Independence Lite?

It’s fair to say – along with the not-so-gentle student arm-twisting of a newly elected representative for the South of Scotland region – that the veteran SNP grandee Jim Sillars is responsible for my current political identity.

His concept of independence-in-Europe, articulated in his mid 80’s book Scotland: A Case For Optimism – and still on the SNP website – was the first time I’d heard a truly sophisticated argument for Scottish independence: about reconnecting to the wider world, not just chippily tilting against our largest near-neighbour.

Somewhere in my personal archives I have a piece of campaign literature from the 1992 SNP campaign, arguing for “The New Union” for Scotland – that is, the European Union, with Scotland as integrated but independent nation-state within it. I also remember seeing Jim at a conference about 10 years ago, arguing with great vision about how an independent Scotland could contribute to the creation of a “strong European feel”, which would help legitimate and bolster a European governance that was certainly facing its challenges at that time.

This is personal, too: back to 1992, I shared an SNP Snappy Bus on Jim’s last, desparate day as a Govan MP during that years General Election. My admiration for his commitment to, and sympathy for, ordinary voters hasn’t diminished from that day to this.

But I have to say, quite clearly, that Jim’s current advocacy of what he’s calling “independence-lite” is fundamentally wrong – by which I mean the wrong political strategy for a majority SNP government, and an independence movement, readying itself for a momentous referendum.

In his Scotsman article, Jim clearly outlines what he thinks this revised vision of Scottish independence is:

an independent country in international law which has a kind of confederal relationship with England, in which the latter continues to carry out cross-Border functions like the DVLA, perhaps pension and social security payments, and a BBC with beefed up Scottish representation at Trust level. One which engages us in a quasi-Nato relationship on shared defence and security against terrorism, with Scotland paying its share of costs of those functions, plus our share of UK debt, from its sovereignty over all taxation including oil, and perhaps offsetting some of those costs by leasing the Trident base for a long period

What is noticeable, instantly, is the absence of the European Union from this picture. Does this mean that independence-supporters are giving up on playing their part in the policy-forming councils of Europe? Particularly when the general thrust of European policy – on social welfare, on environmental regulation, on urban development, on education – is still much more in line with the Scottish consensus than anything coming from Westminster? This seems a bizarre “Little Britain” horizon to impose on a politics of Scottish independence.

The next trouble-zone is Sillars’ check-list of “cross-Border functions”. This is one area which requires detailed and vigorous debate among independence supporters, and certainly not some imposed fiat from the high command of the SNP. I guess I’m revealing myself as a “fundi” – and maybe a Green fundi – in this debate, as I find myself unwilling to think that there are any of these functions that wouldn’t benefit from a maximum degree of Scottish control.

On what would seem like a minor matter of the DVLA: of course we can organise European-continent-style, cross-border ease of mobility and registration – we have the systems to make that easy and possible. But in a low-carbon era when the regulation of personal transport will become a big issue – and where incentives to cleaner kinds of vehicles might need to be applied – again, do we leave this entirely to Westminster which is, cross-party, environmentally static, if not regressive? Why should we surrender our governmental imagination here?

Relinquishing sovereignty over “pension and social security payment” systems also bespeaks a puzzling failure of nerve. Jim is keen to point out how polling support for independence is in the low 30’s. I would also like to point out that 50% of the possible Scottish electorate did not even bother to vote in this great democratic moment. Surely we should realise that such citizen apathy is partly explained by the socio-economic deprivations, and psychological exhaustion, of large areas of “forgotten Scotland” (about to burst onto our screens again with BBC Scotland’s The Scheme)?

We must not lose the confidence to think of how we could integrate the boom-time of the “green industrialisation of Scotland” with the need to rebuild the essentials of community life in large areas of this country – and that won’t just happen under a cascade of apprenticeships for lads and lassies o’ pairts.

We should give ourselves the latitude to think creatively about what social support means in a sustainable Scotland – for example, looking at some of the agenda for shorter working weeks and co-production of services that think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation are suggesting. Again, why should we relinquish policy autonomy over that area, when the current reality is so underdeveloped and ineffective?

Maintaining the BBC with “a beefed-up Scottish presence at Trust level”? This is a real collapse of will-power. In a multi-channel, multi-device, expanding-bandwidth media world, it is not beyond the wit of an independent Scottish media public regulators and institutions to cut licensing and permission deals with the BBC as a content provider, such that the televisual component of the “social union” is easily accessible to anyone in Scotland.

But we should, firstly, be able to spend what we actually raise in Scottish public broadcasting, and secondly, take the chance to amplify the Scottish voice within and outwith the country. This would be an opportunity for creative and administrative innovation which, I would expect, Scottish mediators should jump at.

Maximal sovereign control of national public media and its regulation also has an impact on Scotland economically and geopolitically. How can our media better support the quality of expert and strategic conversation about possible Scottish futures in this country? In an age of spectrum plenitude, is it beyond us to think of public channels that properly serve our imperatives in say, education, business development, arts and culture? (I argued for this in my submission to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission).

And even in terms of big-ticket investments in quality television and film, are we really able to make clear-headed decisions about this, when the ultimate gravity of decision-making still rests in Wood Lane?

