After a poll last weekend indicated that Scotland might actually say “aye” to independence in a referendum this coming Thursday, practically the entire British political establishment went into panic mode. The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament was delegated to deputies as the Prime Minister and the other two main party leaders jetted up to Scotland to beg voters to keep the United Kingdom together. But they didn’t campaign together, and frankly, given the unpopularity of the “Westminster elite”, their collective visit to Scotland may have proven to be just as much of a boost for the “yes” campaign. The fact that the Prime Minister, his deputy, and the leader of the opposition all felt that they had to fly north, though, is a sign of just how close this vote is going to be. Scotland is a few short days away from taking a very important decision, one which is now too close to call.
For years, Scottish independence has been a minority ambition. The sporadic polls taken on the issue from the mid-2000s up until last year all put support for the notion somewhere around 30-35%. Support for the Scottish National Party had been similar. But after the 2008 financial crisis, MPs expenses scandal, and a growing dislike of Westminster politicians across the political spectrum, Scottish voters in 2011 backed the Scottish National Party to such an extent that they were able to form a majority in the devolved Scottish parliament – something unexpected and unprecedented. But SNP leader Alex Salmond took this as an endorsement of the idea of Scottish independence, when it was in fact little more than a protest vote. The Scottish parliament has limited powers, and backing the SNP was, for many voters, a way to send a message to political leaders outside of Scotland – we expect better. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to how voters backed anti-European Union parties in elections across Europe earlier this year, even though some of those parties are outside the mainstream. For many in Scotland, a vote for the SNP had nothing to do with support for independence.
Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond.
However, the SNP’s central aim has always been independence, and having a mandate in the Scottish parliament, they pressed hard for a referendum on the issue, and an agreement was signed between Alex Salmond, now Scotland’s First Minister, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The date was set – September 18th, 2014 – and the campaign began quietly. It was never a serious issue for Cameron, nor for anyone else in Westminster. Alex Salmond had a mountain to climb to win a referendum on an issue which had only ever had minority support. For a long time after the referendum had been agreed, the issue was not on the front pages. Until last week’s poll, that is.
So that’s the background to what’s happening this week, in case you missed it. Thursday’s referendum is incredibly important, and as one might expect at a time like this, there is a lot of rumour and misinformation flying around. I don’t pretend to be giving an unbiased opinion – how can I, when the future of the UK is at stake? I may not have lived there for some years now, but it’s still my home country. I grew up on the English side of the border, but close enough that Scotland was visible on a clear day across the Solway Firth. I have Scottish friends, and aside from a little friendly banter over who has the best football team (it’s England, by the way), Scotland and England have been perfect neighbours in the United Kingdom since the Acts of Union in 1707. Together, England and Scotland (and Wales and Ireland, too, I haven’t forgotten about them), built an Empire – the British Empire – the likes of which the world had never seen before and hasn’t seen since. Scottish pioneers settled the Appalachian Mountains and were among the first families to press west when America was not even a dream in George Washington’s mind. Scottish pioneers travelled north from the Cape and settled Rhodesia, and along with their English brothers and sisters built a flourishing country in the heart of Africa. Scottish highlanders formed one of the most feared regiments in the British Army, and backed by their bagpipers, routed Napoleon at Waterloo and saved Europe from conquest. In 1914 Scotland would do the same. And when France had been defeated by Hitler’s Germany in 1940, it was not England who stood alone in opposition to him. It was the United Kingdom who, together, held fast against Nazi tyranny. That is what the “no” campaign has tried to be all about – showing the people of Scotland that the United Kingdom is, in their words, Better Together. Sadly, they haven’t done a very good job at swelling patriotic spirits.
By contrast, Alex Salmond has tried to present Scotland as an oppressed colony trying to free itself from colonial rule. The “yes” campaign has played up the emotional arguments, and tried to deflect attention away from any inconvenient facts. “Bullying” has become Alex Salmond’s favourite word. Politicians from London are “bullying” when they set out a positive case for keeping the Union. Business leaders are “bullying” when they say that they would relocate out of Scotland in the event of a “yes” vote due to the massive economic uncertainty that it would bring. And the “No” campaign are “bullying” when they point out the massive flaws in his currency plan for an independent Scotland.
