Earlier today, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond announced that the country's independence referendum vote will be held on Thursday the 18th of September, 2014. Exactly which way the public will vote is by no means clear at this stage, but we decided to weigh up the pros and cons of Scotland leaving the UK anyway. This is the pessimist's view – click here if you'd rather read about why independence would be the best thing that ever happened to Scotland.
THE CASE AGAINST SCOTLAND CHOOSING INDEPENDENCE
There once was a vision of an independent Scotland as a bampot republic slowly crumbling into the Atlantic like a soggy piecrust. On lawless streets, its barefoot and woad-smeared inhabitants bartered for heroin with empty gingey boatils before scurrying home to some piss-stinking hovel to find a vein that wasn't choked with beef dripping. As they drifted off into an opiated stupor, they surveyed their meagre lot and consoled themselves with a small, meaningless kernel of satisfaction: at least we showed those fucking sassenachs. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll hold my hands up and admit that it’s a vision I once shared. Allow me to explain why.
My generation’s first introduction to Scottish independence came through Braveheart, a film that – even as an 11-year-old – I knew to be historically selective, and whose patriotic rallying cry will be forever tainted by the knowledge that it was made by an insane Australian who may or may not be a Holocaust denier. Yet Braveheart had a profound effect on many of my friends, who developed a sudden, intense resentment of "The English" and still, to this day, unapologetically cite it as an influence on their politics.
Most pro-independence campaigners scoff at the idea of the "Braveheart effect", but it absolutely exists, and for years my worst fear for Scotland was that we’d choose independence in a fit of misguided anglophobic rage, or because we were butthurt by the BBC referring to Andy Murray as British when he wins.
The thing is, no one really doubts that an independent Scotland could survive any more. In fact, the SNP have governed so ably over the past few years, they’ve actually weakened their own argument: People are generally happy with the way the country is run from Holyrood, so beyond the extra autonomy that Devo-whatever might bring, they’re sceptical about why we should change it. When I meet Calum Crichton, a contributor to the pro-union campaign British Unity, I ask him to name a European country he feels an independent Scotland would be comparable to. His answer? Denmark, a nation that ranks 12 places higher than the UK on the Human Development Index. If that’s the doomsday scenario, then what the hell are we waiting for?
“I do think Scotland could do well on its own,” Crichton says. “I just don’t think we’d do as well as we currently do in the UK. The debate is this: What gives us the best opportunities? Are we better placed in the world as an independent country, or are we better as part of the UK? For example, a few weeks ago, the Chancellor was away at the G20, a platform that gives us the opportunity to engage with other advanced and emerging economies to discuss issues like climate change, tax avoidance and trade deals. An independent Scotland wouldn’t make it into the G40, if that organisation even existed.”
When I arranged to meet with Crichton, I wasn't sure what to expect. The pro-union "Better Together" campaign, though it currently has a comfortable lead in the polls, is fronted by an uninspiring pan-partisan gallery of political has-beens: I'm unsure of what its average supporter actually looks like. In the end, Crichton – though he's a Glaswegian student in his early twenties, definitely has a reflection and doesn’t burst into flames in sunlight – turns out to be that rarest of creatures: a Scottish Tory. Like Alan Bissett, he too was spurred into action on the day the SNP won their Holyrood majority. But he’s no drum-beater: his blogs – mostly on the topic of economics – are light on rhetoric, heavy on facts and figures. And they cast serious doubt on the idea of a resurgent Scotland of social justice, green energy and black gold.
“Let’s take the oil,” he begins. “In 2008/09, oil was 21 percent of Scotland’s GDP, but in 2009/10, it was only 12 percent. That’s a massive, massive swing for just one year, and that sort of uncertainty makes public spending very hard to plan. The SNP’s whole economic argument is based on the assumption that Scotland would receive 90 percent of that oil. I've done some research into this, and Centrica – the company that owns British Gas – say that, actually, only 14 percent of that oil is Scottish and the rest belongs to England, Holland and Norway. There’s another argument that would give Scotland around 50 percent, since UK resources have been used to develop the oil fields and they should keep a fair share. It seems to me that this claim that 90 percent of the oil is ours and is somehow guaranteed really needs to be challenged.”
