Sunday, 26 October 2014

Two arguments on Scottish Independence, one for and one against

I was not personally affected by the vote for Scottish independence, but like many political junkies, I was very much interested. Though it wasn’t merely intellectual curiosity that drove me to follow it: the vote was a unique and precedential event on the stage of global politics that may well have implications beyond the Kingdom-that-is-for-now-still-United. Among my British friends, there was a split between those were tentatively relieved and those were tentatively disappointed that Scotland did not, in fact, secede yet all of them had a hard time deciding. I believe this is partly because we don’t have good frameworks to think through issues of boundaries and succession, as the old political ideologies (like imperialism and nationalism) are losing their grip. Liberalism and democracy are typically perceived to have no say on questions of boundaries and membership, and that’s a big problem for anyone who believes in individual rights and democracy. With this kind of motivation in mind, I’d like to briefly present two arguments, neither conclusive, that were not featured prominently in the debate about Scottish independence – one for, one against.

 What reasons do people give for and against Scottish independence? To put it very crudely, the Yes argument was mostly nationalistic and the No argument commonly economic (which means it was about material welfare). Thus, the Yes people said that Scots are a nation and therefore deserve to have political independence - it is their right to control their own collective affairs. The No people said that an independent Scotland will either do worse than it is doing now or terribly bad, with all sorts of catastrophic scenarios flying around. Of course, the Yes people have responded by saying that independence would not have such dire consequences and may even have some economic benefits but their argument was still, for the most part, about national self-determination.

That brings me to one argument in favor of Yes. It seems important to have a living example of a nation achieving independence via a vote. It's an historical opportunity to witness a nation gain statehood by ballots, not bullets and poke a hole in the generalization that independence is gained with blood and tears or not at all. Some political leaders worried that other national minorities looked to the vote with thoughts of their own national aspirations. If the vote succeeded, the thought went, such aspirations would be strengthened and that would lead to instability. But it seems to me that the opposite is true: such a peaceful campaign is a remarkable example of the potential of discursive and non-violent means for achieving political goals, which might encourage minorities to pursue similar non-violent means in the quest for their political autonomy. That wouldn’t be the cause of any ensuing instability, but a much better way of addressing the already existing tensions, which is a euphemism for the fact that many national minorities suffer discrimination, mistreatment and oppression. If you value democracy, you want to see it succeed where much blood has been shed before: in the struggle for political independence.

 This leads us to the problem with the Yes argument. That the conversation has been couched mostly in nationalistic terms is, I believe, a source of concern. For various reasons I can't enumerate here I am very skeptical about the idea of nationalism in general and about nationalism as a basis for political independence in particular. One troubling aspect of nationalism is that the idea that nations should have their own states and states should be nation-states forces people to choose. Why can't someone be both Scottish and British? If nations are to have their own state, each state should have a clear nation. If there's a nation that doesn't have a state - either it should have its own state, or live as a minority in a state that isn't its own.

More importantly, I think that there is a potentially better argument for the Yes campaign that wasn’t as prominent in this discussion. That is the democratic aspect: would a new independent state improve the Scottish people's ability to affect the matters the concern their own lives? Some Yes people have made that argument, usually within the nationalistic framework: as a nation, the Scots will be in a position to manage their own life. But I'm not interested in the Scots as a nation, but in Scots (and the English, and all other affected parties) as individuals. Would it improve individuals' democratic standings? Will they have more say in decisions that impact their lives? I'm not sure, and I haven't heard many people make a persuasive argument either way. Some Yes people think that an independent Scotland would result in an improvement in democracy because there are differences in preferences, generally speaking, between the population of Scotland and the rest of the UK: Scots tend to support more social policies, such as governmental funding of education and healthcare than the policies of the UK government. Therefore, an independent Scotland would reflect better the preferences of most Scots while the remaining citizens of the UK would have policies that reflect their preferences.

This might be true. However, there are various other issues that complicate the story. Will an independent government in Scotland be sufficiently strong to have its own policies in the face of pressures from international markets and a strong neighbor? For example, if the now independent Scotland attempts to regulate labour standards more rigorously will they be able to enforce it given the competition with their southern neighbors or will they have to end up complying with the standards of the Westminster government only that now it'll be a much more conservative government in which they will have no say?

These are empirical questions that are hard to answer, but to my knowledge they have not been the focus of empirical study in recent years. Partly, that’s because the kind of democratic considerations I’m raising here have not been prevalent in discussion on boundaries and succession, though I think they should be.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

In defence of a constitution for the UK

Magna Carta Memorial, by Karnaphuli / CC BY-NC 2.0
In honour of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the United Kingdom is presently considering whether to adopt a written constitution.  Of course, the UK has various legal documents that set rules and precedents for government and legislation.  There is a Ministerial Code that outlines the duties of ministers and a Human Rights Act that stipulates various rights and freedoms to be upheld.  But it does not have a single, formal, codified document encapsulating the essence and dimensions of all these segments.  In this post, I outline two reasons in favour of the UK adopting such a constitution.

1) A Constitutional Code, which would outline essential elements and principles of government, but not be legally binding.
2) A Constitutional Consolidation Act, which would bring together the various segments of existing common law and parliamentary practice.
3) A Written Constitution, which would be a legally binding statement of basic UK law, democratic procedure, and the relationship between state and citizen.

What I have in mind to defend is a version of 3 not dissimilar to the draft of this option in the Select Committee Report.  I think there would be value to the UK adopting a document which details certain core existent and aspirational principles of governance – "liberty, equality, tolerance, and the rule of law” are the draft’s specification (on p.285) – and delineates their manifestation in various rules – such as the rights to life, security, and a fair trial of citizens.  This change would replace the existing patchwork of acts of parliament, legal texts, and conventions through which the UK now operates with a clearer focal point containing the essential rules of state and the principles on which they are based.

One benefit of doing so is that it would make these structures easier for citizens to find and comprehend.  Andrew Williams persuasively argues that justice can make only demands that fall within the epistemic capabilities of citizens.  Individuals must be able to know what the rules require and whether they are being observed, because it respects them as citizens to put this information within their reach and allows them assurance that others are complying.  Arguably the current UK structures fall outside this requirement.  They can be difficult even for legal practitioners to master.  But, at any rate, it seems reasonable to think that a tighter, collated outline of the rules would help meet this goal better.

Another benefit would be that it would provide a clearer mandate for a system of judicial review.  Some worry that adopting a constitution would allow (unelected) judges a political role in setting the rules of society.  Given that UK judges already have power to overrule legislation under the Human Rights Act, it is not clear that adopting a constitution is any more liable to this objection than the status quo.  But, regardless, as Ronald Dworkin argues, there is value in judges having this mandate if it protects certain principles and rights we deem important, such as those mentioned above.  And while some suggest that the British unwritten constitutional model has been good at protecting freedom over time, the evidence is that independent courts operating with safeguarded statutes have the stronger record in protecting human rights, especially those of minorities.  Moreover, offering judges a tighter, collated outline of the relevant principles and rights seems, if anything, likely to improve the viability of this task.  It would help distinguish these cases from instances of legislation more concerned with improving general welfare, thereby establishing a clearer domain and set of parameters within which their rulings must operate.

One important question asked about the project of adopting a constitution is whether there is a clear objective in doing so.  I have some (perhaps overly optimistic) hope that the process could help the UK clarify what truly follows from some of its foundational values – that equality requires far more in terms of social and economic rights than our existing structures offer, for example.  But, whatever else, I do think that bringing principles and current rules into sharper focus and alignment would set the tone and motion for a better political climate in the senses described above.  That, I believe, would be a worthy objective.