Here’s every Scottish independence supporter’s favourite thing… a list of reasons, from an Englishman, as to why Scotland might want to stay in the Union
It was a good election for incumbents. Across the countries of the UK, parties engaged in frenetic, Covid-disrupted campaigns, only for most things to stay the same.
Scotland’s parliament, on the surface at least, changed hardly at all: the SNP picked up a single seat versus their previous performance. But that small movement could be the start of something seismic: the 2021 parliamentary result is being cited as the basis for another Scottish independence referendum – with nationalists confident this time they can win.
So here is every Scottish independence supporter’s favourite thing – a list of reasons, from an Englishman, as to why Scotland might want to stay in the Union after all.
Independence means public service cuts
Scottish voters get a better deal from their government than everyone else in the UK – with perks including free university and prescriptions among the benefits enjoyed north of the border, but not elsewhere.
That’s reflected in the UK’s public spending figures. For 2018-19, Scottish public service spending averaged £14,500 per person – £1,900 per head more than residents of England. This was combined with Scotland raising slightly less tax per person than England too, at £12,100, which is £400 less than England.
The result is even before the huge spending of the pandemic, Scotland runs a much larger public deficit than England. While Scotland is part of a large country like the UK, this doesn’t matter – borrowing is checked against the country and economy as a whole, and debt is very cheap for large, stable economies.
An independent Scotland would not, at least in its early days, be able to run a budget deficit that large for long – even if the process of independence didn’t damage its economy at all. Services cost more to deliver in Scotland than in England (the population is more spread out, there are island economies, etc) and so the reality of government after independence would be one of austerity.
Some voters and politicians deal with this tough choice by denying it – just as some fringe Brexit supporters did. This involves claims such as the accounts being faked, or similar fantasies. Some might be taken in by them, but most won’t – the honest choice facing Scottish voters is that independence would come with a price. They could still, of course, be willing to pay it.
Independence, like Brexit, will stunt growth
Throughout the Brexit debate – including for years after the vote – supporters of Leave would emphasise all the benefits to growth that would come from leaving the EU. Britain would, they promised, become Europe’s economic powerhouse.
The problems came when they were asked to expand on exactly what the UK would do post-Brexit to boost growth that it wouldn’t have done before. The grand visions quickly fell backwards into small and peripheral developments: freeports, maybe? New trade deals?
More extreme visions of a low-tax economy – dubbed Singapore-on-Thames – were a non-starter, given the UK’s relatively large public sector, NHS, and services. Singapore-on-Tay is an even bigger non-starter given Scotland’s larger public sector and aspiration to EU membership.
The result is Scotland would damage its trading relationship with its largest trading partner by far – the rest of the UK – in the hope of boosting trade with other partners, while changing the fundamentals of its economy only minimally. That didn’t work for Brexit, and it wouldn’t work for Scottish independence.
No new 21st century nation should rely on oil
One hope for an independent Scottish economy – leaned on especially hard in the 2014 referendum – is North Sea oil. When prices were far higher, it served to flatter both the Scottish economy and government balance sheet, though those days now feel long past.
Oil will continue to provide skilled jobs and revenue for Scotland, and Scotland would likely get a good settlement to retain its geographic share of North Sea oil if it voted for independence.
But most of its oil fields are nearing the end of their useful life and there is a sizeable decommissioning bill to come: current estimates place it around £48 billion, and one way or another taxpayers will end up footing a lot of that bill (through tax breaks or as payer of last resort).
There are some unexploited oil fields in the North Sea too, but there are moral questions here: it is one thing to set yourself up as a new country based on oil in the 1970s. It is quite another to do it in 2020, when being a good global citizen on climate change relies on reducing our emissions and trying to keep some of the oil and gas we know about in the ground. Is worsening climate change a price worth paying for an independent Scotland?
Independence is a leap into the known
Brexit was sold as a bold, pioneering project – a leap into the unknown, a romantic project for the soul of a nation. The reality was anything but romantic: Brexit turned out to be an endlessly long slog of negotiations, smallprint, and much, much more paperwork in everyone’s lives.
Scottish independence would be much the same, only turned up to 11. Where Brexit at least had an agreed process through Article 50, Scottish independence has none. There is little reason to believe negotiations would be held in any better faith. If Scotland would, as it has said, immediately seek EU membership, that would add complexity to both the exit negotiations and to what came next.
Brexit should serve to remind us what breaking up long unions looks like. The romance doesn’t last.
EU membership is not a given, nor guaranteed to be a plus
The EU does not speak with one voice. It currently contains a huge range of opinions, from Macron – distracting from troubles at home by preaching the virtues of ever-closer union – to the politicians of Hungary and Poland, flirting as hard as they can with far right nationalism while still soaking up EU funds.
When the countries that make up the EU don’t agree, which is almost all the time, the institution relies on bureaucracy and procedure. When there are national concerns on how breakaway countries or regions are treated that could only be more so.
None of this is to say Scotland wouldn’t be admitted to the EU – as a symbolic trophy prize of Brexit its value would be huge, and as a new member it would be a welcome sign of growth for an institution that’s more often recently been in decline.
But as a small economy with new institutions that would likely not be a net contributor to the bloc it might not skip as many accession hurdles as some hope: rejoining the EU would be a long slog, and would come at a cost of relations and travel with the rest of the UK.
The mandate for a referendum isn’t as clear as some make out
There is, once again, a pro-referendum majority in the Scottish parliament, and attempts by some in Westminster to pretend the SNP on their own falling short of a majority have predictably fallen somewhat flat.
But the mandate is not quite as resounding as the SNP might make it sound, either: Professor John Curtice found that 49% of Scottish voters backed pro-independence parties in the constituency vote, while 50.1% voted for them on the list.
Given there are voters who like the SNP and Greens but don’t necessarily back independence, and that there are pro-referendum voters who don’t particularly want a vote now, it is hardly as if Scotland is speaking with one voice that it must have a referendum this very moment.
At a minimum, the Westminster government might feel justified in asking the SNP to come up with a vote in a few years’ time, perhaps even with agreed mechanisms explaining what would happen next in the case of either outcome – perhaps a time enshrined in law before the issue would be put to ballot again if ‘No’, and an agreed process and maybe even a confirmatory referendum on a final deal, if ‘Yes’.
Independence could harm, not help, Scotland’s national character
Scotland has built a distinctive national character for the 21st century, increasingly unalike to that of the rest of the UK – it is optimistic, progressive, and as inclusive as a nationalistic vision can be.
Given that, it’s not a surprise that independence starts to feel like an option, and not a surprise that those on the liberal left in England find ourselves hoping Scotland stays, if nothing else than to help our battles here. But it’s not fair to ask others to stay to fight someone else’s losing battle, if they don’t want to.
But it is fair to raise a question: what might happen to Scotland’s national character once independence disappeared as a national issue, especially if it came with severe damage to the economy, large-scale disruption and cuts to public services? Scotland has kept even parties like Alba to the fringes – could it be sure of fending off populism if independence brings Scotland a lost decade?
Scottish independence could prove a pyrrhic victory, securing independence but killing the progressive vision of it all in one strike. This can, of course, be dismissed as project fear 2.0 – all I can say is the fear is at least a sincerely held one.