Finally, on Jim’s suggestions of pooled defence and security arrangements, Nato-friendliness, and acceptance of Trident, we come to a position which will easily split the community of independence supporters and activists right down the middle. Of course, Scotland’s military posture always been the elephant in the room of independence. Listening to leading SNP politicians “defend Scotland” and its rights to UK military investment in hi-tech engineering, or local military bases, has always been a thoroughly unedifying and incoherent spectacle.

But surely in a post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan, post-Black-Watch Scotland, we should be maintaining our ambivalence about Scottish armed forces being readily dragged into the adventurism (and energy opportunism) of larger nations at the fag-end of Empire. This means a proper separation from Nato, at best United Nations involvement, and appropriate (but well-monitored) collaborations on terrorism and security. Not to mention the sheer waste of intellect and expertise of significant sectors of Scottish engineering being consumed with aircraft-less aircraft carriers, at a time when we should be shoving our productive clusters full-speed towards renewable energy development.

That Jim can even countenance a 20-year period in which Trident is slowly managed into obsolescence, while still being the useless and exorbitant phallus of UK geopolitical potency, makes me wonder whether this is the same man I knew 25 years ago.

Finally, the question of keeping a bruised UK Westminster government “onside” in negotiations for independence, soothing the trauma of losing their big-power status by allowing them to retain Trident and other visible structures of Union, is to me wrongly posed.

Cock an ear to current debates within the centre-left in England, and their presumption is that a Scotland heading for independence will be a catalyst for all kinds of progressive coalitions in an English polity: driving sections of the Lib Dems and Labour closer together, keeping the door open for a much more proportional electoral system, even addressing what a truly refounded English national identity would be, shorn of the delirium tremens of the post-Imperial hangover.

Scottish independence may indeed threaten “English state interests”. But the view from their end of the telescope may be less obdurately statist, or at least more fluid and in process, than Jim believes. They think we’re militant and strident about self-determination: why give any other impression?

On share of national debt and revenue from hydrocarbons, I’m reasonably confident that our resident phalanx of patriotic Scottish energy economists and Scottish laywers, armed with global references and precedents, will get a good (if not ideal) result. Jim tries to imply a devil’s trade between a reasonable deal on the resource foundations of an independent Scotland, and the retention of large and toxic features of the governance of the British State. I think he’s wrong, and very strangely for him, something of a feartie here.

At exactly this moment – when a demonstrable Nationalist competence in government, and vision of the future, has gathered significant support in Scottish life – it seems weird to suddenly reduce our ambitions, and give up on campaigning for the necessary prize of nation-state independence, however embedded and interdependent that turns out to be.

Even on the level of Brand Scotland (never mind “Team Scotland”), we’ll get one shot to unambiguously and significantly re-appear on the world stage of globalisation. Should we do it in a half-assed way? Are we any less of a national polity than any of the post-Communist nations, who negotiated their independence from a much larger and more pernicious power than tottering, querulous 21st century Britain?

Never mind the last gasp of the Union – is this the last gasp of Scottish inferiorism? And, as I’ve said throughout this piece, much more in sorrow than anger, from the most unexpected of sources? “Jings, crivvens, help ma boab”, indeed.


Jim Sillars was first elected as Labour MP for South Ayrshire in 1970. He held this as a Labour MP until 1976. In 1976 he led a breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP) to campaign to secure a Scottish Assembly and held his South Ayrshire seat as an SLP MP between 1976 and 1979. He joined the SNP in 1980 and won the 1988 Govan by-election as an SNP candidate by polling 14,677 votes and winning a 3,554 majority over the Labour candidate Robert Gillespie. He held this seat until 1992.

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  1. G Barrie says:

    Let’s be kind – he is playing devil’s advocate. If not, well I suppose the Scotsman paid him for writing the article and he who pays the piper calls the tune.
    Michael Kelly wrote a recent piece for the Scotsman and referred to his fellow Scots in less than glowing terms . The Scotsman pays him too I suppose.
    Drivel for dollars?

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    First off, in referring to Jim Sillars, if we can’t be comradely we will deserve the fate that will await us. I do not agree with Jim Sillars, but I think he is genuine in his endeavour to try to address the problem of how you counter the tabloidesk attacks that the pro-independence argument will be subjected to on a daily basis across all media from now on (remember the Daily Mail now eclipses the Herald and Scotsman in Scottish sales by a ratio of 3 to 1). It is also, I suspect, precisely because he was so in tune with his Govan constituents that he now feels he knows exactly what will be going through their heads as they read or hear all the scare stories that will be coming their way anytime soon. I believe he would have been better arguing that these arrangements would only be part of a short transitional period, and if independence comes that may well have to happen.

    However, I fundamentally believe the whole independence lite argument, inside and outside the SNP, though helpful in trying to deflect attacks, will ultimately be disastrous to any referendum campaign. As well as potentially splitting the independence movement, it also sub-consciously conveys to the Scottish people our own doubts about the feasibility of independence and renders us open to the charge of not having the courage of our convictions. It also makes it difficult to argue why, if so little is going to change, we should go through all the upheaval (the number of treaties and years of negotiations will be relentlessly rammed down our throats). It also leaves us wide open to Cameron, et al, saying “no. If you want to stand on your own feet you’ll have to stand on your own feet, there will be no half way house”. But, most important of all, it insults the intelligence of the Scottish people. The Scottish people are quite right to be wary of taking a huge jump into the unknown while all around them they see the plight of countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. We insult their intelligence if we think that by tweaking what independence means, so as to make it seem like no big deal, that we have somehow addressed those very real concerns.

