A two-part guest post from Stuart Winton of Planet Politics.  It was a lengthy post so we got him to split it in two, and we’ll post up the second part of it in a few days.

If nothing else then Scottish independence is surely about sovereignty. Thus the intention is to repatriate powers currently reserved to Westminster, such as the ability to raise taxes, to borrow when necessary to finance public spending and regarding macroeconomic policy more generally.

However, the recent debate about the definition and limits of ideas like devo-max, independence-lite and confedaralism demonstrates the difficulty with the concept of sovereignty; for example, in what looks like the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland foreign affairs might remain partly at the UK level, while monetary policy would be decided either by the Bank of England or the European Central Bank, whereas the issue of national defence seems particularly vexed.

The currency issue seems especially difficult as regards the questions of independence and sovereignty. For some time the SNP seemed committed to the single European currency, but for obvious reasons the retention of sterling now seems to be the preferred option, in the medium-term at least. But that Alex Salmond could even contemplate an independent Scotland joining the euro – with interest rates decided in Frankfurt – underlines the paradoxical nature of so-called sovereignty, not to mention the notion of independence generally. If monetary policy decided in London primarily for economic conditions in the south-east of England is considered inappropriate – the original rationale for a Scottish currency – then surely interest rates decided primarily for France and Germany would be even less palatable for Scotland, as several of the smaller eurozone member states have found to their cost in the difficult economic climate of recent years.

By the same token, Mr Salmond’s recent objection to aspects of human rights law being decided by the Supreme Court in London – and thus a perceived threat to the independence of the Scottish legal system – seems somewhat ironic in view of the alternative, as outlined by a Scottish Government spokesman: “The issue is not human rights – it is that the distinct Scottish legal system should have direct access to the European Court in Strasbourg just like every other legal jurisdiction”.

The irony of the latter point seemed lost on one contributor to the Herald’s website, for example, who talked of “Unionist jackboots trampling Scottish Jurisprudence” and opined: “It is about the core foundation of the Scottish state and its senior judges being humiliated and deemed inferior by a London court”.

Slightly more recently – and less luridly – justice secretary Kenny MacAskill claimed the Supreme Court judges’ knowledge of Scots law was limited to what they might pick up on a trip to the Edinburgh Festival, while paradoxically stating: “We want Scotland to be able to deal directly with Strasbourg. At the present moment we cannot do that. What we want is to be in the same situation as other countries. We want to be a normal European country.” Similarly, in a subsequent Newsnicht interview the first minister seemed all over the place regarding judicial sovereignty, slamming the “aggressive” intervention by judges in “another country”, while extolling the virtues of the European court and highlighting the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights was authored by a Scot.

But of course we are represented in Europe as a constituent part of the UK, so to that extent Scotland is not a ‘normal’ European country, and there’s little to suggest that the Scottish people desire otherwise. Clearly all this could change with independence, but the SNP Government doesn’t want a referendum on the issue at present, thus to that extent Mr MacAskill should either bring it on (to coin a phrase!) or get on with using the currently devolved powers to run the country.

And it’s not as if Messrs Salmond and MacAskill’s obvious chagrin at the Supreme Court’s decision per se was likely to have been assuaged by having the issue decided by the European Court of Human Rights, which learned opinion seems to suggest would take a similarly liberal approach to interpreting the human rights convention, and it also seems unlikely that the latter court would be any better versed in Scots law than two of the Supreme Court’s justices, Lord Hope and Lord Rodger, who have held the posts of Lord Justice General of Scotland and Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland. Moreover, the ECHR is labouring under a lengthy backlog of cases, thus neither procedurally nor in terms of substantive interpretation of the convention is there any obvious benefit to be had in relation to SNP distaste at the effective exoneration of Nat Fraser, except to the extent that judgement day might have been delayed for some years – and justice denied? – if access to the Supreme Court had been unavailable and hence awkward questions about the Scottish criminal justice system avoided.

