Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 15 March 2022

Denying national self-determination from Ukraine to Scotland, and the lessons of Brexit


What makes Putin's invasion of Ukraine so unforgivable? The three most obvious factors that have led to popular revulsion against what Putin and the Russian army is doing seem to be the unprovoked use of lethal force, the subjugation of a nation with a clear national identity, and the fact that a tyranny is attacking a democracy. (International organisations classify Ukraine as a less-than-full—but aspiring—democracy.) [1]

One thing that seems to matter to Putin, but not at all to Western public opinion, is history. That Ukraine was once part of the USSR, or perhaps more relevantly a Russian empire, is discounted because most people outside Russia believe, rightly in my view, that it is what those in Ukraine currently think that matters. It also seems reasonable that it should matter not at all that some in the invading nation (in this case) think otherwise. Ethnic cleansing is often justified by selective appeals to history.

The same applies to 'provocations'. It should be the right of an independent nation to choose who to align itself with, although those already in that alignment obviously also have a say in who is part of that club. The idea that the expansion of NATO somehow justifies Putin's aggression is absurd, and belongs to an age of empires rather than today's world. Would-be empires run by tyrants require a certain realpolitik from other nations, like don’t use your fighters to shoot down theirs, but it does not justify invasions.

If the combination of the use of lethal force, subjugation of self-determination and a democracy makes the Ukraine case clear, is one more important than the others? NATO used lethal force in bombing Yugoslavia, in response to their ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, killing around 1,000 members of the Yugoslav security forces in addition to about 500 civilians. The argument would be that this action may have saved more Albanian lives, as well as protecting the national identity of Kosovo. It seems harder to justify the use of lethal force just to replace a tyrant by a democracy, although that argument was sometimes made for Iraq. This is partly because there are many shades of what counts as democracy, as well as doubts over it’s durability.

All this suggests that it is the denial of national self-determination that is crucial in thinking about the invasion of Ukraine. Imagine if opinion in Ukraine was equally divided, between those who wanted to be part of Russia and those that wanted independence. (Please note, this is not the case in reality.) I suspect Western opinion about the invasion, while still condemning the use of force, would be more complex. The right of people to choose who governs them seems to be critical, and a prerequisite for any democracy for those people. Equally if Ukraine had offered only peaceful resistance to Putin’s army, would we no longer care about the invasion? That seems very unlikely.

It is in this context that we should see the UK government’s current refusal to grant Scotland a second referendum on independence. The government line that it is too soon after the 2014 referendum is completely irrelevant, because it should not be the UK government’s choice to make but a choice for Scotland. The UK government denial overrides the right of Scottish people to self-determination. The argument also implicitly belittles the importance of Brexit, which Scotland voted against, which is a rather odd thing for the government that championed Brexit to do.

That is the first potentially controversial point I want to make. It is an important one, as I have no doubt the Conservatives will attempt to suggest during the next UK general election that any future Labour government would threaten to break up the Union by being ‘soft’ on Scottish independence. The reality is that it is their own policy of denial that is indefensible.

My second potentially controversial point is that any referendum to decide on Scottish independence should learn the lessons of Brexit. Brexit has been a disaster for England, Scotland and Wales. Pretty well every claim made by Brexiters has turned out to be false. Given the commonalities between Scottish independence and Brexit, it would be strange indeed, and completely foolish, if these lessons were not learnt.

Interestingly public opinion also tends to see the results of Brexit as largely bad, according to a recent poll analysed here by John Curtice. A clear majority believe that Brexit has worsened the cost of living, made it more difficult for us to sell goods abroad, led to a deterioration in the NHS and the economy as a whole, and reduced our influence in the world. If Brexit has had any effect on wages, more people think it is negative rather than positive. Non-EU immigration is worse rather than better. There are only two Brexit positives in the poll: controlling our own affairs (which is just another name for less international cooperation), and our vaccination programme. The latter is hardly surprising given the number of times Johnson makes this, generally uncontested, claim. As our vaccination programme was formulated while we were still in the EU, you can decide yourself how valid that claim is (or read this).

So what does the Brexit disaster tell us about referendums like any future one on Scottish independence. The first lesson is that referendums, like all elections, are only as good as the information provided during them. A second, related point is that alternative outcomes need to be defined as clearly as possible, and if this is not possible it makes complete sense, and should be obligatory if practical, to hold a second referendum when those details are clear. (The first referendum in effect becomes a decision on whether to open negotiations.) A third lesson is that margins of victory need to be large to avoid decisions which do not survive an immediate test of time. The way so many politicians involved in the Brexit decision schemed to ensure that just 52% on the day, of an electorate that excluded key parties, could take us out of Brexit remains one of the more shocking aspects of the whole Brexit debacle.

The first point is relevant to non-partisan media organisations. Your job is not only to ensure equal time between two sides, but also to explain the, often complex, issues so voters can make an informed choice. That means often championing the truth over whatever mystification one side wants to confuse voters with. In other words, knowledge and facts should always win out over balance.

The key points are the second and third. Whether the majority needed to decide independence should be 55% or 60% is up for debate, but allowing 50.001% to decide on something that will last decades is at the very least just asking for trouble, instability and regret. As any independence referendum will take place before negotiations between the rUK and Scotland, any referendum is open to counter claims from either side about what the result of those negotiations will be. It therefore makes a great deal of sense if a second referendum is held after the negotiations where the actual agreed terms of separation are known.

Even if you are half persuaded this should happen, there is no chance that it will happen. As with Brexit, these fairly straightforward observations will get mired in partisanship. Partisanship from those who see that they make independence more unlikely on one side, or from Brexiters who resisted such common sense with their referendum on the other. But a key ingredient that made Brexit such a disaster is also present with independence: a desire to make your own decisions against an economic cost that while large and real is open to obscuration and wishful thinking. To those that think a referendum on Scottish independence should not learn these lessons, I ask how can you be sure that a narrow margin for independence based on the dubious claims of one side will not suffer the same fate as Brexit? Perhaps you don't care?

[1] That this is happening in Europe, to ‘people like us’, with widespread media coverage that does not attempt any kind of balance (see last weeks blog), helps a lot as well, as a simple contrast between the plight of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees shows. But this observation does not invalidate the justified anger over Putin's invasion.

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