WRITING IN The Economist at the end of last year, Alex Salmond championed the success story of “smaller states championing change”. He cited the “dynamic regions” of Spain and, of course, the Scandinavian nations. But the First Minister was also careful to note that a country’s size offered “no protection or immunity from the vagaries of the global economy”. He continued:
“Instead, the countries which appear best equipped to deal with such conditions are those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to adapt quickly to change. It is not the size of a nation that is important, but the size of its ambition and of the contribution it can make to the world. Scotland is ready to meet that challenge.”
Having spent this week meandering around some of Europe’s smaller states, I’m inclined to agree that small is indeed beautiful. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is essentially a city-state but home to a diverse economy (not just finance but manufacturing and mining too), while the Principality of Liechtenstein is a double landlocked alpine country next to Switzerland.
Both are fiercely proud of their sovereignty. Indeed, a promotional film I watched in Vaduz, the tiny capital of Liechtenstein, made much of its long history of independence. Luxembourg wasn’t so lucky, its neutrality ignored – twice – by invading Germans. “We wish to stay as we are” is the duchy’s simple motto.
Comparisons with Scotland are, however, rather pointless. Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have populations of half a million and 36,000 respectively. And although the latter’s Princess Sophie has a good claim to the Jacobite succession, Scotland – with its five million people – is far removed from a nation covering just 61 square miles.
The neoliberal Alex Salmond, of course, most likely admires Luxembourg and Liechtenstein for their low-tax economies and reputation for sophisticated financial services, although this is self-evidently easier to promote in a small nation (as it is in the Isle of Man) rather than in a relatively large country such as Scotland. Others have tried, i.e. Ireland, but such schemes have brought mixed blessings.
From Vaduz I travelled to Zurich on enviably efficient bus and train networks, and indeed it’s from that other financial centre that I write this column. Although it’s not my first time in Switzerland, to me this nation – rather than Luxembourg or Liechtenstein – that offers a convincing template for Scotland, and by that I mean a Scotland within a reformed United Kingdom.
I often bore anyone who’ll listen with my enthusiasm for federalism, and Switzerland is of course a federal nation of 26 highly-devolved cantons, each of which has a permanent constitutional status, with their own parliaments, governments and courts. Tax collection is split between federal and regional government with rates geared towards particular commercial and social circumstances.
But it’s the “direct democracy” element of the Swiss constitution I find most attractive. Dating from 1848, this enables citizens (50,000 of them) to challenge a federal law via a referendum within 100 days of it being passed, or – and this is more commonly exercised – put a constitutional amendment to a national vote if at least 100,000 voters support it within 18 months.
Switzerland, as in other federal countries, has essentially found a middle way between small and large nations. Even with devolution the United Kingdom remains highly centralised – certainly in fiscal terms – not to mention lop-sided (as in Spain). The UK’s quasi-federal (and unwritten) constitution is crying out for formalisation via a new Act of Union. This not only requires a boldness of vision from the UK Government, but a degree of honesty from the SNP.
Last week Salmond conceded that even after a “yes” vote in the 2014 referendum Scotland would not be “independent in a pure sense”, and indeed the logical extension of most SNP policies these days is some sort of loose (con)federation of the UK’s nations and regions. I also can’t help feeling the Swiss practice chimes with some of the constitutional values the SNP claims to hold dear.
We hear lots of talk of “self-determination” and Scots exercising “choice” over certain policy areas in the advent of independence, but it’s never been entirely clear how that would work in practice. Through direct democracy and radical decentralisation, Switzerland surely points the way, if only those on both sides of Scotland’s constitutional divide were willing to recognise it.