This article puts forward an argument which may, in Nationalist circles, be a minority view. Namely, that gross errors of judgement have been made in relation to the forthcoming referendum, and in the recently signed accord between Alex Salmond and David Cameron: and that these are likely to seriously damage the cause of Scottish independence.
There are four basic errors of judgement with the arrangements and policies relating to the referendum. The first relates to the vision for independence being put forward by the SNP leadership as the basis for a “yes” vote in the referendum. We will show that this vision is not consistent with meaningful independence. The second is that, implicit in the leadership’s vision for independence, there is a view of the current state of the UK which is unduly reassuring: by failing to effectively challenge the current UK economic and social model, the leadership are not providing the correct context for making decisions about Scottish independence. The third problem is one of timing. And the fourth relates to the implications of the recently signed Salmond-Cameron accord.
We now discuss each of these.
As a number of recent statements by the SNP leadership have made clear, the vision of independence which they foresee, after a “yes” vote in the referendum, would involve the following. Scotland would retain the Queen as head of state. We would remain in the EU – and, following the SNP’s recent conference decision, would also be members of NATO. And critically, Scotland would still be a member of the UK monetary union: not merely retaining sterling, but looking to London for financial supervision, and continuing to have the Bank of England as lender of last resort.
If Scotland votes “yes” in the referendum, then negotiations would need to be held with each of the relevant counterparties involved in the SNP leadership’s vision of independence. None of these negotiations is going to be easy: but one set is going to be impossible. Specifically, there will be no satisfactory outcome for Scotland in the negotiations to implement the SNP’s vision of how Scotland might continue to be a member of the UK monetary union.
As current events in the euro area demonstrate only too graphically, it is virtually impossible to achieve a successful monetary union without arrangements that are, in effect, equivalent to political union. There need to be budgetary and fiscal constraints in place to prevent any area of the union “free-loading” at the expense of other areas. There needs to be a common system of banking regulation in place, so that the lender of last resort is not underwriting the debts of financial institutions over which it has no control. In any negotiation to keep Scotland in the sterling monetary union, Westminster will inevitably insist on tight controls on Scotland’s ability to borrow, and on its ability to vary the structure of its taxes. Monetary union as envisaged by the SNP leadership is therefore not consistent with meaningful Scottish independence.
It is also worth noting that the SNP’s leadership vision of independence has greatly weakened our bargaining position in relation to another important set of negotiations – namely, relations with the EU. We would be in a much stronger position if our basic stance on the EU was that an independent Scotland could do perfectly well outside the EU: but might be willing to participate if the terms on offer were attractive enough.
We now turn to the second fundamental issue: namely that, implicit in the SNP leadership’s vision is a view of the current state of the UK which is unduly reassuring. What their vision implies is that the UK currently is, and the rest of the UK will remain, so stable and prosperous that we will want to continue to share in its currency, and in other institutions like the monarchy.
In fact, it is now perfectly clear that, even if we leave Scotland out of the debate, the current model of the UK is shortly going to have to confront fundamental questions. Let us just list a few of these. There is the question of debt: of a moribund economy which has been grossly over reliant on the failed City model, and on running down finite hydrocarbon reserves, while the industrial base eroded: this has been compounded by the failure to invest adequately in research and development, which means that there are insufficient new opportunities for regenerating UK industry: there is the lack of any coherent economic strategy or vision: there are increasing inequalities, both regionally and between different groups in society, indicative of a failing monetary union: there is growing euroscepticism and the question of whether the UK should be in or out of the EU: and there is a constitution, and arrangements for the monarchy, which are increasingly seen as unduly elitist, secretive, and non-democratic, and not to be trusted to act in the interests of the people.
At some point in the not too distant future, the UK is going to have to grapple with these problems. This will be a traumatic process: and it is not too strong to say that, even leaving aside the Scottish question, the UK is in a state of emerging crisis. What sort of country will emerge from this crisis is not clear: but it is not at all obvious that it will be stable, or prosperous, or have a political complexion and organisation in which Scotland would wish to continue to play a part. It is nonsensical to attempt to isolate decisions about Scotland’s future from the debate, and ferment, which will surround the coming UK crisis. And it is even more nonsensical to try to make decisions about Scotland’s future while painting an implicitly rosy picture about the nature and stability of the rest of the UK. And yet that is precisely the position we are now in.
This leads us to the third issue, that of timing. We know that a wider UK crisis is coming: but no-one knows precisely when. In this context, it made absolutely no sense to set a fixed time table for the Scottish independence referendum. If the referendum takes place before the full implications of the wider UK crisis become clear, then voters in the referendum will be in no position to make an informed choice about what the, possibly stark, implications of staying in the UK might actually be. This danger is increased because, with the referendum timetable set, the unionists will inevitably be trying to postpone the wider UK debate until after the Scottish referendum. They may not succeed in this, but they will definitely try. As evidence, witness the UK government’s decision to postpone the full comprehensive spending review until after the referendum.
Lastly, we come to a final disastrous decision, namely the terms of the accord between Alex Salmond and David Cameron. This not merely made the mistake of setting a fixed referendum timetable. On top of this, the final clause of the accord bound both parties to accept the referendum result. Scotland gained nothing out of this: we have a right of self determination, and we are not beholden to David Cameron for this right. But we have lost enormously. Suppose there is a “no” vote in the referendum. Suppose also that a wider UK crisis breaks out shortly thereafter, perhaps prompted by a run on sterling, or a referendum on UK membership of the EU. And suppose also that it becomes clear that most Scots want no part in the new model of the UK state which emerges from the crisis. Then the Salmond-Cameron accord will be used against us, to prevent the question of Scottish independence being readdressed. In effect, the final clause of the accord means that we will have potentially given up our right of self determination just as we are moving into a period when changes in the UK might bring Scots to reassert their wish for independence.
In summary, the way that the SNP leadership has played its referendum tactics has, we argue, put us in a disastrous situation. If there is a “yes” vote, the vision of “independence” which the leadership is putting forward is not actually consistent with independence in any meaningful sense. Worse, the chance of a “no” vote is greatly increased, because an inaccurately rosy picture is being painted of the ongoing stability of the rest of the UK. We are being forced into a vote when it is quite possible that the full implications of the emerging wider UK crisis are not apparent. And, to crown it all, the needless final clause of the recently signed accord would be used, in the event of a “no” vote, to argue that we have given up our right of self-determination just when we needed it most.
This is not a pretty picture. But the position is not disastrous. As Parnell, the great Irish leader, said “No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
In the final analysis, the Salmond-Cameron accord is merely a scrap of paper.
(Further papers on economic and statistical issues by Jim & Margaret Cuthbert can be found at www.cuthbert1.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk)