Hailing the haggis

Scotland’s recent moves toward independence offer useful lessons for Newfoundland and Labrador

Interesting events are afoot in Scotland. Events from which Newfoundland and Labrador could learn a great deal.

Yes, the country which invented haggis (and, even more disturbingly, square sausages – for which it is seeking protected food status) doesn’t often receive the recognition it should.

I mean, who knew that Scotland was the country where golf was invented? (Also the first – and probably only – country where it was banned, as a dangerous distraction from archery.)

And while most of us are familiar with the Loch Ness monster, did you also know that Bonnybridge Scotland is the UFO sighting capital of the world?

Yes … quite underrated, Scotland. But in recent years a much more interesting battle (not that golf, UFOs and the fight to protect the square sausage are uninteresting) has been heating up in Scotland, and that’s the debate over Scotland’s independence from the UK.

While some might argue that Scotland thereby accidentally conquered England, that’s not how the Scots took it.

That’s right. Braveheart lovers will be pleased to know the struggle for Scottish independence is closer than ever to succeeding. Of course, Scotland was mostly independent until the 17th century. The struggles depicted in Braveheart were part of England’s long-term – and mostly unsuccessful – efforts to invade and occupy the country. The Scots largely resisted these efforts, so in 1603 the Brits tried a different approach, by appointing the King of Scotland (King James, of Bible fame) to be the King of England too. While some might argue that Scotland thereby accidentally conquered England, that’s not how the Scots took it, and when the permanent unification of the two countries was formalized by a 1707 treaty, the long centuries of resistance began.

Oil: fueling independence

Scotland and Newfoundland have more in common than just the fact that they both used to be independent nations. It was the discovery of oil in the 1970s that really began to fuel the push for Scottish independence. Finally, it was argued, Scotland could support itself through oil and natural resource revenue. Moreover, there was criticism that England was absorbing much of the oil revenue, and Scottish calls for a sovereign wealth fund – an oil legacy fund – to be created were ignored. In response to the growing pressure, the British government – under Tony Blair’s Labour Party – eventually decided to give greater self-government to Scotland, by establishing its own regional assembly (sort of a mini legislature).

This month, Britain was shocked when the Scottish National Party – which advocates independence from England – swept the regional election and now controls the regional assembly. They’ve announced their intention to hold a referendum on separating from the UK. In retaliation, the new British government in London – a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government – has done an about-turn and has declared its intention to fight tooth and nail against allowing Scotland to separate.

… debates around Scotland’s independence have largely focused on how well Scotland could survive on its own.

Much like Newfoundland, debates around Scotland’s independence have largely focused on how well Scotland could survive on its own. Opponents of Scottish independence argue that the UK subsidizes Scotland’s economy with the equivalent of federal transfer payments, and that on its own Scotland would have to go into debt to support itself. Supporters argue the opposite – that oil revenues, properly managed and under Scottish control (rather than flowing into the British government) could be used to develop a self-sufficient economy. Indeed, after the discovery of oil the British government became terrified that oil revenue would fuel Scottish independence movements, and quietly developed a strategy to undermine such a possibility. A secret British government report concluded that “oil could have made an independent Scotland as prosperous as Switzerland.”

Allowing Scotland control over its own taxation and immigration policy would give Scotland the power it needs to develop its economy with Scotland’s best interests in mind. As well, Scotland would be able to represent itself on an international level – for instance, in negotiating international fisheries treaties – and the UK would no longer sell out Scottish interests to benefit the needs of Britain. And as Simon Jenkins wrote in a recent column supporting Scottish independence, the European experience of the past 30 years has shown that “small nations tend to do better after separation than before”.

