top of page

Would Scots fare better staying in the United Kingdom?

On 10 June 2016 I wrote the following in an email from France to some friends in the UK:

“We voted last week. I bumped into the mayor as I was posting the envelopes. ‘Deux votes pour l’Europe,’ I told him. He seemed pleased. But I think we’ll be a minority come 23 June. My forecast if we Brexit:

  1. The £ will plummet against all currencies and stay low for several months but then gradually return to its current level as everyone realises that the damage to the British economy is much more gradual and longer-term than predicted;

  2. Cameron will resign, Boris will not replace him (May will), there will be a hung parliament and a minority Tory government after a general election this side of Christmas;

  3. Labour will be the largest party after a general election in 2018 under a new leader but will only be able to govern in a coalition with the SNP/Lib Dems/Greens;

  4. Scotland will be independent by 2020;

  5. N Ireland will be independent of the UK but not part of the Republic of Ireland by 2024;

  6. Unemployment in the UK will rise to 15% by 2025 as more and more service jobs are taken over by machines and the population rises to 80 million (EU and non-EU immigrants continue to fill jobs that Brits cannot or won’t do).

  7. Croatia win the Euro Football Championships (but this cannot be blamed on Brexit).”

The same friends congratulated me a fortnight later on my soothsaying skills if not my sporting ones*. However, every single one, including a Scottish Brexiteer, dismissed the notion that Scotland would become independent as a consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. After all, the Scots had decided 55% to 45% to stay in the UK only two years earlier, hadn’t they?

Why then did I conclude that the UK would vote to leave the EU? Because, a little removed from all the noise of the months of bitter argument, I could see that those running the Remain campaign were utterly failing to persuade enough British people to vote for staying in the EU. Instead they were arguing against leaving it, a different thing altogether. Project Fear, as the Brexiteers called it, was not working.

Why did I predict that Scotland would become independent? Because if I was right about the EU referendum result, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, Nicola Sturgeon, would metaphorically be re-applying woad while outwardly putting on a face of woe. Opinion polls of Scots before the vote showed that they wanted to stay in the EU. 62% voted Remain, whereas 53.4% of voters in England voted Leave. Sturgeon now had the perfect reason to demand a second Independence referendum. The first had gone 55%-45% in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. This was partly because Unionists had argued that leaving the UK also meant leaving the EU with all the economic benefits that membership gave to the Scots. There was no certainty that an independent Scotland could rejoin the EU at all, let alone quickly. But on 24 June, 2016 Scots woke up to discover that the English were taking them out of the EU against their will. Moreover, the chief rallying cry used by the victorious Brexiteers – Take Back Control! – could be used by Scottish nationalists to demand Scotland’s exit from the UK.

I’m now back in England, following the debate in Scotland with a growing sense of déjà vu. The strategic mistake made by the EU Remain campaigners is being made by the Unionists. It is Project Fear all over again. What will happen if Scotland leaves the UK? Economic meltdown, higher taxes and joblessness. I’m no economist; I don’t have the expertise to know the probability of these predictions coming to pass. What I am though is someone who has spent a working life teaching business people around the world to successfully sell their products, services and ideas. And doing the same myself both when working for my company in the UK and abroad and, subsequently, when self-employed in France. Convincing people not to choose an option because of the bad things that might happen if they do is a lot harder than persuading the same people to choose an option because of the good things that might happen if they do.

As with most British voters on both sides in the EU referendum, most Scots will vote more with their hearts than with their heads should there be a second Independence referendum. Scots want to be be inspired and given hope, especially the younger ones whose lives have been so disproportionately blighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There was one question I was asked during the EU Referendum campaign by a Brexit- supporting friend, a senior English lawyer, which I wished had been foremost in the minds of those running the Remain campaign: “If we were currently outside the EU and being asked to decide whether to join, would you vote to join?” My answer was a heartfelt “Yes!” and I went on to tell him why (not that he believed me). Note the word “heartfelt”. The answer I gave was factual but the reason I voted Remain was more driven by emotion than reason. Just as was the vote of my legal mate, though he continues to deny it.

A similar question should be being asked by Unionists. What would the benefits be to Scots of their country joining the UK? If that is too hard to imagine, keep it simple but still positive. What are the benefits of staying inside the most successful union of nations in world history?