“Massive flaws”? Sounds a bit harsh when you put it like that, but that’s precisely how best to describe Salmond’s half-baked ideas about post-independence currency. Aside from a flag, national anthem, and football team, what makes a country a country? A currency of its own, that’s what. As the nations of Europe are finding out to their peril, a currency over which you have no control is not something you want. I would even go so far as to say that a lack of control over currency is a grave threat to the survival of a nation. But Alex Salmond, as evidenced in a recent television debate with “no” campaign leader Alistair Darling, is of the opinion that Scotland should be the – junior – partner in a currency union with the rest of the UK. In short, what he wants is independence for Scotland – underwritten by the rest of the UK in case anything goes wrong. The political parties in the UK – all of them – have ruled out this option, yet Salmond continues to champion it. It simply will not happen. What Prime Minister in London could turn to his electorate in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and tell them that he’s using their taxes to bail out Scotland? It would be political suicide, and all the main party leaders have said it will not happen. But there’s another option which would see Scotland keep the pound sterling. Using it without a currency union. In his debate with the hapless Alistair Darling, Salmond presented that option as if he had wrung a massive concession from the “no” camp – “A-ha!” he said, “they have said we can use the pound and nobody can stop us!” But it’s disingenuous. Of course nobody can stop an independent country from using the pound, or any other currency, for that matter. Zimbabwe uses the South African Rand and the US Dollar. Kosovo and Montenegro use the Euro. An independent Scotland could use the pound, the dollar, the Kenyan shilling, or any other currency in the world. But is Alex Salmond’s vision of an independent Scotland one that sees it akin to the economic ruin of Zimbabwe, or the insignificance of Montenegro?
This highlights where the “no” campaign completely fell down. Alistair Darling is one of the most plainly boring men north of the border. He has no energy, no passion, and he proved in that debate that he’s about as effective as a chocolate teapot when it comes to leading a massive campaign. Why the “no” campaign picked the man who served as chancellor to Gordon Brown – one of the least popular Prime Ministers of recent years – as their leader is incomprehensible. Even Brown himself would’ve been a better choice. The “no” campaign has been ineffective at best when it comes to stopping the haemorrhaging of voters over the past few weeks. If Scotland votes “yes”, Alistair Darling will rightly take a significant portion of the blame. The “yes” campaign has been energised, campaigning on the streets and from the grass roots, but for months a sense of arrogant complacency hung over the “no” camp. Salmond, to his credit, has run an incredible campaign, especially considering how the polls were even a few weeks ago. To get to a point where it’s neck-and-neck is in itself an incredible achievement. That it’s largely based on false pretences is not really relevant any more – after all, which politician wouldn’t tell a few half-truths over the course of a hard-fought campaign?
The badger-like leader of Better Together, former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling.
But here’s the problem – this isn’t your normal election. My friends in America know that, if they elect a congressman who isn’t very good, or who they don’t like, after a couple of years they can get rid of him. The President gets just shy of four years before he has to justify what he’s done and face the electorate. Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. found that out the hard way. In the UK, too, the same applies. Gordon Brown’s government was unceremoniously dumped by voters at the last election four years ago. But at this critical juncture, the decision that the people of Scotland take is not one that can be reversed. If they choose to leave the UK, there is no way back.
The argument in favour of independence has more to do with emotion than with reason. From a rational point of view, a self-interested Scot would walk away from the idea of independence. There are too many unknowns – questions about currency, business, the sustainability of social welfare programmes currently subsidised by the rest of the UK, tax rates, and so many more things that from an economic standpoint, make independence simply too big of a risk right now. Had the “yes” campaign found solutions to these problems, then perhaps independence could be taken seriously. Instead, we are treated to accusations of bullying hurled at anyone who dares question Scotland’s viability as an independent nation.
Logically, if some government programmes in Scotland, like free prescription drugs, free university tuition, and free social care for the elderly, are subsidised by the rest of the UK (where these services are not free) then any post-independence Scottish government will immediately be faced with a rather large hole in its budget. Even if Salmond gets his way in post-referendum negotiations on the details of independence – and there’s no guarantee that he will, with the Prime Minister and others negotiating hard on behalf of the remaining UK – there are still going to be serious financial problems. And Salmond has evaded the tough questions. That would be fine if this were FairyTale Land, but in the real world, the voters who are about to take what could arguably be the single biggest decision of their voting lives have a right to know what to expect in the event of a “yes” vote.
