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Scotland's first president

There may be no obvious reason to suppose that Scottish independence is coming over the hill. But it is coming.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023
18 mins

Should Scotland have a president?

We wanted to do a  blogpost about who would make a suitable president for an independent Scotland.

The intention, originally, was to do a series of mini-polls on Twitter in a competition format: 8 groups of 4 names, two progress, all culminating in a grand final. 

So we started trying to compile a list. Instead, the piece of paper, covered in doodles, ended up in the bin.

We’re still struggling to think of names. We asked via Twitter. Lloyd Quinan suggested someone whose name we’ve forgotten - it was, if memory serves, an SNP elder, a female. The only suggestions we’ve received overnight are The Proclaimers, Gerry Sadowitz and Liz Lochhead.  

But why is it a question anyway? Why bother?

There are 139 countries in the world that have a president. Out of the 193 UN Member states, 139 have a president as the head of state. Of these, 142 are republics and 3 are semi-presidential republics.

The role of the president varies depending on the country's form of government. In some countries, the president is the head of state and government, while in others, the president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. Although the president is usually elected by the people, there are some countries where the president is appointed by the legislature or by a special electoral college.

The term of office varies from country to country, but it is typically four or five years. Presidential powers also vary from country to country but typically include the power to veto legislation, appoint ministers and judges and, in some cases, command the armed forces.

One of the best arguments for a nation having a president is that it provides a clear and visible head of state, a symbol of national unity. The president is often seen as the personification of the nation and can serve as a rallying point for the people. This can be especially important in times of crisis or upheaval. Additionally, s/he can be a powerful advocate for the nation on the world stage.

Another argument in favour of having a president is that it provides a check on the power of the legislature. The president has the power to veto legislation, which can prevent the legislature from passing laws that the president believes are harmful to the country. This can help to ensure that the government is accountable to the people. 

Here are some additional arguments in favour of having a president:

  • Provides a strong sense of leadership and direction for the country.
  • Can be a powerful force for change and progress.
  • Can help to unite the country and represent its interests on the world stage.
  • Can serve as a check on the power of the legislature and the judiciary.
  • Can provide a sense of stability and continuity in times of crisis.

And ‘against’:

  • Too powerful and can easily abuse their power.
  • Too easily influenced by special interests.
  • Too focused on short-term gains and not enough on long-term planning.
  • Too divisive and can polarise the country.
  • Not necessary for a country to be successful.

Right now though, in Scotland, the question about presidency is not so much about whether or not we should have a president - it is more to do with finding out whether or not we are capable of doing the basic housekeeping that all nations must attend to. Regaining independence involves much more than redefining our relationship with Westminster and ‘England’. It involves giving other nations the attention they deserve from us and hoping that they will reciprocate. 

There are pressing reasons to do so. 

Once again, Scots are represented, in a time of global crisis, by figures we have little in common with and who appear to view us with open contempt. Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have made it plain, not only that they cannot and will not condemn the genocide being committed by Israel, but that they would like to criminalise any visible support for Palestinians. As if the British police do not already have enough powers (indeed, it can be argued that they struggle to manage them) we now face the prospect of officers being expected to confiscate flags and even arrest peaceful protesters. Braverman’s aggressive statements have, if anything, ensured that crowds attending future demonstrations will continue to grow along with the toll of confirmed dead in Gaza/West Bank, currently standing at around 8,000, approximately half of whom are children.

If Scotland was independent, it would be expected to react to the situation, not only in terms of expressing concern and committing humanitarian aid, but also levelling criticism where it is due. Right now, that is not possible. 

Michael D. Higgins

Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins has made several statements that have angered Israelis. The Israeli ambassador to Ireland has accused Higgins of being "anti-Israel" and of "spreading lies and misinformation." The Israeli government has also said that Higgins's comments are "unhelpful" and "do nothing to advance the cause of peace." But President Michael D. Higgins is very popular in Ireland. He is known for his intelligence, wit, and compassion and is a strong advocate for social justice and the arts. In a 2022 poll by Red C, Higgins was found to have an approval rating of 87%. This is the highest approval rating for any Irish president since the office was established (in 1937 - Douglas Hyde was the first president). He is also popular among young people. In a 2022 survey by the National Youth Council of Ireland, Higgins was found to be the most admired person in Ireland among people aged 18-24. So, his words carry weight and the office itself is important to the people.

This Twitter/X feed gives some idea of the range of public duties performed routinely by Higgins: (7) President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) / X (twitter.com)

Debates about arguments, or arguments about debates?

We can argue about what a Scottish president could or should say about the situation in Gaza. Indeed, we believe that we should have that argument. Because the whole process of tackling weighty matters is something we are going to have to become accustomed to. It’s also something that we’ll have to do efficiently because there’s an awful lot to get through.

Without checking, can you name ten matters which are reserved to the Westminster government? We just tried and managed nine but we didn’t get the categorisation exactly and missed out some very obvious ones.

The current ‘reserved’ matters:

  • Defence & national security
  • The constitution
  • Foreign affairs
  • Immigration & nationality
  • International trade & development
  • Economic & monetary policy
  • Fiscal policy
  • Benefits
  • Betting & gambling
  • Broadcasting
  • Consumer protection
  • Currency
  • Data protection
  • Elections to the UK Parliament
  • Employment law & industrial relations
  • Energy
  • Equality legislation
  • Financial services
  • Nuclear safety
  • Oil & gas regulation
  • Radiocommunications
  • Railways
  • Social security
  • Taxation
  • Transport

Right now the Scottish government appears paralysed. Whether by accident or design, it is incapable of creating legislation which even remotely challenges Westminster control of the most important economic levers any independent nation must have in order to function properly. Indeed, it somehow manages to breach the terms of the 1988 Scotland Act on issues which may have high virtue-signalling value but otherwise generate either indifference or bewilderment in the majority of Scots voters.

If the current Scottish government cannot even agree on a definition of what ‘a woman’ is then we have little faith that it has the basic competency required to organise real debates on the issues listed above. Does that mean that the debates shouldn’t happen?

There may be no obvious reason to suppose that Scottish independence is coming over the hill. But it is coming. And we have to be ready for it. If the inadequacies of the current government have more to do with a lack of powers than the corruption, nepotism and sheer incompetence revealed in recent years, so be it. Constitutional change is no guarantee that the latter will disappear as if by magic. The legal processes which should now emerge from a variety of scandals will take years to resolve and that time must be used profitably. Alasdair Gray’s famous quote about working ‘as if’ we’re in the early days of a better nation still resonates, even if that nation appears farther away now than it was a decade ago. And there is nothing to stop us initiating those discussions right now.

So, even if this is viewed as little more than a ‘warm-up’ exercise, it will help us get used to the whole idea of discussing things we’re not supposed to… 

Who do YOU want to see as Scotland’s first president?

Let the debate begin.

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