With the SNP victory at the Scottish elections of 2011, it seems almost certain that there will be a referendum on independence in 2014. Yet only now, after more than seven years of SNP government, has a debate started on just what independence means. As politicians and academics have sought to define it, they have rapidly discovered that this is not easy, and even nationalists have accepted that some of the infrastructure of the United Kingdom could survive the transition. Independence is almost invariably presented within the European Union, which immediately marks it out from classical nation-statehood. Hence we have various forms of 'independence-lite' on offer. Scotland is not alone here. In other stateless nations such as Quebec, Catalonia, or the Basque Country, nationalists have proclaimed the goal of national independence or 'sovereignty' but, when it comes to putting forward concrete proposals, have retreated into formulas like sovereignty-association, sovereignty-partnership, confederalism or the 'freely-associated state'. At the same time, sectors of non-nationalist opinion, realising that traditional unionism is no longer politically viable, have been musing about 'devolution-max', which could give Scotland control over most domestic policy and taxation.
The SNP seems interested in putting a second, devolution-max question on the referendum ballot, although none of the other parties share this interest. Instead, they have stuck with the unionist front they established after 2007 and with the Calman Commission proposals contained in the Scotland Bill. Dissident voices in the Labour Party have questioned this and pointed to the advantages of being in the same place as the public on this issue, but seem to have failed to convince the party on either side of the border. The Liberal Democrats, who have a federal tradition going back to Gladstone and just a few years ago produced the Steel Report recommending further devolution, have, even more curiously, retreated as part of the Coalition deal with the Conservatives.
What's the difference between independence-lite and devolution-max?
With the rival proposals so vaguely articulated, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between independence-lite and devolution-max. This recalls the debate in Quebec in the early 1990s when the Liberals had adopted the radical Allaire Report and the Parti Quebecois (PQ) had moved back to favouring a sovereignty-association (albeit relabelled a 'sovereignty-partnership'). The main difference seemed to be that the Liberals wanted to negotiate themselves half way out of Canada, while the PQ wanted to leave Canada and then negotiate themselves half way back in. The proposal put to the electorate in 1995 included keeping the Canadian dollar and setting up joint executive and parliamentary structures to manage matters of common interest. It...