For example, all new members of the European Union are obliged to join the Euro. But Salmond says that an independent Scotland will keep the pound sterling in a currency union – one the rest of the UK political establishment has already said no to. So if Scotland were to join the EU, how would Salmond get around adopting the Euro? So far, no answer. If public services in Scotland – particularly in rural communities in the Highlands and Islands – are to continue at their current level, it’s a no-brainer to say that taxes are going to have to rise rather substantially. But there has been no information from the “yes” camp about that. It isn’t “bullying” to say that the voters need to have all of the facts available in order to make an informed decision.
Then there is the matter of international institutions. The EU already has one hurdle – membership of the Euro – but it gets worse than that for an independent Scotland. In order for a country to accede to the EU, all existing member-states must agree. It has taken years of wrangling to allow some nations in the east to join, and others, like Serbia and Turkey, are still waiting. There’s no guarantee that EU membership would continue, especially as some nations, like Spain, would fear the precedent set by a breakaway region being allowed EU membership. With the economic crisis having hit Spain so hard, the region of Catalonia is threatening to declare independence there, and the government in Madrid would be very keen to avoid setting a precedent that one of its own regions may follow. So EU membership itself might be a problem. Of course, that may not be such a bad thing in some ways – the EU is a bureaucratic nightmare after all – but the “yes” campaign’s entire economic policy for an independent Scotland is based on being a member of the EU. They simply cannot guarantee that this will be the case post-independence, and that throws everything else into question.
Contrary to Alex Salmond’s fantasies, the solution to all of these financial catastrophes which may well befall an independent Scotland simply cannot be “North Sea Oil”. There isn’t enough oil in the North Sea to sustain Scotland, and even if there were, there’s no guarantee that Scotland would be able to lay claim to it. Terms regarding things like oil drilling and exploration rights would be agreed jointly between the rest of the UK and Scotland as part of the independence negotiations post-referendum, and you can bet that the rest of the UK is going to be looking out for itself. And oil is a finite resource – what happens to the Scottish economy when it runs out? Smart oil nations like the UAE and Qatar are already diversifying their economies, surely with one eye on the end of their oil-dependency.
The way Alex Salmond puts it, independence sounds wonderful. The only problem is that, in reality, there’s simply no way he can deliver on everything he promises. The post-referendum negotiations will be incredibly tough. Scotland will be economically dependent on the rest of the UK regardless of whether a currency union is agreed or not. The UK government isn’t going to take Scotland into account when setting its economic policies if Scotland chooses to leave. And if there’s no currency union, things look even more bleak. From day one, an independent Scotland will have to deal with a black hole in its finances, and a proportionate share of the UK’s debt. Salmond and the rest of the Scottish politicians have no experience managing large amounts of money, nor in levying taxes, so Scotland’s credit rating will be low, meaning any attempts to borrow money will see high interest rates, and if he should be pig-headed enough to default on Scotland’s share of the UK debt – as he has threatened to do – then an independent Scotland will be doomed even before independence day.
The rest of the UK will not be inclined to take back Scotland in five or ten years time when, ruined by financial mismanagement and depression, it would be incredibly costly to do so. That’s why it’s so important in these final few days to be negative. The “no” campaign has shyed away from pointing all of this out, fearing being seen as too negative, but it’s exactly what they have to be. To those campaigning to keep the UK together, I say this: don’t be afraid to say no. It’s what you’re all about, and at the end of the day it’s what you’ve always been about. Independence has too many unanswered questions, too many problems, and too many things which can go wrong. There is a huge risk for a minimal reward. Remaining in the UK means Scotland will continue to prosper along with her neighbours. Scotland will always be its own country, even within the UK. There are four countries which make up the UK in what is becoming an increasingly federal framework. With devolution, Scotland has more autonomy than ever before. Her social welfare programmes are viewed with more than a little envy south of the border. Why jeopardise all of that? Why risk Scotland itself? This isn’t the time of William Wallace or Robert the Bruce. England and Scotland are more than just neighbours; the United Kingdom makes them family.
Scotland is not standing on the battlefield at Bannockburn. Scotland is instead about to launch the Darien Expedition. I sincerely hope, for Scotland’s sake, that the voters say “no” to independence on Thursday.