Tag Archives: Scotland

British Union and Devolution in Northern Ireland

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

About 100 loyalists attacked police officers in East Belfast last week, using bricks, bottles and fireworks as part of a broader (nonviolent) protest against the decision of City Hall to fly the union flag on certain days. One person was arrested on charges of attempted murder after shots were fired at police. Police closed off certain areas of the city and responded to protesters with water cannons.

The protests mark a reversal in the progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. Following protracted negotiations between loyalists (those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and unionists (those who want independence for Northern Ireland), the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. The agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensured representation for key political groups using an electoral system that encompasses both proportional representation and single-transferrable vote elements.

Recall that proportional representation provides seats in the legislature in relation to the portion of the national vote a party receives. Thus, if a party receives 20 percent of the popular vote, it is entitled to 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. Single-transferable vote requires voters to rank-choice their preferences, so that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the votes earned by the lowest ranked candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, and so on, until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Both systems are intended to promote inclusion of minority voices in the parliament.

The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also part of a broader political agenda of devolution, or the dissemination of power from the national government to regional and local governments. The most well-known example of devolution is the Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, which has successfully governed Scotland under the terms established by the British government since then. In Northern Ireland, devolution was been more problematic, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on several occasions as a result of political instability and violence.

The devolution of political authority to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has raised interesting questions in British politics. Perhaps the most interesting is known as the West Lothian question (sometimes also called the England Question). The West Lothian question is the result of the devolution of political authority in the United Kingdom. National legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were established to deal with domestic affairs in those countries, while the (national) British Parliament in London continues to deal with key areas of reserved powers (such as national defense and currency) as well as issues of local interest to England. But while all countries are represented in the national parliament in London, regional parliaments have no national representation. Thus, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish members of parliament vote on domestic English issues, while English MPs do not vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Irish domestic issues. Many English MPs view this as fundamentally unfair, and the British government recently established a panel (the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons) to investigate the question and report back this year.

What do you think? Is devolution politically problematic in the United Kingdom? Is it unfair? And how is it related to recent developments in Northern Ireland? Take the poll or leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

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Scottish Autonomy and the Problem of National Sovereignty

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) sign an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

Earlier this week, the British and Scottish governments reached an historic agreement that would see Scotland hold a referendum asking voters to decide whether Scotland would become an independent country or remain as part of the United Kingdom. Numerous issues are at stake, not least of which is control of the estimated 20 billion barrels of oil and natural gas located under the North Sea.

There is good reason to think that British Prime Minister David Cameron is making a strong political move. While the Scottish National Party has polled well in recent elections, the idea of Scottish independence is much less popular than the party which supports it. A recent poll found that only 34 percent of Scottish voters supported independence, while more than half believed Scotland’s economy would suffer if it declared independence.

What's Braveheart got to do with it?

What’s Braveheart got to do with it?

The referendum will take place in 2014, coinciding with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots, under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, famously defeated English forces led by King Edward II. Interestingly, the strongest level of support appears to come from those Scots who came of age in the mid-1990s, when the film Braveheart popularized the Scottish struggle.

The move towards a referendum on Scottish independence raises one of the classic challenges of global politics: the problem of national sovereignty. The idea of national sovereignty links the concepts of state (the physical territory) and nation (the people who inhabit that territory and share a common sense of belonging). Within a country, the idea of legitimacy links the people and the state through the concept of sovereignty. The right of the state to exercise power, according to political thought since the Enlightenment, is rooted in the social contract. Since the end of World War II, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, the legitimacy of nondemocratic states has been strongly questioned.

The problem, of course, is at what level such popular consent takes place. The historical patterns of development has resulted in international legal boundaries between states which rarely correlate neatly with the common identity of those who inhabit those states. Indeed, it is relatively rare for the geographic boundaries of the political entity of the state and the cultural/ethnic entity of the nation to correlate much at all. Yet the tidy nation-state represents the ideal type of international relations.

