The real case against statehood is its sheer ordinariness. Photo: Getty
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Scotland would sell itself short by opting for the banality of independence

Scotland, an outward-looking nation with strong internationalist instincts and a clear sense of its moral purpose in the world, can do better than separation.

The late momentum for the Yes campaign in Scotland should not have surprised anyone. The warning signs had been obvious for months. Faced with largely negative reasons for sticking with the status quo, many Scots have concluded that a Union held together with fear isn’t worth saving. The case for the United Kingdom should have been about much more than this. It should have been framed as a positive affirmation of Scotland’s values and its contribution to the world rather than a statement of brute economic realism.

The outcome now hangs in the balance because the proponents of separatism have successfully tapped into the deep strain of idealism that remains one of the most potent and attractive features of Scottish politics, arguing that social justice and democratic renewal require a break from the fossilised British state. The Yes case certainly has the priceless advantage of novelty, but in every other respect the reasoning behind it is false. Far from being resonant with the demands of the modern age, the idea that you can improve the world by changing its borders is a deeply flawed and regressive one. It reached its zenith with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and should have been consigned to history with the horrors that followed.

Much of the debate has understandably focussed on whether Scotland could succeed as an independent country. A good rule of thumb in situations like this is that change is never as beneficial as its proponents hope or as disastrous as its opponents claim. An independent Scotland wouldn’t be the social democratic paradise breathlessly described by its supporters, but it would cope and probably cope well enough. The real case against statehood is its sheer ordinariness. We hear regularly from Yes supporters that Scotland should aim to be like other small nations. But is that really the summit of our ambitions as a people; to be like everyone else?

There is no shortage of small countries already in existence – 109 of the UN’s 193 member states have populations of less than ten million. Whatever Scottish voters imagine as they bask in the attentions of the global media, the addition of another one will contribute nothing to the fight against climate change, the promotion of international security, efforts to build a stronger and fairer global economy or the ability of the planet to meet any of the other major challenges it faces. Indeed, separatism is more likely hamper those goals by fragmenting the international community and making consensus more difficult to achieve.

The world doesn’t need another small nation state adding to the babble of the global village while subtracting from its ability to act collectively. What it desperately needs more than ever is functioning examples of multinational democracy that allow nations to come together to share sovereignty, pool resources and solve common problems. The United Kingdom, for all its faults, represents something unique and irreplaceable – a union of nations that has survived and adapted as others have fallen apart in acrimony and conflict. A Scotland that genuinely aspired to make its mark on the world would devote its energies to the democratic renovation and strengthening of that union as an example to be followed. With talk of Devo Max and wider constitutional change across the UK, the referendum has created an opportunity that is there to be seized.

There is no point in pretending that a full commitment to the European Union would compensate for Scotland’s rejection of the Union, because it wouldn’t. As we have seen in the crisis over Ukraine, an EU of twenty-eight member states already finds it difficult enough to operate at a level much above the lowest common denominator. The weakening of a large member state and the addition of another small one (assuming it was granted) could only make matters worse. The answer, of course, is to deepen integration within Europe. But the starting point for that process cannot be to break apart the most stable and successful example of sovereignty sharing between nations that has ever existed. The world needs more unionism at all levels, not less.

David Cameron cannot make this argument because he shares with Alex Salmond the illusion that we can make our own destiny in the world by reclaiming legal sovereignty from some alien authority. In Cameron’s case it is Brussels rather than London, but the substance of his support for renegotiation is identical. It is hardly surprising that nationalists on both sides of the border espouse the same politics of division and resentment even as they find different scapegoats. But why hasn’t the Labour Party and the left generally been more vocal in making the rational, internationalist case for the Union?

The great pity for me is that Robin Cook didn’t live to play a role in the referendum debate. He better than anyone would have been able to puncture the sovereigntist illusions of the Yes campaign without resorting to the slur that Scotland is incapable of governing itself properly. He would have started by explaining that the main problems we face aren’t caused by the loss of sovereignty to Westminster or the EU and can’t therefore be solved by clawing it back. The most intractable challenges are often caused by private networks of wealth, crime and terror that exploit the gaps between competing national sovereignties to evade the rules and manipulate people for their own benefit. So the answer cannot be to Balkanise the world into smaller, weaker units. It must be to strengthen and deepen the bonds of political and economic union that already exist while seeking to extend them to others.

The Scotland I have always felt part of is an outward-looking nation with strong internationalist instincts and a clear sense of its moral purpose in the world. It would be selling itself short if it opted for the banality of independence over the more difficult yet necessary goal of making interdependence work better. I hope for everyone’s sake that it dares to be different.

David Clark is Scottish, and the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds. He served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001. He is chair of the Russia Foundation

David Clark is the editor of Shifting Grounds.

Photo: Getty Images
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.