned English journalists are now calling for Scottish independence. Do you think that they would be quite so keen should it become apparent that England/England and Wales/England, Wales plus NI would have a reduced status in the EU and the UN?
The situation of countries reducing in size is unusual. But the proposed reduction is only of one-twelfth, since Scotland makes up just over 8 per cent of the UK population. In the European Parliament this might require a small adjustment, but nothing drastic, and in the other European institutions the continuing UK would, even without Scotland, still be a major country. As for the UN, the UK holds its position, for instance on the Security Council, by virtue of the founding charter: I doubt if anyone would want to amend that, or would succeed if they tried. In any case I think the reduced UK would soon make up for its slight loss of population: London is booming (whereas Scotland is stagnant).
5. Sticking with Northern Ireland: In the event of Scottish independence, do you envisage the NI unionists moving towards a rapprochement with the Republic?
NI politics have a dynamic of their own, little affected by whatever happens in Scotland. I doubt if, in particular, unionist attitudes to the Republic would be shifted by Scottish independence.
6. To what extent are you concerned that prominent Scottish companies – the Royal Bank, Standard Life etc. – might flee southwards if independence looked likely? What could be done to counter any such plans?
These companies can flee any time they like, with or without the Union. The reasons they stay in Scotland are many, but some sort of sense of patriotic tradition is probably one of them. I expect that to continue, but it would be shaken if an independent Scotland adopted policies hostile to business. That is one more reason why it should adopt policies friendly to business. Scottish companies will then stay, and foreign companies will come.
7. I’m now thinking of my own situation. Like many born here I have English connections. My late father was English and one of my two sisters was born in England. Most of my adult life was spent in London. How can you reassure the many people like me who may be concerned about a splitting of family connections?
The UK was an imperial power and, even without that, always had to become a worldwide trading nation, otherwise it would not have been able to feed itself. So the foreign connections have been strong and continuous for two or three centuries, and they have included a steady stream of emigration. As a result I should think almost everyone, in Scotland above all, has relations, close or remote, in other countries. My own family has sprigs from California to Hong Kong, and in fact is Irish Protestant in origin. We all, or at least many of us, keep in touch over two or three generations, after which the connections tend to fade a bit. Still, they have survived the independence of Ireland, despite the almost complete disappearance of the family from its original homeland. It would greatly surprise me if the citizens of an independent Scotland would want to break their own bonds of this kind, or would in any way need to.
8. I now turn to foreign affairs. Assuming the Scottish people wished to remain in the EU, would the Union accept us? Would the rest of the UK (perhaps just England & Wales) be deemed to be the continuing UK?
The prevailing opinion in Brussels, as I understand it, is that the continuing UK would inherit membership of the EU on the present basis. Scotland would not be treated as a successor country, and so would have to renegotiate its membership. In principle this appears to present no great problem, since the SNP (assuming it formed the first government of an independent Scotland) is committed to membership. But there could well be some thorny problems, such as the Common Fisheries Policy. In any event, the exact position is unclear because no similar case has yet arisen.
9. What should happen to the nuclear weapons based on Clydeside?
I think the nuclear base would have to close, if that is what an independent government should decide. Nobody is interested in making Scotland a nuclear power. At the same time I hope that this, along with many other matters of detail, would be a matter for amicable agreement between Scotland and the UK.
10. What should an independent Scotland do to alleviate poverty and welfare dependency in Glasgow and its surroundings?
The nation’s watchword should be self-reliance. The aim must be a liberal democracy with limited government sustained by the capitalist system.


David Farrer said...

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I'm not saying we'd be bankrupting the rUK on independence, just getting our fair share of the assets. Not only have Scottish taxpayers contributed their fair share towards the project over the last 50 years, but they are compelled to host it. Of course the rUK could keep the nuclear weapons system (by moving it into their own country), but it is only fair that Scotland gets its fair share from it back (notice the phrase "fair share"). That is only equitable and it follows international precendent on the issue.

