Book Review – ‘How to Start a New Country’


I found this book by Robin McAlpine and published by Common Print (part of Common Weal) inspiring, annoying and deeply troubling. Inspiring in that it illustrated some of the many possibilities of independence; annoying in that we don’t appear to have done much, if any, pre-planning and deeply troubling that we probably won’t be able to prepare for independence in the way outlined but instead be forced to act in haste in order to extricate ourselves from what looks like being a Brexit bourach.

The main strategy the book outlines is that of a clean-break, taking on minimal moveable assets and not buying into existing UK systems as temporary solutions.  As well as getting to a truly independent Scotland more quickly, this would also, according to  McAlpine,  provide the rUK with much less bargaining leverage during separation negotiations – the less we want, the less opportunity HMG have to be difficult. Such a strategy also provides the maximum opportunity to implement ‘Scottish solutions’  He therefore proposes a 3 year transition period between referendum and independence day. The 2014 referendum assumed a handover period of 18 months, however this involved sharing a number of existing arrangements with the rUK, notably currency and central Bank. As we know the proposal was vetoed by George Osborne, making the pro-independence campaign a hostage to fortune.

As part of the clean-break strategy McAlpine argues for instance that we shouldn’t take a share of Royal Navy vessels which would be a poor fit for a Scottish Navy whose priorities would be very different from those of the Royal Navy. Instead he proposes we build our own naval vessels.  Such a strategy would have the added benefit of providing a boost to jobs and the Scottish shipbuilding industry.

Speaking of jobs, McAlpine calculates that an independent Scotland would require an extra 20,000 Civil Servants to run the new Ministries (Home Office, Treasury, Foreign Office, Social Security, DVLA and so on).  To provide an illustration of the potential of these additional Civil Servant jobs, imagine all these new (mostly well paid) civil servants moving to a new town in Scotland with their partners and families. This new town will require housing, roads, schools, shops, restaurants, garages, heat, light, water and sanitation plus the staff to service this new infrastructure. The size of the new town very quickly approaches 100,000 people. That’s one massive economic stimulus, worth according to McAlpine about £3 billion per year.

He also notes the need for many more MSPs to cope with the expanding responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. Here I feel Robin McAlpine misses a trick (or possibly he was channelling his inner socialist centralising tendencies), as he merely pointed out that the current Holyrood Parliament wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate such an influx and a new building would be required. However, there may be an opportunity to move to a Federal system of Government. Holyrood would then become less of a focal point as more of the day-to-day business of the Federal Government is conducted in the Regions while Government departmental business (Home Office, Foreign Office, Work and Pensions etc.) could be conducted in a new purpose built campus of Ministries, ideally somewhere other than Edinburgh.

A Federal Government offers possibilities for further devolution at a local level. The current monolithic Highland Council might become a federal government region within which there could be a number of local Councils (such as Skye and Lochalsh) which would have revenue earning capacity and the ability to act autonomously. There’ve been calls to create a Skye National Park in order to better manage the creaking infrastructure to cope with the influx of tourists. However, a National Park would still need to liaise with Highland Council as they would continue to hold the purse strings. A Skye & Lochalsh Council on the other hand could act more decisively.

Much of the above could be agreed through Robin McAlpine’s proposal for a further plebicite (pre-independence day) on a new constitution. He suggests that at that time the electorate could also be asked to vote on matters such as the monarchy and EU membership (McAlpine himself seems keen on EFTA, at least as an interim as this offers more flexibility and is less contentious than full EU membership). So federalism might be added to the list of questions to put to the electorate. The author proposes that a National Commission should be set up to manage the entire transition process, reporting to the Scottish Government who otherwise will continue with their existing duties. He also points out that this should be in place, at least in embryo, before a further Independence vote!

On the question of an England – Scotland border the author suggests a hardish border would be no bad thing as that would give Scotland much greater control over customs duties. He points out that the official annual customs duty fraud in the UK is estimated at £36 billion but that figure is regarded as conservative by numerous observers who believe the figure to be nearer £120 billion (partly because Customs are increasingly tied up with managing immigration). So a hardish land border with England would allow for much greater customs control which would, he argues, more than justify the expense. The Scottish Navy would also play an important role in deterring smuggling (hence the need for appropriate vessels rather than ex-RN frigates/destroyers). The hardish border could apparently allow private traffic to cross unhindered, with number plate recognition CCTV used to capture individual border crossings. Meanwhile commercial vehicles could have their customs checks well away from the border, for instance on the quayside for fish catches bound for export, thus allaying fears of rotting catches in lorries delayed by customs checks at the border.

On the much touted UK single market,  in which we’re told, Scotland does considerably more trade than with the EU and which the UK Government, using the Project Fear playbook, suggest might be imperilled by Scottish independence, Robin McAlpine points out that electricity accounts for about 1/3 of all exports from Scotland to England via the national grid, so it’s highly unlikely the UK would want to jeopardise this, while a good deal of the rest is cross border movement of supermarket goods. He points out that supermarkets really like frictionless borders so any difficulties caused by the UK Government would meet stiff resistance from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Robin McAlpine concludes by stating that the book doesn’t set out to make the case for independence. However he goes on to say, ‘…it is hard to miss just how big an opportunity this is. To create a fit-for-purpose tax system, to have a defence system which efficiently focuses on defence rather than power projection, the chance to fundamentally fix public IT, the impact of having a proper Customs and Excise system, the chance to build a humane system of social security, the enormous injection of investment into the Scottish economy that would result, the thousands upon thousands of jobs it would create, the expertise it would bring to Scotland, the way it would effect how we see ourselves…In so many ways it is possible to see in this technical attempt to understand a transition to independence the very reasons so many people want that independence in the first place.’  Amen to that.

