Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Buccaneer brag rubs salt into Scottish wounds

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British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo / AP
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo / AP

What an extraordinary outburst by English Prime Minister David Cameron recently. Appealing to Scots to vote No in the forthcoming devolution referendum, he bragged (accurately) of British history as that of a "brave, brilliant, buccaneering, generous, tolerant and proud nation". But buccaneering. Hardly a source of pride.

Stemming from meat-eating, the word derives from the 17th century pirates (originally French Caribbean settlers) licensed by England to plunder Spanish galleons. They were thieves and murderers and there was nothing "brave, brilliant, generous or tolerant" about them, despite subsequent romanticising in books and films.

Perhaps I'm being too pedantic, and over the centuries "buccaneering" has evolved into meaning free-wheeling cavalier behaviour, which is certainly true of Britain these past 300 years.

Nevertheless, given the devolution sensitivities, it was inappropriate in the context of Scotland's incorporation into the United Kingdom. Under economic duress the Scottish Parliament voted for union in 1707, a move to both countries' mutual benefit ever since.

Despite polls showing growing, albeit still minority support for independence, mainly from the Glaswegian working classes, the large undecided vote makes the outcome uncertain.

If I was a Scot - and presumably due to a previous life of great virtue I have not been so punished - I'd plump for independence. I'd do so because contrary to the approach of the top bureaucratic policy-devising mandarins who nowadays surreptitiously dictate all critical policy in the advanced economies, I like small states. If well governed, like Singapore, they can work superbly.

And were I a Pom I might also vote for it because Scotland takes a lot more than it contributes from the Union, even allowing for North Sea oil. But then I couldn't claim Andy Murray, so perhaps not.

All of this must be viewed in the context of the nation-state as a modern concept. We refer to ourselves as a young country but depending on your starting point we're one of the oldest; older than Germany and Italy, for example, plus at least another 100 nations, most not existing when I was born.

Given that New Zealand was the last sizeable land mass to be settled by humans, that might seem peculiar, but that's due to also being the world's most isolated country, which is why everyone everywhere has heard of us. I mention that given the prevailing general ignorance of geography by the average punter.

In the context of globalisation, it's quite possible independent nations won't exist by the end of this century; in their place, a single governing federal body presiding over perhaps 300 sub-states. And why not? There's a lot going for it. This is the ultimate fear of conspiracy theorists who provide such wonderful entertainment. It's worth proposing just to wind them up.

Nevertheless, through so many relentless forces, be they free trade agreements, common currencies, growing passport-free blocs, the internet et al, that ultimate global outcome seems inevitable.

Set against that force are numerous counter-pressures in the form of independence movements, such as the Basques and now prosperous Catalonia in Spain, Kurdistan, Tibet, the possible breakup of Belgium, Chechnya, Quebec, Transnistria, Kashmir and numerous others, but, in particular, Africa with its ridiculous imposed arbitrary borders paying no regard to geography or ethnicity.

On a smaller scale, think back to Michael Bassett's overdue local government amalgamation reforms in the 1980s. Despite the publicly recognised merits of this move, the citizens of two similar prosperous small seaside boroughs, Devonport in Auckland and Eastbourne in Wellington, protested at being lumped in with hoi polloi and wanted to retain their autonomy.

Had I been in Michael Bassett's shoes I'd have let them and no harm would have been done to the overall reform. But today, a quarter of a century later, I would be surprised if offered autonomy now, they would opt for it.

Rob Muldoon regaled me one evening on the inevitable breakup of India. Putting aside his antipathy towards Indians, whom he viewed as world class no-hopers (remember the fuss when he closed our High Commission in Dehli), except for Kashmiris' wishes, it hasn't happened, possibly because - like America, Canada, Russia, Mexico, Australia and other large countries - India has a strong federal system.

In the early 1980s, there was an attempt at a South Island independence movement, which quickly faded through lack of support. Had it happened, the South would have been greatly richer and the North poorer because of export and population differentials favouring the South.

This is a parallel to the Scottish situation, which brings me back to Muldoon again. He once said to me, "The decisions we make today will determine whether in 30 years we're a Scotland or a southern counties-type nation."

Those three decades have elapsed and - thanks to the bold decisions of Rob's successor the Labour Government, ironically - we're probably marginally southern England.

- NZ Herald

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