The independence referendum: sifting the malt from the chaff

Ballot boxes
The 2014 referendum campaign is slowly shifting into focus. (picture by danielweiresq)

The last two weeks have seen plenty of comment and analysis about the pros and cons of Scottish independence: some of it informative, some of it downright barking. The debate has been dominated by procedural matters, but at some point the politicians will need to identify the issues that will define the campaign. We don’t have many answers yet, but we’re starting to get an idea of what the questions will be.

Five issues that matter…

1. Currency

Nationalists insist that many of the objections to independence – the army, border guards, passports, Nato membership – are technical issues which don’t affect the case either for or against. They are not an insurmountable faff and will be managed when the time comes. This is broadly true, although they feed in to the wider question of whether setting up an independent country stands up to a faff-benefit analysis.

The currency question, however, isn’t in this category. All of the options available to an independent Scotland will have consequences: voters will have to be persuaded that at least one of them is a forward move. If Scotland keeps the pound, its interest rates will be set by the Bank of England, so how will Scotland ensure it has a say in that decision? The euro, which is the SNP’s preference, is in turmoil and may not even exist in 2014, though a lot of commentators are underestimating the amount of political will Europe has invested in the single currency. Or Scotland could set up its own currency, with a Scottish central bank and a separate exchange rate. It’s the most independent option, but it would be a colossally hard sell in the current economic climate.

2. The Devo Max conundrum

Devo max was an idea proposed by the SNP, even though they don’t really want it. It offers the unionist parties a positive alternative, but they’ve ruled it out [edit: former First Minister Henry McLeish has said he would be ready to head up a pro-devo max campaign]. And it’s apparently the most popular choice with voters, despite the fact nobody knows how it will work.

There’s a lot to be sorted out where ‘indy lite’ is concerned, not least what the SNP expects to gain by offering it. The cynical view is that Alex Salmond knows he has no chance of winning an independence vote, so this is a way of cushioning his party against complete disaster. A more nuanced interpretation might be that devo max is a trap for the unionist parties: they can’t support it because it’s an SNP notion, but if they oppose it then it makes them doubly negative – not just a no campaign, but a no-no campaign. And it gives the SNP a cushion if they can’t push support for independence past the 50% mark.

3. What does ‘stronger together’ actually mean?

You can’t hear a unionist politician speak for long without stumbling across this article of faith, but nobody seems to have pinned down exactly how or why the nations of the United Kingdom are ‘stronger together’ in this day and age. How can we know that Scotland will lose influence in the international community without a proper measure of what influence it enjoys now? Which UN resolutions have had Scottish input; which dictatorships have fallen thanks to Scottish involvement; which agreement on climate change or human rights or disarmament has been drafted in Edinburgh? I suspect that what this argument really means is ‘the UK is stronger for having Scotland in it’: that may be true, but it doesn’t explain why weakening the UK will harm Scotland if Scotland is no longer part of it. The unionist campaign will be far more credible if it can bring the ‘stronger together’ argument down to brass tacks.

4. Trident

Potentially the first running sore for an independent government of Scotland. The SNP has a long-standing and vocal anti-nuclear faction that wants rid of Trident. However, casting nuke-laden submarines off into the open sea would cause a heck of a stushie. If Trident is to be relocated, the UK will have to find an alternative location. And the Holy Loch is a hard act to follow: a deep-sea inlet, some distance from the shore, sheltered by mountains.

Even if an agreement is done to shift the subs, it will take some time to dismantle or repurpose the Faslane base. In the meantime, a temporary solution will need to be found. A temporary solution that may see the UK government paying rent or compensation for the Clyde base. And temporary solutions of this kind have a habit of becoming de facto permanent solutions, like the internal Irish border. When push comes to shove, how willing will any government be to give up an easy, and potentially lucrative, revenue stream?

5. What happens next?

Maybe only anoraks care about this, but it is worth pausing to draw breath and consider what a post-independence political landscape might look like. Will Scotland continue its tradition of social justice and universal welfare, or will it follow the Irish template and drift towards being a neoliberal low-tax statelet? Nobody in Ireland saw that coming even 50 years after independence.