    I believe we have to be far more honest with ourselves and with the Scottish people. There isn’t, at present, a majority for independence, and, although the SNP might manage to convince some people through argument and by example, there will be equal forces at work trying to put them off. I think being honest is more powerful than it may at first appear. One of the things that has characterised Scotland within the union has been the lack of honesty; the duplicity, that has been employed to maintain the union. I think the Scottish people have a keen sense of this, they know, for instance, that when Calman said his commission was involved in securing the best for Scotland, he was engaging in unionist double-speak. So in the particular circumstances of Scotland, honesty is revolutionary. I also think, along with this, that we shouldn’t put independence on an alter on which we sacrifice our democratic principles. I believe the most revolutionary thing Alex Salmond has said is that the pace of constitutional change will be dictated by the people. This is anathema to the British States, with its official dogma of parliamentary sovereignty. I think we need to fully embrace this revolutionary principle and force the British State to enshrine it in law, perhaps that needs to be the question in any referendum. To live up to the ideals of the Scottish Spring we need to see change as an on-going process trusting the people, rather than a one off referendum event.

  3. angus says:

    I liked and agreed with Sillars’ piece. No amount of pseud’s corner wibbling about post imperialism and pots of green gold will win an opposed populace over.

  4. Steven H says:

    My, my, what a long way Sillars has traveled (or fallen?) since the 1970’s; from firebrand socialist to advocate of gentle confederation. Maybe he’ll subscribe to our, unionist, way of thinking in a decade or so? There’s a vacancy for leader of the Scottish Tories, you know…

    All joking aside, Sillars’ article in the Scotsman (linked in Pat’s piece) argues, for the most part, for moderation, and recognizes the shades of gray and complexity which characterise Scotland’s present constitional status. I admire the boldness of some of Pat’s ideas, but, given the SNP front bench, I think disappointment awaits.

    I sympathise with the nationalist quandary. Campaign for full independence and you’ll lose the support of the swathe of cautious moderates, even though your activists will be appeased. Going for a Sillars-type confederation (a strange, lopsided beast – the “pension and social security benefits” he raises and then drops in a sentence would comprise a huge part of the budget of an independent Scotland: and he wants them “perhaps” kept under British control!) might soothe these moderates, but such a complex, ramshackle, constitutional structure is hardly something that most nationalists lust for – or would campaign for with a song in their hearts.

    His proposal to lease the Trident base back to England has put a wide smile on my face. I believe this is known as having your cake and eating it too. Dear England – please, we want to sever the union and will be determining our own destiny for now on. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Oh, but can you keep all the defence jobs here? Thanks.

    Interesting also, as Pat observes, is the absence of the EU from Sillars’ article. Maybe it’s because the EU – and the Euro – has lost it’s luster over the past decade. Or perhaps it’s a belated realisation that a nation of six million would only have a handful of votes in the European council and be one voice in a union of 28 states? If you thought it was hard to make Scotland’s voice heard in the UK…

    I’ve always thought of Sillars in the same terms as Ben Franklin thought of John Adams – “I am persuaded that he means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” I appreciate his acceptance of (some of) the realities of 21st century interdependency. But I, like Pat, worry about his lack of policy vision, which just confirms my unionism.


    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Wise words. And can I thank you too for that wonderful quote from Benjamin Franklin!

      Kevin W

  5. banniai1 says:

    I will keep it short and sweet . I would hope that when we get independence we have the chance to vote on whether we join the EU or not .I am in favour of global trade, not being linited with whom we may trade, I also deplore many of the laws inflicted upon us by faceless beurocrats in Brussels, my answer on the ballot paper would be a NO as it was first time around.

  6. Donald Adamson says:


    Excellent piece which, I suspect, chimes with the majority of nationalist opinion. Your optimism may become infectious, particularly if it’s backed up by such sound arguments. Latest poll shows independence at 38 per cent which, even before we accommodate your, and other, arguments for its projected increase up to 2015, isn’t a bad place to start. And could anyone have envisaged a better starting-point than this even six weeks ago? A majority SNP government at Holyrood, Labour in disarray, another Thatcherite revisionist government at Westminster looking to kick-start second-wave neo-liberalism. A swing of 2.5 per cent (or greater) each year for the next five years, though not easy, doesn’t sound beyond the realms of possibility.

    It’s unfortunate about “feartie” Sillars but, in his defence, nobody has a monopoly of wisdom on how this will play out from here on, and I think that the nationalist movement today is big enough to accommodate a wide range of opinions and allow various kites to be flown. As for his influence, I hae ma doobts. This doesn’t mean that he’s harmless and it doesn’t mean that he might not be creating problems here when we’d all like to see greater unanimity. But weighing up some of your more representative arguments against his I’d say that the odds are in your favour or, should I say, our favour.