But all this brings to mind the SNP’s desire for an ‘independent’ Scotland to join the European Union and thus have national sovereignty compromised by the full panoply of treaty obligations, regulations and directives which would take precedence over domestic legislation and case law, and that’s even ignoring the issues of eurozone membership and monetary policy.

And this EU law would ultimately be under the auspices of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, a jurisdiction in addition to and completely separate from that of the European Convention on Human Rights and associated court in Strasbourg.

Thus in simple terms the dominant Nationalist mindset seems to say, ‘London bad: Frankfurt, Brussels and Strasbourg good’. Or a political and economic union of 60 million people bad, a political and economic union of 500 million people good. Hence something of a sovereignty paradox, but can all this be reconciled?  Of course, many prominent supporters of independence have a problem with these contradictions, perhaps most neatly encapsulated in opposition to the SNP’s oxymoronic “Independence in Europe” mantra, albeit that it’s not heard so much these days. More specifically, Professor John Kay, a member of the SNP Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, said recently: “In the modern world, economic sovereignty for small nations is inescapably limited, and political sovereignty is largely symbolic.” Of course, as Professor Kay’s Scotland on Sunday article makes clear, the limits of economic sovereignty depend on which uncertain course an independent Scotland takes, while his point about political sovereignty perhaps over eggs the pudding a bit.

On the other hand, Gerry Hassan refers to a “post-nationalist politics, one of shared, fluid sovereignties”, which may have some merit in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, but there’s certainly nothing ‘fluid’ about ceding sovereignty to the EU and in terms of a single currency; these are long-term commitments fundamentally antithetical to national sovereignty – ‘European superstate’, anyone? Thus ‘fluid sovereignties’ seems more a euphemism for contradiction and confusion rather than any kind of compelling explanation.

Of course, another prominent attempt to square the sovereignty circle manifests itself in the claim that Scotland would be pooling sovereignty with the EU on a consensual basis, a course of action freely and democratically chosen by the people of Scotland rather than having it thrust upon us via Westminster and the UK.

Again this seems semi-plausible, but the argument portrays Scotland as some sort of repressed colony at the height of imperial Britain, not a twenty-first century participative democracy whose citizens – to repeat a point made earlier – have never demonstrated any obvious desire to secede from the UK, as the several-year delay in the independence referendum ably demonstrates; if the Scotland Bill and the various other powers requested by Alex Salmond are as imperative to Scotland’s future as claimed, then surely these should be sidelined and referendum-enabling legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament forthwith to hasten the repatriation of the full panoply of desired powers?

By the same token, May’s election was self-evidently about who should run a devolved Scotland – and in view of the claimed increasing sophistication of Scottish voters there’s no reason why the SNP shouldn’t become the ‘natural party of (Holyrood) government’ (and indeed perhaps plenty of reasons why the SNP should be the most obvious natural party of Holyrood government) – without it indicating an endorsement of independence. Moreover, Labour trounced the SNP in Scotland in the last major electoral test in the UK context, namely the general election which took place precisely one year before the Holyrood landslide; what changed between then and now, apart from the seat of parliament in question? (The other obvious difference is addressed later).

But another angle on the sovereignty issue is that an independent Scotland would take its place at the international diplomacy dinner table as a fully sovereign nation state (sic!) and therefore have its own say in world affairs and hence be able influence the geopolitical environment.  Where, precisely? The G8? The G20? The G100-odd? Or perhaps joining (or displacing) the UK as a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Of course, the stock Nationalist answer is very probably that Scotland would rather not be part of the UK representation on the Security Council, thank you very much, but would Scotland have any more international influence as a separate entity than (indirectly) as a member of the UK?

However, it’s surely the case that Scotland would have less influence at the EU level (with near-30 member states) than it currently has as a constituent part of the UK, where indeed it’s often been claimed that Scotland has had influence disproportionate to its size; during the ‘new Labour’ years, for example.

Again, however, from the Nationalist perspective that’s the wrong kind of influence, and thus the second part of this post will suggest that Scottish independence is less about sovereignty per se than incompatible political ideologies.