So we’ll have sacrificed our place at the top table of global affairs and we'll be broke as shit, but at least we’ll still be in the EU, right? Everyone agrees that membership of that body and access to the European single market are crucial to our hopes of prosperity, but the reality is that our application could be more problematic than the jolly box-ticking exercise the SNP are promising us. The EU doesn’t necessarily want an independent Scotland, chiefly because they're afraid that we'd be the first domino to fall in a Europe-wide Balkanisation process, with Flanders, Catalonia and the Basque country to follow. We’ll get in, eventually, but the fastest successful application to date took almost three years (which would obviously have an adverse effect on investment at a time when we'll need it most) and Brussels will have us over a barrel.
“The problem,” says Paddy Bort, “might be that some of the exceptions negotiated by the UK – the opt-outs and the rebate – will come on the table and Scotland may not get the favourable deal the SNP have been talking about. I don’t think the EU will insist on forcing Schengen or the Euro on Scotland, but if that did happen – if we had to share a Schengen frontier with a non-Schengen nation like England – that makes it very complex, especially if negotiations aren’t completed by the time of the in-out EU referendum in 2017. The UK could vote to leave the EU while Scotland is still negotiating its terms of membership. Would that then change the status of Scotland’s application and change the situation about Schengen, about the Euro, about the rebate? It could get very, very messy.”
It’s possible – though not likely – that after a long and economically-damaging negotiation, we could end up with a currency we don’t want and passport controls on our border with England. But that might not even be the worst of it. Consider the Orkney and Shetland islanders, significant numbers of whom are as hostile to Holyrood’s remote-governance as we mainlanders are to Westminster’s. Many islanders feel more Scandinavian than they do Scottish, and if they demanded a referendum on either opting back into the UK or outright independence, we could hardly deny it to them.
Nor, by that measure, could we deny them their cut of the oil, which could amount to as much as 25 percent of our own. There’s another, even more apocalyptic narrative that Crichton puts forward: "Being pragmatic about it, if the islands decide they want to opt back into the UK, what's to stop, say, Glasgow, or other individual constituencies from doing so as well?”
That's the Biff-Tannen-fucking-your-mum nightmare hypothesis, and even Crichton admits it's pretty far-fetched. But the real worst-case scenario for an independent Scotland is, simply, that the best-case scenario fails to materialise or becomes so watered-down that we may as well not have bothered. For one thing, extricating ourselves from the UK will be far from straightforward. If, as Alan Bissett says, the current government are “hostile” to us, just wait until we sit down at the negotiating table after inflicting a spectacular political defeat on them.
Realpolitik will kick in and compromises will have to be made, most likely on the Trident nuclear subs, which will cost untold billions to relocate, and the division of the national debt. The idea that these issues will be settled with great bonhomie is, says Paddy Bort, "an illusion. People will drive a hard bargain, because whatever the UK gives Scotland without a fight will be missing from their purses. So there will be tough negotiations, have no doubt about it."
Which raises the real question at the heart of the independence debate: would it actually be worth it? There are all sorts of conflicting arguments about tax revenues versus public spending, the Barnett formula and whether or not we’re subsidised by the rest of the UK. But while the SNP remain popular, they've yet to succeed in convincing a majority of Scots that we’re getting a raw deal out of the union. Sure, our (roughly) 50 percent success rate in electing the governments we want to Westminster is far from perfect, but that's how democracy works and it's why we have our own devolved parliament.
Ultimately, as Bort points out, even under the SNP's plan for independence, "our fiscal and economic policies will still be heavily circumscribed by the Bank of England, which will set our interest rates, our exchange rates and act as our lender of last resort. There will be all kinds of restrictions binding an independent Scotland to the British archipelago. Would it not make sense, then, not only to keep the Queen and keep the pound and stay in NATO, but also keep our representation in Westminster as well?"
You want to know what an independent Scotland would look like? Two little words: Economic colony.
Follow Barry on Twitter: @nicolsonbarry
Images by Krent Able.
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