22 October 2006, 08:46:10 GMT+01:00
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Andrew Duffin
"...the SNP is committed to membership [of the EU]..." 
So, not independence at all. 
As I thought. 
Since about 80% (and rising) of the UK's laws now come from Brussels "without the option", what exactly does anyone think this sort of "independence" would change?

17 October 2006, 12:31:52 GMT+01:00
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Jim H
Elgol if the nuclear bases are a shared UK asset. Trident is worth Billions. Surely in any negiotiation the remaining UK would say, keep Trident and we'll keep an equivalent portional worth of other assets. I think you've been running through one of those dream negiotiations, thinking it will go only one way. There is a presendent - ROI - I believe they got what was on their soil. Bankrupting the remining UK will not happen there will be a military coup first.

16 October 2006, 01:44:22 GMT+01:00
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I think whether the UK ceases to exist on Scottish independence or not is a good point. I suspect the actual semantics will like everything, be up for negotiation come independence. 
The closing of the Nuclear base is no seamless task, and will be an extremely costly one for the reduced UK, which will have to replicate the facilties somewhere else if it wishes to remain an international power. 
Another interesting point is the division of assets and liabilities. Scotland will be due its pro-rata share of UK assets on independence - everything from government bonds and investments, to a share of the diplomatic estate (foreign embassies, property and net property income from abroad). Then there is military hardware, the defence estate, gold reserves, currency reserves, share of UK government capital (building stock etc). Scotland will be due a share of the assets of UK Government agencies like the DWP, Customs and Revenue, DVLA and a whole host of other things. That has the potential to mount up into quite a significant amount of money (quite probably in the billions). 
Believe it or not, our ability to produce is fantastically better than the rest of the union: Scotland has a surplus of energy - England has a deficit. Scotland produces more food than it requires, England doesn't. Scotland has a surplus of water, England a shortage. Scotland is over-resourced and under-populated, England under-resourced and over-populated (a a very bad combination). Scotland should think itself lucky. With proper government policies, we'd be in a far better position than our nearest neighbours.

4 October 2006, 23:55:33 GMT+01:00
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David Farrer said...

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Bill (Scotland)
Yes, you are of course correct about the full title of the country, but I'm not so sure about the exact status of NI within that country; it is usually referred to as a 'Province' and it certainly does not enjoy the same level of autonomy, under the current (last 30 or so years) shambles there, as any other part of the UK and it does observe, I believe, English Law. England runs it a close second if it weren't for the fact that, as the major component of the country, it dominates more or less everything (naturally enough, in my view). I'm still sticking with it comrising, legally, of two nations, until someone provides a convincing counter-proof. As for the idea of Scotland and Northern Ireland forming one political entity post separation from the rest of the present UK such a thought strikes me as, frankly, appalling, and bound to lead to even more trouble in west central Scotland of a sectarian nature than exists now. I should add that, although I have absolutely no stake in this argument whatsoever as I follow no religion, I am 1/4 Irish with a grandparent having come from what is now the Republic of Ireland and unlike Graham Norton he did follow the preponderant religion in that part of Ireland until he came to live in Scotland after WWI and married my grandmother when he became. nominally, a follower of the CoS; her son from an earlier marriage (killed in WWI) although brought up as CoS did indeed become a devout follower of the other faith upon marriage to a cousin through his step-father (my g-f) and remained devout long after they had separated. Unfortunately the inter-generational crossing of religious boundaries, in both directions (and some others I won;t bother to mention here), is not particularly typical in NI or the RoI, more's the pity, but I go into all this in some detail because whatever problems Scotland/England may have pale into insignificance with what might occur were we (Scotland) to be linked with NI post-separation, in my humble opinion

3 October 2006, 15:19:28 GMT+01:00
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Simon Jester
Here's a weird thought: if Northern Ireland and Scotland became independent as a single nation, would they be deemed as the legitimate "United Kingdom", since they would consist of 2/3 of the constituent nations of the current UK?

3 October 2006, 13:34:07 GMT+01:00
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Simon Jester
The full title of the United Kingdom is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". Ulster (or 2/3 of it, if you're of a Tudor frame of mind) is definitely a constituent nation of the UK. 
I would be interested in the impact of Scottish independence on the Unionists of Northern Ireland; an awful lot of them are of Scots descent.