Whatever you think of Robin McAlpine’s views, he and Common Weal deserve credit for conducting a rigorous analysis of the planning required for Scottish independence, unlike another recent ongoing constitutional issue, the plans for which were simply written on the side of a bus.



Historians, what are they like?


Given the querulous response of most British historians to the prospect of Scottish independence, I think the collective pronoun for a group of historians must be a ‘querul’. David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Dan Snow, Neil Oliver and Simon Scharma all seem to become apoplectic about the prospect of an independent Scotland. As far as I know only Tom Devine is pro-independence.

This thought occured to me as a result of reading yet another diatribe against Scottish independence in the Times newspaper, this time from Max Hastings, the war historian (and one of 200 ‘public figures’ who signed an anti-independence declaration prior to the 2014 referendum), has waded in with an article titled ‘Dressing down to enjoy my Highland fling’. In the article, Hastings posits the idea of dressing in jeans and tee shirts rather than in 19th century toffs’clothing (tweeds and breeches). He suggests that this mode of dress along with the ostentatious flaunting of wealth does little to endear the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity to the average Scot. In this he’s probably correct and it’s about the only thing in his otherwise ignorant, arrogant article which I agreed with.

Hastings has apparently spent many summers enjoying ‘sporting’ activities in Scotland since his early 20’s, mostly in Sutherland and Caithness, which he claims to ‘know so well’  That’s a bit like a Scot averring to know Lancashire well having spent many summer holidays in Blackpool. Except that the Scot in Blackpool would probably meet a wider cross section of Lancashire society than Hastings does on his annual jaunts to the Highlands. There he will mostly interact with estate workers who are probably somewhat guarded in their opinions due to the client relationship, while sharing his sporting activities mostly with other English ‘toffs’ and foreigners. So while he may be familiar with the topography of the Northern Highlands I very much doubt the degree to which he’s in tune with the views, values and culture of the average Highlander. Hastings himself acknowledges that there is justifiable pain caused to Scottish sensibilities by visitors who meet no local people but only stalkers and ghillies.

Hastings goes on to rail against the ‘Nats’, asserting ‘that the spring tide of Nicola Sturgeon has ebbed after experience of her flawed Government’. Such evidence free assertions from a supposedly reputable historian are truly breathtaking. His big beef however, seems to be the Scottish Government’s proposals for land reform. He argues that there is a strong economic case in favour of private shooting estates and their sporting visitors, that they have a ‘cash value unmatched by any other activity, actual or prospective’ Tell that to the people of Eigg,  Gigha and Assynt all of whom have bought out the previous private owners and are in the process of diversifying and transforming their economies. Hastings goes on to say that ‘In Sutherland and Caithness… we glimpse pathetically few non-sporting English tourists because there are no theme parks to lure them and no sane person would build such facilities at the extremity of Britain’ Apart from the fact that there are more economic possibilities for the vast spaces of the Highlands than simply tourism (Space port anyone?), he obviously isn’t aware of the transformative effect on tourism of the North Coast 500, created without needing to construct anything but simply by advertising what was already there!

To counter the accusation that Highland estate owners are exploiting the Scottish people Hastings cites a cluster of estates around Tomatin, whose accounts demonstrated that the owners make annual net contributions in the order of £100,000 each.  What Hastings fails to mention are the many wheezes that estate owners use to mitigate their tax liabilities, such as being registered offshore or placing the estate into family or charitable trusts and of course the rates relief and grants available to Highland estates as a result of being registered as both sporting and agricultural entities.

Then there is the resale value of Highland estates, which according to the Financial Times (‘Why Scottish Highlands and Islands are still in buyers sights’) remain sound investments despite Brexit and the prospect of land reform. Their enduring value is apparently due to their attraction as the playthings of rich men. While some of the mega rich buy super-yachts, others buy Highland estates. Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish fashion empire billionaire, currently owns 218,000 acres spread over 11 Highland estates. His aim is to ‘re-wild’ the landscape, to take it back to it’s ‘former wilderness state’ No mention is made of repopulating the land, which was a more recent aspect of the Highlands.

Which leads me to Hasting’s most egregious assertion. Quoting from an observation by Michael Fry, he states that there is no rational justification for the volume of grievance about the Highland clearances. ‘Ugly though they were, Scotland did not suffer remotely the scale of English injustice and persecution that fell upon Ireland’  That’s a bit like saying that the Armenians should shut up and stop complaining about the Turkish genocide of Armenia because it was less catastrophic than the Jewish holocaust of World War Two.

Hastings ends his piece by writing, ‘I once told a friend that playing a salmon and shooting grouse in the Highlands have provided me with some of the most euphoric experiences I have ever known’ Like many other British Nationalists who profess undying love of Scotland,  Hastings clearly has a wistful and wholly mythical sense of all things Scottish, from the landscape to the skirl of the pipes. Of the people, not so much.  The Times article is useful in that it offers us yet another window into the minds of the English ruling class, that even a supposedly forensic historian is unable to get to the heart of what drives the quest for Scottish independence and instead takes a purely sentimental view. He is clearly unable to engage with the real argument for independence, that of self-determination and is therefore blind to the economic possibilities, particularly in his beloved Highlands. Why is it for instance, that the more extensive wild land in Norway can be economically viable, able not only to retain but to increase its population, while Scotland apparently must depend on and be grateful for the largesse of mostly foreign estate owners?