    Each of the points you raise here merits close attention and lengthy debate so I’ll limit my own reply to a few brief general points on the issue of the European Union. Sillars may have omitted it for any number of reasons, perhaps he felt he couldn’t do justice to it in a brief article, maybe it was a case of bad timing – one union at a time! But whatever his reason, I’m sure that he’s aware that, in spite of its present difficulties, the euro still accounts for some 28 per cent of the world’s foreign currency reserves (the dollar accounts for some two thirds with the remainder being made up by a small group of minor currencies). It’s true that there’s less talk today, for obvious reasons, of the prospects of the euro displacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency but, in five or ten years time, who knows?

    A more interesting issue, particularly given the vision of Scotland that you flag up in the piece, is the question of the trade-related benefits to Scotland of joining the euro. The conventional wisdom is that ‘Britain’ supplies around 60 per cent of its exports to the EU. In fact, most of this trade emanates from England. In other words, there isn’t much to be gained (in trade-related terms, transactions costs are another matter, just ask the City) from England joining the euro.

    Scotland however is in a very different position. For years now, the Scottish CBI, among others, has been pointing to Scotland’s dismal export performance with the EU. There is a huge capacity for Scotland to benefit from this, given the right conditions of course. Ireland, even today, let alone before the crisis, has managed to pull off the trick of maintaining its exports to the UK whilst significantly increasing its export trade with the EU. Scotland would be in a much better position to do this than Ireland was when it joined the euro.

    Of course there are all sorts of difficult issues here, particularly for the left in Scotland. But I’m sure, in the fullness of time, we’ll engage with them. A related issue here is the question of an independent Scotland’s relationship to the EU. Invariably this is couched in terms of whether the EU would ‘accept’ Scotland as a member. I prefer to put the question the other way. That is, surely one of the many reasons for supporting independence is to allow the Scottish people the opportunity to have a referendum on whether they want an independent Scotland to be in the EU and, if they do, a follow-up referendum on whether they want an independent Scotland to join the euro, neither of which will ever be offered by any British government? It’s almost 40 years now, since the Scots were last invited for their opinion on Europe and, given the huge changes that have occurred in the EU in that time, it seems to me that the Scottish people should be invited to give their opinion one way or the other, rather than leaving it all to the high-heid yins.

    One final point. Should Scotland remain in the (British) union and should the Tories win an outright majority at Westminster in 2015, it’s not inconceivable that the Tories might bring these issues to a head themselves (they’re on their best behaviour on the Europe issue just now, to placate their Lib Dem chums). Unlikely as it is, it may be that Scotland could find itself even further isolated from the EU than it is at present, maybe even outside the EU, by default, if the Scots aren’t careful.

    Nothing is more guaranteed to bring out the worst in Little Englanders and the ‘acceptable’ face of British nationalism than the issues of Europe and the euro. Throughout the lifetime of the EU and the euro, they’ve predicted their demise, seized on any piece of bad news as vindicating their splendid isolation. You have to be concerned about a mindset that seems to take such pleasure out of other countries’ misfortune (at least as they see it). At any rate, an independent Scotland, integrated into the EU with other independent member states, and part of the euro might, if nothing else, expose who the real isolationists and narrow nationalists are on these islands.

  7. Steve says:

    This seems remarkably sober from one who had become so grouchy. I seem to remember Sillars arguing that we didn’t need a referendum on independence, just a simple majority of Scottish Westminster MPs. That seems a little passe these days….

    Gradualism has always been the only game in town. I guess we’ll finally get full independence the day the last drop of oil is extracted from the North Sea. I’d be negotiating hard for a transparent share of oil revenues now.

    Even Donald Dewar originally proposed that Scotland raise its own money and receive a top-up “subvention” from London if it fell short- but that was soon jettisoned. I would have thought major fiscal autonomy should be on the agenda, rather than the current Calman-style tinkering…

  8. Ray Bell says:

    We already have Independence Verra Licht… it’s called devolution!

    On the oil issue, whether you like the fuel or not, we are still due our cut of revenues. I also see the development of renewables all over Scotland, but without consultation with communities and the revelant payback… it seems a lot of the windfarms are to generate electricity for the south of England. History is repeating itself, except this time it’s not North Sea oil which is the offshore bonanza, but wind and wave. Will the people of Scotland receive the proper revenues and what will happen to Aberdeen in the future?

    Personally, I think independence lite, or an SNP which supports independence (but not just yet) are what many unionists dream of. Certainly Joyce MacMillan who would love such a thing. No doubt in an independent lite Scotland, we’ll see hundreds of young men from council schemes dying in unnecessary wars… but we’ll have to pay their pensions, and provide the health care for the physically and mentally maimed.

  9. Scottish republic says:

    Yes to everything if we have to but we haven’t even officially elected the First Minister yet.

    No to nyclear weapons however, one has to draw the line of decency somewhere, I choose to draw the line at contributing to the total and utter annihialation of the planet.

    That’s reasonable.

  10. Donald Adamson says:


    Forgot to mention this earlier.

    When you say, “On share of national debt and revenue from hydrocarbons, I’m reasonably confident that our resident phalanx of patriotic Scottish energy economists and Scottish lawyers, armed with global references and precedents, will get a good (if not ideal) result”, without wishing to underestimate the difficulties involved, I can’t see why it would be in the interests of either of the negotiating parties to be too stubborn in their negotiations. There will be areas of dispute that require more protracted negotiations, these could last many months if not years, but there will be numerous other areas that can be more or less rubber-stamped.

