As this journal goes to press, one of the world’s more successful political unions may be rapidly unravelling, which will either mean a bright new dawn for a small but proud nation finally able to steer its own course—or a potentially disastrous mistake for the citizens of both Scotland and what may be soon a rump UK of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The referendum on Scotland’s independence has galvanised political debate there, leading to an astounding 97% registration. More than 4.29 million of the country’s adults have signed up to vote, with nearly 120,000 added in the last month. And it has encouraged separatists and devolutionists across the world, from those seeking UK federalism to the particularly inspired Catalans.
With just days to go before Scotland votes, what had once been a healthy 15-20 percentage-point lead for the ‘no’ camp, the Better Together campaign, had dwindled to a statistical dead heat as the pro-unionists’ relentless focus on the grave but dry economic questions surrounding the debate backfired. Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, made a well-calculated but more emotional appeal to the country’s voters. This was partly based on a dislike and distrust of all the politicians in Westminster but especially tapped into a deep-seated loathing of the Conservative Party that dates from the days when Margaret Thatcher laid waste to Scotland’s industry and mines (the Tories were the strongest party north of the border as recently as 1955 but now there are famously more giant pandas than Tory MPs there). A poll putting the ‘yes’ camp ahead for the first time, and thereby sending sterling to a 10-month low, panicked Westminster politicians into abandoning the normal party rivalry as they all piled up to Scotland to fight for the ever-dwindling band of undecided voters, while banks and other leading companies let it be known that they were largely in favour of business as usual.
There is understandable anger at how Scotland repeatedly votes for a social democratic government but ends up with an unrepresentative and hostile neo-liberalism from London. But there are many Scots who would argue that the difficult relationship goes back far beyond the Acts of Union of 1706-7 (which the historian Simon Schamadescribed as: ‘A hostile merger [that] would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world … one of the most astonishing transformations in European history’) to the blood-soaked battles that are still etched into Scotland’s self-image: Bannockburn, Flodden and Culloden (though the latter was as much between Scotland’s own lowlanders and highlanders, it still feeds the misty-eyed romanticism that runs through Scottish nationalism).
The reasons to vote ‘yes’ are many (listed here by the Yes Scotland campaign), if sometimes hoary—the untapped reserves of North Sea oil and gas, and the vast potential for hydroelectric and wind power (probably more than anywhere in western Europe) are two of the more familiar arguments. Ditching the Trident nuclear missile system (the submarines are based in a Scottish loch and are expected to cost $130bn to replace as they near the end of their lifespan) also garners much support.
The Financial Timesargued: ‘The leading players on both sides accept that Scotland has all the ingredients to be a viable nation state. If its geographic share of UK oil and gas output is taken into account, Scotland’s GDP per head is bigger than that of France. Even excluding the North Sea’s hydrocarbon bounty, per capita GDP is higher than that of Italy. Oil, whisky and a broad range of manufactured goods mean an independent Scotland would be one of the world’s top 35 exporters.’
But the cause of social justice and a desire to protect the welfare state, to keep higher education largely free, to turn away from the ruthless capitalism exemplified by London (although taken to its most hubristic and disastrous conclusion in Edinburgh by the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax-Bank of Scotland) perhaps resonate more strongly.
On the other hand, Better Together argued that an independent Scotland could not easily maintain its standard of living and costly welfare state without the subsidies it currently enjoys from the rest of the UK (although the nationalists argue that Scotland has long subsidised the rest of the UK with oil).
The currency question loomed large over the debate. The Financial Timesbelieved the best option for an independent Scotland was a currency union with the UK, though this was flatly rejected by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties (Yes Scotland argued that Westminster was bluffing about rejecting a currency union). The continued use of the pound sterling, but without the backing of the Bank of England, was dealt a blow by the governor of the bank, Mark Carney, who told MPs that a Scottish central bank could need more than 100% of GDP in reserves if sterling was used after independence without a formal agreement with Westminster. Carney noted in another speech that the currency union sought by the Scottish government ‘requires some ceding of national sovereignty’. Forming a new currency was also beset with problems: such a small country would have a weaker currency, meaning higher borrowing costs and capital flight. Joining the euro was widely seen as the least attractive option but, according to Labour’s shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, ‘would likely be his only realistic plan B’.
Paul Mason, Channel 4’s economics editor, outlined seven big economics risks of independence: among them that Scotland could go bust (faced with high public spending, a falling tax take and higher borrowing costs), that Scottish banks dwarfed the economy and threatened to take the country with it if just one went under (the Royal Bank of Scotland’s balance sheet was 13 times Scottish GDP at one point), that it would lose all real independence by not having its own currency (but couldn’t afford to go off its own anyway due to the risks). Number six was not economic, but no less true for that: ‘Scottish people (and English politicians) miscalibrate the risks, because the political emotions make them unable to properly understand them.’
Other lines of attack by the ‘no’ campaign focused on the implications for such respected British icons as the BBC, the NHS, the military, sport and arts, and the question of whether an independent Scotland could, as Salmond claims, rejoin the European Union within 18 months. Or whether it could shelter under the Nato umbrella while rejecting nuclear arms. And recent commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war added further poignancy to appeals to British solidarity during the dark days of the second world war.
The Economist recalled the Darien scheme, an earlier Scottish attempt to go its own way that had disastrous consequences. This involved the country founding its own colony in central America but for several reasons—not least poor leadership and a lack of planning—the settlement was abandoned by 1700. The collapse of the scheme nearly bankrupted Scotland and is credited with paving the way for the Act of Union only seven years later.
However, The Economist also noted that ‘national pride is impossible to price’. In Canada, the perennial push for independence by Quebec separatists—despite the ‘sovereigntists’ losing two referendums and winning significant autonomy for the province—is known as the ‘neverendum’. If the Scottish nationalists lose this time, don’t bet on them not coming back for another go.