For the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – yes, let’s give it its full name - is a union of nations. Scotland is not a region like Bavaria or Catalonia. It is a nation with a tiny population relative to its nearest neighbour, England, but with a history of success in the last three hundred years totally out of proportion to what one might expect from its number of people and dearth of natural resources. Why? Because it was a founding member of the Union in 1707, the equal of England. Some monarchists even claim Scottish superiority over the English. After all it was their king, James VI, who became James I of England, Wales and Ireland in 1603. Throughout the past three hundred years Scots have made an enormous contribution to the economic, political and intellectual success of the Union within these islands and overseas. And can continue to do so for their own good, as well as for that of the rest of us, within the UK. Some nationalists, deliberately ignoring their country’s history, claim that Scotland was and is a colony of England. Nonsense. I can tell you as an Englishman that it sometimes has felt as though I am being ruled by my Scottish fellow citizens.

The main reason why my French neighbours and friends did not believe the British would vote to leave the EU was because of our “pragmatisme”. Why would we when we had the best of both worlds? We had kept our own currency. We had all those opt-outs. At the same time we operated within a vast single market, which we had been the prime movers in creating.

Scotland in the UK also has the best of both worlds. It has its own legal system. Its education system is also quite different from the rest of the UK (and until recently, many would say until the nationalists took power, produced better-educated children than did England’s schools). It has its own government which has been given more and more power by the UK’s Parliament in London over the last twenty-two years. Health, Social Services, Housing, Environment, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are all matters decided upon by the Scots themselves. Significant areas of taxation have also been devolved. Scotland, as a nation, can qualify for the football World Cup finals (though seldom do; the regions of Catalonia and Bavaria would probably qualify more often if allowed to). They also play as a nation in rugby union’s Six Nations yet can contribute players to the British and Irish Lions biennial touring team (probably at the expense this year of the underperforming English).

Unionists should be trumpeting the economic benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK.

These include:

  • receiving subsidies amounting to £1,633 per Scot per year;

  • being part of a thriving single market and customs union, with the rest of the UK taking about 60% of Scotland’s exports;

  • benefiting from the economies of scale arising out of being a part of the Union – e.g. the cost of collecting most taxes and customs duties, controlling immigration, running a central bank, defending the nation, being represented abroad by nearly 300 embassies and high commissions.

The most important benefit by far – Scotland’s shared ownership of the pound sterling - has been described by Malcolm Offord in an article published in The Spectator on 8 April.

Since the first gilt-edged securities were issued in 1691, the UK government has never defaulted on its debts. This is why it is one of the top five reserve currencies (together with the dollar, yen, euro and Swiss franc). What is the benefit of that? The UK is seen as a super-safe haven for international investors to put their money. The UK does not have to rely only on its total tax-take to meet its public spending commitments. It can borrow (in reality, create) vast sums of money, relatively cheaply, because it has, over 300 years, proved that it can be trusted to honour its debts. That is the power of sterling. SNP activists hate the idea of keeping sterling after independence. They know, perhaps only instinctively but still correctly, that they cannot be truly independent if the country’s currency is controlled by another country. Yet some of those activists were recently told by an SNP minister that to abandon sterling would make it impossible for the government of a newly-independent Scotland to keep its spending promises. As Malcolm Offord says at the end of his article: “without a trusted currency, an independent Scotland will be denied access to funding at the scale and price available to the UK and instead will be consigned to austerity never seen before in modern times.”

But these are not emotional reasons for Scotland to stay in the Union. The sterling case, the one the nationalists least like arguing against, will not mean much to most Scots. The Unionists need to tell a positive story to Scottish voters. Older generations should be forcefully reminded of what they and their predecessors have achieved inside the Union, often as political, business and intellectual leaders of the Union. The past can be a guide to the future.

And to younger Scots? Why crimp your ambitions? The sum of the Union is greater than its parts. You, a single Scot, will have more opportunities to do well in life by being part of a bigger whole than by retreating inside your borders.

Finally, my Scottish fellow citizens, ask yourself this: if the nationalists are so confident that Scotland will prosper so much more outside the Union than inside, why then are they so keen for you to rejoin the EU and for you to be a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond?

I won’t have another go at predicting the future of my countries – the UK and England, nations both – just yet. But of one thing I am already sure, if Unionists in Scotland don’t start making a much more positive case for the Union right now, they will be applying for a Scottish passport within five years.

*In my defence. I nearly got it right on Croatia. Their team was defeated 0-1 in extra time, two days after the EU Referendum, by the eventual winners, Portugal. And Scots will recall with glee England’s defeat by Croatia in the World Cup semi-final in 2018.


Related Posts

See All

1 Comment

Apr 21, 2021

Croatia for the win.

bottom of page