    The Scottish government will have enough on its plate of course, but so, too, will the British government. The British government already conducts a range of negotiations on a daily basis with numerous bilateral and multilateral agents across the world as well as, more obviously, with the other devolved governments in the UK. It wouldn’t thank Scotland for adding to its workload but that’s what governments and civil servants are paid to do.

    It is worth noting that, if Scotland is to take its share of the national debt, then it’s not unreasonable to argue that it should equally claim its (monetary) share of British national assets. In December 2010 these were valued at £304 billion, making Scotland’s share something in the region of £29 billion. By the time we get to 2015 (or later) this should constitute a significant down payment on Scotland’s share of the debt. It’s also worth noting that if these particular negotiations are conducted after 2015, as a consequence of Tory policies, the national debt should be significantly reduced.

    Unfortunately, Scotland, like other parts of the UK, will have paid a huge price to achieve this but it may be that, by that time, a majority of Scots will feel that they’ve paid their dues to the UK, perhaps with an outstanding residual which could be negotiated on a range of terms e.g. negotiating it as a loan with mutual agreement on the terms of the loan (from short-term to long-term) and so on, there are a number of other options that might present themselves. Note too, that had Labour won the 2010 British general election, two thirds of these Tory cuts would still have gone ahead.

    Slightly less painful it’s true but then slightly less painful is about the best that Labour governments on either side of the border have to offer Scotland in the union, crisis or no crisis, a slightly less painful settlement than the Tories offer. Mind you, if you look at the numerous shocks that successive Labour and Tory governments at Westminster have transmitted to Scotland’s economy over the last fifty years in particular, and not only with their fiscal and monetary policies, even that’s debatable.

    I don’t want to anticipate arguments that will be developed over the next five years, but it has to be said that, one of the many benefits of independence would be that, instead of enduring a succession of Labour and (more often) Tory governments alternating in office at Westminster, with each government spending five to ten years undoing what its predecessor did, Scotland may be able to maintain some political continuity which could, among other things, enhance its capacity to make cohesive plans for its future in a whole range of policy areas, freed from the constraints of the disruptive British political cycle. This doesn’t mean that Scottish governments wouldn’t change colour after independence – though effective PR after independence might make elections and governments much more interesting – only that there would be Scottish governments and institutions dedicated to defending and advancing Scottish interests and with all available tools at their disposal to do this. That after all, is what other countries do. That is one definition of self-determination. Indeed, the more you look at it, the more ordinary Scottish independence seems, although not for us on the left!

    1. Steven H says:


      You sort of imply that UK-wide spending could increase at the rate it has done over the past few years, indefinetely. There is – or should be – an upper limit to it, or else it tends to crowd out the private sector, which is fragile enough in Scotland. Thinking about it, I wonder how an independent Scotland would function, economically. The Scottish state’s share of the economy is bloated and no party shows any inclination to slim it. I suppose this is understandable – every government likes having goodies to (re)distribute. It’s by no means a problem local to the SNP – Labour are probably most guilty of it. But a great deal of expensive manifesto committments have been made by the SNP; the renewable energy target, for instance, won’t be achievable without a vast public sector investment to the order of billions of pounds a year. I think this is the sort of long-term, infrastructural, project the state exists for (rather than handing out council tax freezes to middle-class types, for instance) but it will be stunningly expensive – and we’ve heard very little regarding how exactly this project will be financed from the SNP.

      Regardless of how coalition economic policies pan out, an independent Scotland would inherit a share of the debt in the tens of billions. Debt interest payments would consume a substantial part (5-10%?) of any budget. I’m afraid I don’t understand your argument regarding a Scottish share of British national assets. I presume you mean government buildings, military facilities and the like? I’m not sure how these sorts of fixed assets might be liquidated to form the basis of a down-payment on the debt. Leasing trident bases back to the rump UK I can understand (even if I think it’s wishful thinking) but I fail to see how a benefits office in Glasgow would be much use in this. Surely the rump UK would have no use for it, and would have no interest in leasing it?

      Still, I wonder what will happen when the money runs out and difficult choices must be made. And I don’t think oil was ever -or will ever be – the panacea some nationalists imagine it to be. I’ve always thought that any Scottish government would have used oil revenue to fund current spending rather than invest it in a Norwegian-style fund. The temptation to appease political constituencies would have been too great.


      1. martinb says:


        Once again I hear the “Scottish state is too big” rhetoric.

        It’s funny, but I only ever hear it in relation to spending on the poor, weak, sick and young. Never on the willy-waving megaprojects that are always portrayed as inevitable and untouchable.

        If we stop paying a share of Trident, Olympic Stadia, ID Cards, replacement aircraft carriers (with no planes to fly off them) and suchlike, we’ll have a great deal more flexibility in what we do spend it on, and can ensure that our spending priorities match our national values.

  11. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    Jim Sillars was ever the opportunist. It seems he remains so.

  12. MacNaughton says:

    Excellent piece, Pat, I agree wholeheartedly with you, this is no time for anybody to lose their nerve.

    J.S is wrong about this in substance, but he is also mistaken tactically. This is no time for this kind of thinking. We all know that Alex Salmond and any SNP negotiating team will have serious work on their hands, but the SNP has the wind behind it, and must go into any negotiations, if and when they ever occur, with a maximalist agenda: total outright independence, which in today’s world means sharing sovereignty anyway. Scotland alone? Scotland is going to be locked into a whole set of relationships as soon as it gets out of this Union. If it is not the Bank of England setting interest rates, it is the European Central Bank, that is the choice. If it is not NATO, it is the embryonic European Defense Force.