And what will become of the SNP? Win, lose or draw the devomax straw, it will mean a realignment of their political identity. For the other parties, no longer constrained by their support for the union and ties to London, independence could prove to be a shot in the arm. Scottish voters have shown in recent years how adept they are with a sgian-dubh at the ballot box; it is not hard to imagine them voting for independence and immediately returning a Labour government.

Conversely, a ‘no’ vote for independence, especially by a narrow margin, doesn’t mean the end of the road for the SNP. One thing that has become evident in the last few weeks is that there is little appetite for the status quo, and for as long as constitutional change is on the agenda the SNP will continue to be a big voice in the debate.

… and five that don’t.

1. The ‘bankrupt nation’

This is the argument vented most frequently (and how they vent!) in the twilight zone beneath the line marked ‘add your comment here’ on the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Spectator’s websites: the Scots are a bunch of subsidy junkies who will be crippled by the sudden turning off of the money tap in London. There’s just one snag: the whole of the UK, not just Scotland, gets more back out of the Treasury than it pays in. The difference is called the national debt. So Scotland would acquire a national debt, in the same way as other nations, and service it through borrowing against bonds, in the same way as other nations. Denmark, Slovenia, Norway, Lithuania and even Ireland still had running water and electricity last time I looked. To raise the ‘bankrupt nation’ argument is to admit economic illiteracy. Anyone who wheels it out and still has an outstanding mortgage should ask themselves why their house hasn’t been repossessed.

2. Should the rest of the UK get a vote?

The argument goes that the referendum affects the whole of the UK, so the whole of the UK should get a vote. But by that logic, the whole of Europe should vote if Britain decides it wants out of Brussels. And while we’re at it, shouldn’t the people of Iran have a say in the US presidential election if one of the candidates is promising to bomb their country to pieces?

Self-determination is both a practical imperative and a moral one. When East Timor seceded from Indonesia after years of brutal conflict, it did so on the basis of a referendum of its own people and nobody else, although the outcome affected the whole of Indonesia. I will leave it to Melanie Phillips to argue that the UK should apply looser democratic standards than Suharto’s regime.

There is a way in which the rest of the UK could get a vote. That would involve a party gaining power at Westminister on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on dissolving the UK entirely and create two, three or four new sovereign states, though quite how this would play out in Northern Ireland is anybody’s guess. Since that hasn’t happened, it’s Scotland’s poll.

3. The Queen

A vote for independence would repeal the 1707 Act of Union. It would not impinge on the 1603 Union of the Crowns. So there would be no difficulty in the Queen remaining head of state, unless Scotland decides otherwise. And she’s quite fond of Balmoral.

4. ‘We’ll pay for it’

England will ban Scotland from using the pound. It will take Trident away and send the bill to Edinburgh. It will close down all the defence bases. It will repossess the oil fields. It will put barbed wire across the M74 and build a Maginot Line from Berwick-on-Tweed to Carlisle. You get the picture.

No, it won’t. This is the modern world, where nations build alliances and trading partnerships. A border is not a barrier: it is a meeting point where nations converse. Blocking the pound would cause chaos, and not just for Scotland: the UK will still need to buy its goods – yep, we’re back to oil again – and the pound is the most convenient tool for doing it. Even if the UK were to try anything stupid, Scotland as a sovereign nation would have access to the UN, the International Court of Justice and the World Trade Organisation.

5. It’s all about Bannockburn/ the Commonwealth Games/ the World Cup

This is not a vote to take Scotland back to the fourteenth century. It is not a vote to compensate for dwindling prestige in the international sporting arena. It is not a vote to repatriate Mel Gibson or make ginger beards compulsory. The ubiquitous references to Bannockburn imply Scottish voters are a bovine herd that can be prodded through the polling booths. In fact they are surprisingly good at distinguishing a modern nation-state from a historical re-enactment society. Although a World Cup win probably would swing it.


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