3 October 2006, 13:31:09 GMT+01:00
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Bill (Scotland)
I'm not entirely sure what the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is wihtin the UK, but it is for sure that legally Wales is not a separate condtituent part of the UK - legally it is a principality of England. On balance I will stick with my original claim that there are two constituent nations, legally speaking.

2 October 2006, 21:56:29 GMT+01:00

David Farrer said...

ild Pegasus
Although I support Scottish independence, I think it's odd to argue that Scottish politicians who make bad decisions now will suddenly make better ones with more responsibility. Faithless in least, faithful in much? 
- Josh

2 October 2006, 20:50:59 GMT+01:00
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The answer would surely be for Scotland NOT to apply for membership of the EU: reclaim its fisheries, be shot of the CAP and give Markets a chance.

2 October 2006, 19:41:06 GMT+01:00
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Jim H
My concern is the effect to the Scottish finacial sector. The customers of banking and insurance firms in Scotland are overwhelmingly English. Many patriotic Scots try to invest there money/debt in Scottish firms. Why would the English/Welsh/NIish not do the same once the British bond is well and truely severed? I think average Joe on finding his pension scheme had just been moved to another foreign country might well be concerned. Independence is looking increasingly inevitable but expecting it to bring a new Estonia is laughable when as soon as we get independence there will be a socialist majority for 30 years.

2 October 2006, 13:20:11 GMT+01:00
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Neil Craig
The unasked question was oil. Many SNPists act as if all the oil money should come to us & this will allow us to continue affording our current high government spending. 
Ethicaly this is dubious, it is clearly likely to mean any dissolution will be on bad terms & since the oil price goes up & down like an up & downy thing is likely to be very damaging over the long term. 
In any case that Scotland's government is dreadful but would be relied on to become good if given full power is like throwing somebody in the deep end to teach them to swim - granted sometimes it works. 
I would reverse the process - self-improvement is more important than, & should come before, independence.

2 October 2006, 12:41:29 GMT+01:00
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David B. Wildgoose
I think you'll find that there are more than just 2 constituent nations in the United Kingdom. (And the non-English claim that the English are arrogant!) 
For that matter, the "United Kingdom" didn't exist until the Union with Ireland in 1801. Prior to that, we were "Great Britain".

2 October 2006, 08:09:22 GMT+01:00

David Farrer said...

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Bill (Scotland)
A very interesting exchange; my thinking has been tending in a similar direction to that of Michael Fry for some years, although I consider Scottish separation from England to be increasingly inevitable, even if I have nowhere near come to believe it is, in and of itself, desirable. However, if it is indeed inevitable, then we will necessarily have to do our best to make sure it is successful. 
The only major query I have with his analysis is his response to question 8. I think the opinion he ascribes to Brussels (i.e. the European Commission, I imagine) is surprising, if true, as it ignores the consitutional reality of the status of the consituent nations within the UK; frankly I find it difficult to accept that the departure by one of the two founding constituent nations of the UK would allow the remaining part to sail on as if nothing had happened, constitutionally, to the continuing status of treaties signed between the UK as presently constituted and foreign countries or international entities; in particular I think Scotland would have just as much right to remain (not become) a member of the EU as England; the disappearance of Scotland from the UK would effectively render the UK defunct as, legally speaking, England and Scotland became one Kingdom a long time ago and although people speak of the Queen colloquially as being the 'Queen of England' or the 'Queen of Scotland', she is legally no such thing - she is the Queen of the United Kingdom, a legal entity formed when the two crowns were united and in whose name all international treaties have been signed since the UK was formed, a position that became even stronger a century later when the two parliaments became one. In summary I do not think it is the role of the European Union or the European Commission to 'deem' what parts of an EU member country remain as a rightful successor member country should that member country fracture into two or more parts; ultimately I think it is a matter for discussion between Scotland's and England's constitutional lawyers, no doubt acting in consultation with the EU.

2 October 2006, 00:48:44 GMT+01:00