    On the question of Europe, the whole European project is currently in jeopardy, with Sarkozy distinguishing between good Europeans and bad Europeans, ie the Romanian gypsies he expelled, Berlusconi making a mockery of democracy and justice, Merkel betraying all of the German leaders who went before her on Europe – and London being London.

    But for our immediate purposes, Schengen is in danger in Europe, where people have travelled without borders for almost a generation now; nobody wants a border with England – and England wouldn’t want a border with Scotland either by the way – but if for some temporary reason that became necessary, I cannot see how it is any more problematic than it is for anybody else in Europe. Driving from Spain to Portugal is analogous to driving from Edinburgh to London: in neither case should a border be necessary, but if it is, it constitutes no more than an inconvenience.

    In terms of Europe, Scotland should in my opinion fight to drive forward the European project, which has become lost of late, and is now not much more than a free trade zone with some frills thrown in. But there is a very noble idea somewhere buried under it all, and an independent Scotland could be at the forefront of pushing that Europe forward – which is certainly not the way it will be seen if we don’t go the full enchillada.

    On the question of the EU recognizing Scotland, there was an interesting article on Catalan newspaper Aviu, which says that even if the EU is not happy about a possible referendum, Scotland would go all but automatically into the EU, a) because of the Treaty of Vienna, but b) also because we are European citizens at present, with rights as such, and that the European Court of Human Rights in Luxembourg would not tolerate any alteration of that status on the basis of a referendum.

    Further, Aviu also asked if anybody could take seriously the idea that Catalonia would be denied EU status when it is currently the Euro….

    ….so the argument that Scotland or Catalonia’s EU status is not assured is total scaremongering – from the moral, practical and legal points of view.

    All of this is to say: there is nothing standing in the way of an independent Scotland except belief, and that is where energies should be primarily focussed.

  13. Donald Adamson says:


    Of course there’s an upper limit to public spending, even those enlightened Scandinavians have to recognise that, but do remember that the crowding out thesis is just that, a thesis. There’s no reason why an independent Scotland, which improved its economic performance (compared to its pretty dismal performance in the UK) couldn’t maintain public spending. It would have a number of options available to it, most obviously borrowing powers and taxation.

    But it isn’t just a question of borrowing powers and taxation, if it were, I’d be arguing for full fiscal autonomy. You’re assuming that an independent Scotland would be subject to the same constraints that it is subject to as part of the UK. I’m arguing that part of the economic justification for independence is to free Scotland from those constraints. I’m also arguing that this isn’t so much a question of ‘freedom’ but how an independent Scotland exercises that freedom to, among other things, improve what the CBI refers to as Scotland’s dismal export performance, attract more inward investment, research and development and so on.

    I’m also arguing that Scotland has had a limited capacity to absorb the numerous shocks that successive British governments and the UK Treasury have transmitted to it over the years. Starting with the second Wilson government, working through the disastrous Heath government, the Wilson/Callaghan governments, the Thatcher and Major governments and New Labour, Scotland’s relatively small economy has lacked the capacity to respond to those shocks precisely because it is part of the UK and has had no means available to it to correct them. This may be one reason why successive British governments, including the Thatcher governments, have been content to tolerate higher public spending in Scotland, that is, it’s been a tacit acknowledgement of Scotland’s constrained position in the union. The Barnett formula was a more express acknowledgement of this, so it’s a bit rich for unionists to throw these back at Scotland!

    But the key point is that these, and numerous other factors, have inhibited Scotland’s economic performance. Here, if we compare Scotland’s performance to other similar-sized countries in the EU, it’s not difficult to demonstrate, on a range of variables, that Scotland has been under-performing. When you also accommodate the disruptive British political cycle and the British disease (short-termism) it’s not difficult to explain Scotland’s poor economic performance over the last four decades.

    An independent Scotland would, of course, still be affected by UK policy, but the key difference is that an independent Scotland would have greater capacity to absorb any shocks as well as the ability to respond to them across a wide range of policy areas. I’m also arguing that, in the right conditions, there is great capacity for an independent Scotland to significantly improve its export performance with the EU. These ‘right conditions’ will, of course, present numerous challenges to an independent Scotland, particularly if it wanted to join the euro (for example, in the first instance, satisfying the Maastricht convergence criteria which, among other things, would constrain public spending). For reasons of brevity I’ll limit this part of my reply to these comments.

    On renewable energy investment, I would hope that an independent Scotland would allocate significant public spending to this as the returns on that investment will be significant. But I think that, as the capital costs decline (as they will) and as the returns increase (as they will), Scotland will be an attractive destination for private investment. We are, after all, talking about the country that has 25 per cent of the entire EUs renewable energy capacity. If a country like that couldn’t attract private investment then no country can. On a wide range of variables, inward investment, research and development, technology transfer, training and expertise, employment, GDP growth, to name a few, Scotland’s potential here is enormous and it is already starting to be realised, although I agree, there is a long way to go yet.