The arguments for and against are eerily similar to those surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador’s place in the Canadian confederation, and whether it should continue as a member of that confederation. Number-crunchers have made compelling arguments that Newfoundland has given more to Canada than it has received: Bill Rowe’s most recent book points out compellingly that federal employment investment in Newfoundland and Labrador has decreased by more than twice the rate it has in other provinces, while an investigative report by The Independent in 2004 calculated that Canada had received more than five times as much benefit from Newfoundland and Labrador’s natural resources as we ourselves have. Of course, the counter-argument is made as well.

But more significantly, the question – for Scotland, as much as for Newfoundland and Labrador – is a forward-looking one. If things are improving so well now, what real benefit is there to separation?

Reasons to go it alone

Many Scots point to those things they do not currently control, as vital to fulfilling their economic potential and their social potential as a nation: immigration, taxation, international representation. These are things Newfoundland and Labrador would do well to think about, too. The Canadian federal government has been drawing its immigration policies tighter and tighter, making it harder for both refugees and immigrants to settle here.

Moreover, there’s been a sharp turnaround in Canadian policy since the federal Conservatives were elected. Instead of encouraging immigration and multiculturalism, now Canadian government policy promotes importing short-term labour from other countries (depriving these temporary foreign workers from rights to settle as well as many basic labour rights, often in violation of international human rights standards). Their immigration policies have been driven largely in response to population and voting dynamics in populous areas like Ontario and B.C..

Yet in Newfoundland and Labrador, we suffer considerable skills shortages, ongoing outmigration of both people and labour, and rural communities that are emptying so quickly they are unable to revitalize and kickstart their regional economies. Newfoundland and Labrador requires a completely different immigration strategy from that which Canada has developed.

Supporters of Scottish independence argue that Scots have very different social attitudes from the rest of the UK.

Supporters of Scottish independence argue that Scots have very different social attitudes from the rest of the UK. Scotland – before it started electing separatist MPs – consistently elected leftist, progressive Labour MPs. Scotland has adopted very progressive social programs – free personal homecare for the elderly, free post-secondary education (while England is moving in the very opposite direction).

Similarly, Newfoundland and Labrador is increasingly moving in the opposite direction from Canada on social policies. While the Canadian federal government is systematically dismantling its social welfare system, allowing both CPP and Medicare to wither and die, and tuition fees to rise across the country, Newfoundland and Labrador has poured its new revenue into building anti-poverty programs, public housing, and reducing post-secondary fees. A recent report commended Newfoundland and Labrador for being the only jurisdiction in North America to effectively use European-style tripartite councils (joint councils of unions, business and government), and for being the first North American jurisdiction to seriously discuss creative measures for clamping down on the activities of multinational corporations. And Newfoundland and Labrador continues to feature the highest level of support for labour unions in the entire country. So, much like Scotland, there’s a very different social attitude afoot here.

Flexible freedom

One of the most important things about the separatist Scottish National Party is that, unlike their Quebec counterparts, they’re not hell-bent on total separation. They’re willing to consider other creative adjustments to their relationship with England. What they want – and they’re willing to be flexible in how they get it – is localized control over vital areas like immigration, taxation, and international representation.

Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the Scots, and consider demanding an adjustment in our relationship with the Canadian confederation.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a great deal to be concerned about in the next four years under Stephen Harper’s government. The federal government has already been advocating a plan to adjust representation in the House of Commons and weight it by population instead of geographic districts (adding more seats in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.) – which would see Newfoundland’s proportion of representation fall even more from its currently pitiful levels. The federal Conservatives – which allowed NAFO changes that decrease our control over our offshore fishery – are also pushing to sign a free trade deal with Europe that will further decrease our control over the offshore (an offshore that Canada has proven notoriously incapable of defending). Our ability to represent ourselves and our interests – both within the Canadian confederation, as well as internationally – looks poised to shrink further in the next four years of Harper government.

Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the Scots, and consider – if not actual independence – demanding an adjustment in our relationship with the Canadian confederation to ensure greater powers over our resource revenue, taxation, immigration, and international representation. After all, if the Scots can do it … why can’t we?

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