Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge, Edinburgh University Press (RRP£12.99, RRP$25)
One fact imposes itself throughout this book: however Scots vote in next year’s independence referendum, the ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK that have bound the union for 300 years will be further loosened. The ties were strongly linked to peace between the two nations, the Protestant religion, empire and Scotland’s bankruptcy at the start of the 18th century. As Linda Colley wrote in Britons, these have all disappeared.
But a modern union was developed by the Labour government that came to power following the second world war. This was based on an amalgam of civil and political rights largely set in place before 1939, capped by social rights centrally administered so that they would be equal from Cornwall to Caithness, which “assumed that the ‘sharing community’ on which [they were] built was Britain”. The centre both commanded and cared. There were real and important differences between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but they were “never sufficient to disturb the powerful postwar discourse that liked to present the welfare state as an expression of UK-wide solidarity”.
Well, it’s disturbed now. Scotland’s Choices is a careful, lucid, objective description of the state Scotland is in. A further fact it stresses is that a union as old and close as that of the UK cannot simply bid farewell and part – “Ae fond kiss, and then we sever”, as the Burns song has it. Both separation and continued but loosening union must be negotiated. It is the likely terms of negotiation that are the subject of the book.
Scotland can, of course, be independent. It is relatively rich (it has the third-highest gross domestic product per head of the UK’s 12 regions) and about the size of Denmark, with an undisputed border. Successive UK governments have – unlike in Spain – made clear that a vote for independence will be honoured. Any dispute over North Sea oil is settled: it would be Scotland’s.
Yet independence presently seems the less likely choice in the Yes-No referendum. Recent shocks to the self-confidence of the governing Scottish National party – the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had been lauded by the party; the plight of Ireland, which it had envied; the tortures of the euro, for which it had yearned – have dented the apparent invulnerability of even as skilful a political operator as party leader and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond. Determination to lead a proud republican withdrawal from a fading England has been replaced by continuing monarchical subjection, continued use of sterling and continued membership of Nato. As Scotland’s Choices notes, the retention of sterling will bring a demand from the rest of the UK for substantial fiscal harmonisation– this in turn imposing a series of constraints on the government more irksome than at present since they would be diktats of a foreign power.
Voting No to independence does not mean a reversion to a steady state. The Scotland Act 2012, drafted by one of the authors, Jim Gallagher – would be implemented and would devolve more fiscal power to the Scots government by reducing tax on all income bands in Scotland by 10p in the pound, leaving it to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood to decide what extra to add back to fund programmes. More power but more accountability. This is something of an answer to widespread resentment elsewhere of the much larger public spending per head in Scotland than in England – England giving and Scotland spending. As the book hints, the continued funding to a region no longer relatively poor is a kind of pay-off for the fact that Scotland does not receive oil revenues. Receiving these after independence, however, would be a temporary boon, which may or may not be used wisely.
So the “sharing community” of Britain, already diminished, will on any vote be further reduced. “Devo max”, a greater devolution of fiscal and other powers, shades into the “independence lite” the SNP now favours, which in substance if not in symbol is a slightly stronger strategy. Polls show most Scots want some form of “max” but, confusingly, also to retain uniformity of public provision across the UK. They are unlikely to get both. The golden time for the SNP – victorious in the last Scottish election, able to make public provision free when it has a cost in England – is drawing to a close and would disappear with independence.
It will take an unlikely set of circumstances – a revived EU and euro, a spurt in the economy, a surge of patriotism greater than that inflated by the 1990s mixture of Margaret Thatcher and Braveheart – to make the Scots embrace an independence that can no longer advertise itself as either a liberation or an enrichment.
The writer is an FT contributing editor
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