    Did I suggest that the national assets be liquidated? I hope not! I thought that I made it clear that an independent Scotland would be entitled to claim a pro rata monetary share of national assets if it is required to accept its share of national debts, to offset the latter. I’m not sure why you find this unreasonable or difficult. If there is a discount from the rough figure of £29 billion that I gave, it would be to account for that share of the national assets that are already in Scotland. Of course interest would still be payable on the debt – no-one would expect a UK government to be that generous! – but that would be part of any final settlement. Interest would be closer to 5 per cent than 10 per cent, I don’t think that even the most zealous unionist would argue that an independent Scotland would have a credit rating similar to Iceland or Greece.

    Couldn’t disagree more with you on oil. Part of the problem with the ‘oil debate’ is that it’s invariably focused on the headline issue of oil revenues. These have been significant, there’s no question about that, and we’ll never know, if Scotland had become independent in 1979 and had established an oil fund what that would be worth today. However oil has provided numerous other benefits to the British economy which are separate from the revenues. The most significant of these is the energy balance. To put this into perspective, at the time of the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, when the price of oil increased from $3 a barrel to $12 a barrel in the last quarter of 1973, Britain depended on imported oil for over 50 per cent of its energy requirements.

    Ask yourself the question, what would have been the cost to the British economy over the last forty years if no oil had been discovered in the North Sea? First, you’d need to discount the oil revenues themselves from British national accounts over the last forty years. Second, you’d need to add to that, the cost of imported oil to Britain over the last forty years, it’s only in the last few years that Britain has become a net importer of oil again. Third, you’d need to discount from the British economy, the numerous other benefits of the oil industry (see below). Finally, you’d need to add the cost of the extra borrowing (plus interest payments) that British governments over the last forty years would have incurred to maintain its level of public spending over the last forty years.

    But there have been numerous other benefits that have accrued to the wider British economy over the last forty years as a result of North Sea oil. First, there is the inward investment. A lot of this has gone to Scotland but a lot of it has also gone to the wider British economy. Second, there are the numerous investment and spending multipliers that have been generated by the firms and workers in the oil industry. Again, this has benefited not only the wider British economy but has made a significant contribution to the UK Treasury over the last forty years. Third, there are the income tax and VAT proceeds that have gone to the UK Treasury as a consequence of the earnings and spending of workers in the oil industry over the last forty years. These are just some of the ‘secondary’ benefits of the oil industry to the wider UK economy and the UK Treasury.

    On the issue of the oil that remains, according to most estimates there are some 25 billion barrels of oil left in the North Sea (some argue that this may be an underestimate). Put it another way, if it were possible to extract all of that oil today then, at present oil prices, it would be valued at some $3.3 trillion. That may be small fry in your part of the world but in Scotland that’s what’s called a precious resource.

    It’s also worth noting that although Britain has been producing, on average, 1 billion barrels of oil a year since 1980, Britain’s, or rather England’s, demand for oil has been increasing significantly in that period. Since oil was discovered, Scotland’s population has been more or less static. England’s population and its corresponding demand for oil and other energy has, on the other hand, increased by some 25 per cent. This is one of the reasons why the British have had to consume so much of North Sea oil themselves. Needless to say, in an independent Scotland, those reserves could have been better preserved or, at the very least, used much more effectively to benefit Scotland’s economy than they have been. That potential still exists for the oil that remains.

  14. Donald Adamson says:


    It occurs to me that, in light of my last few posts, you might be asking yourself, how can I reconcile these arguments with Marxism? If you are, it’s a fair question. My answer is, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that an independent Scottish workers’ republic is not what’s on offer here and may not be on offer for a while, maybe not even in my lifetime. Hence the last few posts were written with a heavy heart.

    But even following the orthodoxies of mainstream economics that’s implicit in my previous posts, independence would still, in my opinion, enhance Scotland’s ability to seriously address its British legacy in a number of areas, including reducing poverty levels, inequality, low pay, redressing the imbalance in industrial relations and a wide range of other areas. As I’m sure you know, throughout the last forty years Britain has been rapidly catching up the US in the competition for the dubious honour of being the most unequal society in the developed world.

    My own belief is that the left independence movement urgently needs some kind of task force, dare I say a think tank (!), to challenge the straitjacket of Keynesianism on the one side and the orthodoxies of new classical macroeconomics on the other. Unfortunately, no-one on the independence-supporting left in Scotland is leading this discussion which is one of the many fears I have about independence, from the perspective of the left. That is, the pressures on the first independence government to go for a ‘dash for growth’ (to vindicate the economic arguments for independence) will ‘crowd out’ any prospect of more enlightened thinking, at least in the short term, and that this, once embedded, may govern a longer-term path of development that not even a green revolution may salvage a more progressive agenda for the Scottish left.

    On a brighter note, the Scottish Left Review (see issue 60) is promoting Agenda 15 and I think is currently organising a think tank. Although this is based on what a Scottish government could do within the devolution settlement (that may have changed after this election result) I am broadly in agreement with many of the policy instruments and objectives outlined in that agenda. I would stress though that, for me, this agenda is a pathway not a destination.

