Commenting on my earlier article of 5 May 2021 - “And be a nation again” - an independent Scotland is now inevitable. (only-connect.co.uk) - about the issue of independence for Scotland, one reader, describing himself as a “Proud Scotsman,” remarked that I was “living in cloud cuckoo land” because, he argued, Scotland was so heavily dependent on financial transfers from the UK government, the strength of sterling and the ability of the government to borrow on the international capital markets that it could not sustain itself as an independent nation.
The tone of the comments indicates how much the writer had allowed political prejudice to blind him to what the article was actually saying. I was not arguing that Scotland should be independent, but rather that I believe the momentum in favour of independence is now such that it has become inevitable. That conviction has only been strengthened by the results of the Scottish parliamentary elections which have again returned a clear majority of pro-independence parties and with the SNP maintaining its dominant position. Moreover, demography is on the side of the Nationalists. Young people who have grown up since devolution are very largely in favour of independence and with each day that passes more come of age and join the electorate, increasing the pressure on the UK government and the likelihood of another independence referendum.
One would expect a “Proud Scotsman” to want his country to stand on its own feet, to “take back control” and not be dependent on handouts from its larger neighbour. But in truth, the fears of those Unionists who put forward this kind of arguments are political rather than economic. Scottish Conservatives were largely hostile to devolution because, as one of them candidly explained to me at the time, “We would be stuck with a permanent Labour government in Scotland.” Few would have imagined then that, within a generation, Labour in Scotland would be reduced to a poor third place in the polls and trailing behind the Conservatives. Now of course it is the SNP which causes Scottish Conservatives to have sleepless nights. But they need not be afraid. As in Ireland before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, Scottish politics has been completely skewed by the issue of the relationship with England. Once the issue of independence is resolved the political landscape will change dramatically. As the governing party in Scotland for the last 14 years, the SNP will not wither away like the Brexit Party or UKIP. But it will become a normal party of the centre-left, judged primarily on it domestic policies and no longer on its attitude to the Union. With the independence issue no longer dividing them, Scottish Labour and the SNP will find so much common ground the two parties will probably eventually merge. And once independence is achieved, Nationalists who may have become disillusioned with SNP domestic policies or are simply tired of SNP government will feel free to vote for the opposition. One can foresee a strong revival of Scottish Conservativism.
But Unionist fears ensure that the myths around Scotland’s ability to exist as an independent country persist. Hoariest of these myths is that adduced by the above mentioned reader: that Scotland can only get by because of substantial subsidies from the rest of the UK. That is simply the Brexit argument in reverse. The Brexit lobby pointed to the amount of money being sent to Europe by the UK (remember the red bus?) but blithely ignored all the benefits which the UK received in return. These included not only the farm support grants, regional development grants and infrastructure investments, nor even those Europe-wide programmes from which the UK benefited like the Erasmus scheme for young people to study in other European countries, but also less quantifiable benefits such as tariff-free access to the world’s most important single market or continental-wide networks for trade and transport. Now the same people – and they usually are the same people - point to the amount of money flowing to Scotland from the UK government while ignoring the overall benefit which the UK as a whole has derived from Scottish membership.
These benefits amounts to much more than just the tax take in Scotland. Since the Union and the transfer of government and parliament to London, Scots talent, resources and enterprise have been sucked towards the metropolis and have made a significant contribution to the overall prosperity of the UK, much of which remains concentrated in the South East. It is only right that some of that prosperity be returned and the restoration of a Scottish government and Scottish parliament in Holyrood has gone some way to ensure that Scotland receives its fair share.
With regard to the currency, as explained in my previous article, an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound and benefit from the strength of sterling. The UK government could not prevent that nor would it be sensible to try and do so. And if Scotland joined the EU, it would benefit from one of the strongest currencies in the world, backed by the strict monetary policy of the ECB and the fiscal discipline imposed by the Commission. So, the idea that Scotland could not survive without support from England is absurd. It is the kind of “project fear” for which David Cameron was rightly ridiculed in the run-up to the Brexit Referendum.
Ultimately only independence will show whether Scotland would be better or worse off, but it is instructive to look at the experience of Ireland, a similar country with a somewhat smaller population and less resources than Scotland.
In “A Short History of Brexit”, the Irish economic historian, Kevin O’Rourke, argues convincingly that Ireland’s poor economic performance in the 1950’s and 60’s was a consequence of its excessive dependence on a sluggish and underperforming UK economy and that economic acceleration after 1973 and the Irish “economic miracle” after 1990 was the result of two factors: independence and EU membership.
“It seems clear that the European Union was fundamental in transforming the Irish economy, but also that Irish independence was essential in exploiting the opportunities that the European Union afforded….Ireland would never have done anywhere near as well as it in fact did, had it remained a mere region of the United Kingdom.”(p146)
By 2020 Ireland’s per capita GDP of $80,481 was almost double that of the UK ($42,416) and above that of the USA or Singapore. Of course there is no guarantee that Scotland would do as well. But it is precisely that two-fold opportunity offered by independence coupled with EU membership to which the people of Scotland aspire. But even if the doom-sayer’s worst fears were realised; if an independent Scotland did not prosper or the country found itself with an SNP government for the foreseeable future, it would at least be the democratic choice of the Scottish people. Unlike the current situation where Scotland has been saddled for the last ten years – indeed for 38 of the last 62 years – with a UK government which the majority of Scottish people had not voted for. How often have we heard the Prime Minister talk about respecting “the will of the people”? Try telling that to the people of Scotland.