Sunday, 11 May 2014

Independence through an independent tribunal?

I've always thought that the legal process was the best method of resolving any dispute. In criminal law an impartial jury decides guilt or innocence. In civil law where two sides are in conflict (libel, divorce, whatever), a judge with no connection with either party makes a decision based on the evidence presented. In practice the system has its flaws – some criminals are found not guilty, a rich person is more likely to get a good lawyer than a poor one etc – but the theory is good; the fairest decisions come from arbiters with an overall view and no emotional attachment to the case.

Three to five countries all claim sovereignty
over these uninhabited specks of land
In an ideal world, all international disputes from the Israel-Palestine conflict through the Ukraine to the ownership of the Spratly Islands would be resolved in the same way. With few exceptions, such conflicts arise because the public and political leaders on one or both sides are driven by emotion more than reason – and their objective is more often to fight for the best result for their own side rather than work together for the fairest result for everybody involved.

We needn’t hold our breath waiting for an independent adjuticator to resolve most of the other disputes that plague many nations across the world. Occasionally the weaker side in a dispute proposes such a measure, but the stronger side, with more to lose, generally opposes it. The closest the Israeli-Palestine issue came to being resolved was the 1993 Oslo accord, when Norway acted as an independent referee, but that brief moment of hope quickly faded.

Which brings me to the Scottish referendum. The idea that this conflict – and yes, it is a conflict although one which, thankfully, the Scots and other Brits are content to limit to words – can be resolved by democratic vote is problematic. Problematic firstly, because the apparently democratic idea of 2 million Scots deciding the fact of Scotland becames very much less democratic when seen as 2 million Britons deciding the fate of the United Kingdom.

Problematic also because so much of the debate is driven by emotion, with many of those involved (particularly on the internet) being much less interested in serious debate and exchange of ideas than with drumming their opinions into the heads of their opponents. The broader public, influenced at least partly by the strong emotions engendered and with restricted understanding of the likely advantages and disadvantages of independence, are therefore more likely to vote according to what they feel and believe rather than what they understand and know.

Ideally, therefore, I'd prefer the decision as to whether Scotland should become independent to be settled not by voters, whose judgement – including my own – I trust either partially or not at all, but by independent experts. Organisations and individuals with no connection with Scotland or the rest of the UK would consider the whole picture - historical, economic, linguistic, legal etc etc - and come to a fair conclusion as to whether Scotland as a whole would be better off as part of the UK or independent. If their verdict was independence, I'd say great, let’s go for it. After all, if people wiser than me tell me that independence is best for us all, then of course, independence it should be.

Regrettably, that international tribunal will not take place. And so the burden of deciding Scotland’s fate falls upon the shoulders of fallible, ignorant voters like myself. All I can do in such circumstances is gather what evidence I can to make my decision. Much of that evidence will come from Scotland and the rest of the UK, from individuals and organisations professing interest in one or neither side. The most important evidence, however, will be the analysis that comes from independent institutions that are based outside the United Kingdom.

And so, taking into consideration all the evidence that I have come across, and – yes, this is where emotion comes in – the many family, social, economic and cultural links that have been forged over the last thousand* years between Scotland and the rest of the union, the best conclusion I can come to is that separation would be pointless and stupid for most people living north and south of the Solway and Tweed. For the sake of all Brits, I have to vote No.

* Anyone who knows their history knows that Scots and English have been inter-marrying and traveling and doing business across these islands since long before either Scotland or England became a nation.