"Sovereignty-association" isn’t a new idea. It’s a complicated and rather unemotional concept and has been defeated before. Free trade, however, isn’t a new idea either. Yet in 1776, Scotland’s Adam Smith and his book Wealth of Nations launched it’s eventual global takeover.
In the 1960s and 1970s, nationalists assumed that if the superpowers’ Cold War ended without blowing us up, distinct societies of viable size could achieve genuine national independence. Canadians and nationalists in the province of Quebec imagined that they could manage their affairs independently of the US and, conceivably, of each other. Consequently, when the René Lévesque sovereigntist government asked Quebecers in 1980 for a mandate to negotiate merely a new partnership — ‘sovereignty-association’ — the Government of Canada responded with scorn.
It was a sleazy trick. Quebec nationalists, like serious nationalists everywhere, surely would never stick to any arrangement that would significantly limit their national power. In two referendums, Ottawa insisted that Lévesque’s model was merely a Trojan horse; inside its clapboard shell crouched wild-eyed Anglo-haters, with fascist undergarments. Pierre Trudeau would snip that his ideas were both naïve and deceitful.
Last week, in a 667-page plan, Scotland’s nationalist first minister Alex Salmond put forward a similar sovereignty-association proposal in a much calmer time — a time when nationalist romantics are less certain and taken less seriously. Political interdependence is now the normal way groups of affluent and civilized people organize their affairs.
Two huge, loose federations — the Eurozone and the United States — manage the world’s two biggest currencies, their open markets and business cycles, while the citizens in their dozens of sovereign member states manage what they don’t assign to the two giant associations. (Canadians, Englishmen, Quebecers, and Scots prosper today, in large measure, because these two gigantic concoctions work.)
It’s unsurprising and unimportant that the Government of Great Britain rejected Scotland’s proposals before the referendum; it’s the status quo’s nature to tell us that change causes trouble. However, it’s not reasonable for resolute liberal journals like The Economist to complain that Scotland’s plan is too utilitarian and too optimistic at the same time:
“He [Salmond] would also have to negotiate EU membership, continued use of sterling, the division of Britain’s national debt, NATO membership and much else besides. Voting for independence would be an act of faith.”
Certainly, the island of Great Britain has had limited experience with federal-style government. The English political class long-believed that even their descendants couldn’t make decentralized federal systems work in North America and that "Europeans" couldn’t make them work in Europe as well. Nevertheless, the elite that will do most of the fear mongering in Scotland’s referendum debate will, at the same time, deeply treasure their international alliances and associations and the acts of faith — as negotiators and traders — that made Britain great.
If Scotland votes yes, British leaders will set their feelings aside and, by morning, start working on how to maintain every mechanism and institution with the Scots that serves their mutual interests.
"Sovereignty-association" isn’t unworkable. It simply may not be necessary for Scotland.
Fundamentally, it is just another way to think about how to encourage rigorous, responsible local democracy within a wider association. It’s too bad that on this continent it is only advocated as a way to break up federations rather than as a way to create a closer union of Canadians and Americans.