Far more common are multinational states, countries in which multiple nations often compete for control of the state. Nigeria is perhaps the most well-known example. There, more than 250 ethnic groups—the three largest of which comprise about two-thirds of the population—compete for power. One of the most important legacies of colonialism in Africa was the creation of lasting political boundaries that bare little correlation to the politics on the ground, often undermining the sovereignty and legitimacy of the post-colonial state.

The status of the United Kingdom is similarly complicated by its history. There, four distinct “countries” are united. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland exist as “countries within a country.” Over the past twenty years, political authority has increasingly devolved from the unitary state. Political power has been decentralized away from London and towards regional governments. Independence in Scotland would represent a dramatic culmination of that (admittedly much slower) historical trend.

And other groups might be watching. Around the world, there are countless groups who identify themselves as stateless nations. The Palestinians are perhaps the most well-known, but others include the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Uighurs in China, the Hmong in Southeast Asia, and the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey

What do you think: Should Scotland declare independence? What would the political, economic, and social implications of such a move likely be? And how would Scottish independence affect the claims of other nationalist groups seeking independence, such as the Basques, Tamils, or Kurds? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Afghan elections took place last week, and both sides are claiming victory at the polls. President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion which displaced the Taliban government, declared victory on Friday. Meanwhile, his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, accused Karzai of rigging the poll but said that Karzai would not win enough votes in the first round to avoid an October runoff election. Voter turnout in the election had declined sharply from the previous presidential elections, amid accusations of voter fraud and threats by the Taliban to cut off any fingers marked with the indelible purple ink identifying voters. The election is an important component of President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, where the United States has maintained a troop presence for more than seven years. 

In other news from the last week:

1. The Scottish government on Thursday released Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi from prison, returning him to his native Libya. Al-Megrahi had been extradited from Libya to the United Kingdom in 1999 in exchange for the United Nations agreeing to drop sanctions imposed on Libya. Al-Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish jury of conspiracy for his involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Although sentenced to life in prison, al-Megrahi served 8 ½ years before being released on compassionate grounds on Thursday. Al-Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer. The United States condemned al-Megrahi’s release and his welcome by Libya’s President, Muammar Gaddafi.

2. Efforts to protect intellectual property gained a boost in China and the United Kingdom last week. In China, the founders and executives of Tomato Garden, a website which that provided free downloads of Microsoft Windows XP and other programs, were convicted of piracy and sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison and a fine of $146,000 each. According to Microsoft, approximately 90 percent of all software sales in China are counterfeit, costing the company an estimated $6.68 billion in sales annually. The Business Software Alliance, the leading lobbying firm for the software industry, celebrated the decision, noting that “This shows that the government [of China] is really taking action.” In the past, the United States has accused the Chinese government of not doing enough to protect intellectual property rights, going so far as to threaten suit before the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, the British government has begun consideration of a number of proposals intended to reduce illegal file sharing in the United Kingdom by 70 percent. The proposals under consideration now could slow the speed of internet connections for people found to be downloading protected content, and access to some sites could be blocked altogether.

3. A prolonged drought in Kenya has resulted in a 50 percent increase in the number of people requiring food aid, according to a report released by the World Food Programme. The report also notes that some regions of the country are suffering from shortages of power and water. Although triggered by the ongoing drought, the country’s weak coalition government faces widespread popular discontent as a result of its inability to carry out much needed political and economic reform.

4. Despite some positive developments over the past several weeks in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere, the global economic crisis continues. On Thursday, the government of Mexico announced the economy shrank by a record 10.3 percent in the second quarter of this year, the fastest rate ever for the country. The global economic crisis has affected Mexico particularly had, as the country has been impacted by the U.S. recession, declining oil revenues, and the H1N1 swine flu virus which decimated the country’s tourism industry.

5. A series of bomb attacks killed almost 100 and wounded almost 500 people in Baghdad on Wednesday. The attacks, which mark the deadliest day since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the city in June, targeted two central locations and the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and many Iraqi government buildings are located. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they nevertheless illustrate the challenges facing the Iraqi government.