  15. Steven H says:


    Thanks for your comprehensive, thoughtful replies as ever. To paraphrase De Gaulle’s axiom regarding the French media – the left has the journals, the right has the think tanks. There are a cornucopia of smart, publicity-hungry right-wing think tanks world wide (in fact, whenever someone says “think tank”, I reflexively think of the IEA) while their left-wing cousins tend to gravitate towards fuzzy, nebulous thinking about “community” – see the IPPR for innumerable examples of this. It’s easier to lobby for a tax cut than for some well-meaning stuff about cohesive societies. As a subscriber of the New Left Review, there’s undoubtedly a great deal of bright, pathbreaking thinkers on the left, but there tends to be an echo-chamber effect. I mean, how many people actually read the New Left Review, for god’s sake? One of the reasons why Thatcherism was the force that it was was its ruthless capture of the intellectual high ground. So, I’m in cheerful agreement with your call for a Scottish leftist think tank (or even of a technocratic RAND-type one).

    Perhaps both of us concur that, in our hearts, we fear that little (in policy terms) will distinguish an independent Scotland from a Scotland within the union. For me, such a belief has always made me question the whole enterprise.

    On economics, I read an interview with Vernon Bogdanor in the Telegraph over the whole weekend. In it, he observed that expecting anything more than a minimally greater degree of economic freedom of maneuvre in an independent Scotland is unrealistic; how can a country with a population a tenth the size of it’s neighbour ever be truly independent of it, in any real sense of those words? The attention of Edinburgh would still be fixed southward, anticipating changes in interest rates, or rises or falls in tax rates. And the SNP’s current silver bullet – the corporation tax rate – is of doubtful value, since the European Commission is unhappy with Ireland’s low rate and seeks to drag it upwards. Greater tax harmonization would just exacerbate this problem and constrain the economic freedom of an independent Scotland.

    Regarding oil – working from your scenario of independence in 1979, I imagine a Scotland totally in thrall to the Dutch disease by the 1990s, with a finance ministry maintaining a death watch on the oil price, thousands of palatial council houses in Glasgow, several new expensive football stadiums in the central belt, and a subsidy-sustained Ravenscraig. Call this cynicism if you wish, but I know my fellow countrymen! Small nations can indeed be rich and prosperous – look at Singapore, for instance – but not, often, through exploitation of natural resources.


  16. Donald Adamson says:


    “I mean how many people actually read the New Left review…?”, apart from you, me and Pat Kane, I suspect not many. But consider yourself lucky, I’m also a subscriber to the Marxist journal Historical Materialism and I’m pretty sure that its subscription base is even more shallow than the NLRs!

    Couldn’t agree more with you about Thatcherism and the New Right think tanks. Whether it’s what Andrew Gamble once referred to as the “mythology” of the winter of discontent or what Colin Hay has called the “narrative” of the over-loading of the state, the left was totally out-manoeuvred in the 1970s and hasn’t recovered since. But I still think that there’s more hope for the left in an independent Scotland but this does not mean, as far as I’m concerned, the Scottish left abandoning the left in the other nations in the UK. On the contrary, I think the ties could be stronger. I’m reminded of a letter that the mature Marx wrote to one of his contemporaries, justifying his support for Irish independence on the grounds that it would provoke a workers’ revolution in England (Scotland didn’t feature too prominently on his radar). With the necessary changes (we’re not talking workers’ revolution here on either side of the border), I live in hope.

    On the Bogdanov thing, fair point. I hope I haven’t given the impression that, whatever the outcome of this referendum, this is going to be easy. Apart from anything else, let’s remember the reason why we’re on this thread (i.e. early divisions within nationalism which, I suspect, will intensify the closer that we get to the business-end of all this).

    On oil, touche! Having said that, I’d still stand by what I said earlier.

  17. Scottish republic says:

    Let’s see what we can get before we start giving stuff away, eh?

    If Jim is right then so be it, if not so be that too.

    There’s a lot to do, maybe there will be a referendum on FFA if Cameron digs in his heels.

    Lots can and will happen : read what’s happening, plan, react.

  18. Scottish republic says:

    Vote in the economist independence poll

  19. james mc donald says:

    It is inevitable that Scotland shall be a independent entity,however oxymoronic, as all capitalist countries service borrowing.Scotland with its natural assets are in anyone!s book a profit investment.

    When looking outside at other independent countries with the land mass and similar population you cannot go past Scandinavia,to see that however small a independent state with assets and trade on their minds, can flourish.Yet the Scottish people are going to be bombarded by those who oppose the break from the crown,for historical and more selfishly their capital gain.

  20. Indy says:

    Maybe I am stating the obvious here – but maybe the obvious needs to be stated.

    Jim Sillars has not been a part of the SNP leadership for a long time and is not speaking for the SNP.

    I think the whole palaver around “independence lite” is simply a recognition that the SNP does not really want to dig a trench along the border but wants to have a continuing but more equal relationship with the rest of the UK.

    I don’t see why that should be a surprise to anyone other than those who have swallowed the unionist line that we are a bunch of woad painted anti-English separatists who want to set up a North Korea style republic with Alex Salmond as Supreme Ruler and Arbiter of Everything.

    But to go from that to arguing that we ought to agree to keep Trident or its replacement is a wee bit bonkers and ignores the fact that a clear majority of Scots want rid of it. Our position on nuclear weapons is a vote winner, not a vote loser. That is why, on strictly pragmatic as well as on principled grounds, Jim’s idea is really a non-starter.

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