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This week’s television debate between Alex Salmond, the pro-independence Scottish first minister, and Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, in advance of next month’s Scottish referendum was at once irresistible and deeply depressing. So was London mayor Boris Johnson’s latest tactical manoeuvre on Britain, the EU and the 2017 referendum.
Irresistible, because such displays of political chutzpah are impressive, in their way. Depressing, because they mislead the public about the nature of the decisions they face.
Politicians’ chutzpah should be no surprise. It is their job to pretend to certainties about an uncertain future. The reams of studies that have been compiled on the costs and benefits of Scottish independence or a British exit from the EU just encourage this. You could see the effect in the vox pops on BBC News of “undecided” viewers of the Scottish debate. “Just tell us the facts,” said one, “and then I will make up my mind, yes or no.”
Yet the facts are not being withheld. The truth, as no political debater will admit, is that there are no facts, in either case, on which a decision can be based. The real conclusion from all the cost-benefit analyses is that this is not a choice that can be made on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.
The reason is simple. These are long-term questions, the answers to which must be lived with for decades. It is not like leaving a club you can rejoin when the balance of benefits alters. It is about strategic positioning: of how your nation, be it Scotland or Britain, wants to be placed in the face of an unknowable future, in the 2020s, 2030s or 2040s; amid war or peace, boom or bust, globalisation or protectionism.
Moreover, the uncertainties are domestic as well as international. Voters must ponder how an independent Scotland might feel not with the policies promoted by Mr Salmond and his Scottish National party but with whatever alternation of governments might occur in coming decades. The same applies to Britain outside the EU.
The cost-benefit analyses have at least performed one service for both debates. They have shown that, in economic terms, neither exit would make a huge difference either way: the latest, released this week by Mr Johnson’s chief economist, Gerard Lyons, was admirably honest on this point. It all depends on what policies the varying national governments follow over decades and, more immediately, on the unknown divorce terms.
This is no great revelation. Independent countries of Scotland’s size and circumstances exist, and do well or badly, mostly according to the vagaries of domestic politics and policies: Ireland is a good example; Greece is another. Similarly, countries of Britain’s size and circumstances can exist, and do well or badly, beside a big neighbour with which they do most of their trade and share much of their culture: Canada is an obvious equivalent.
So Mr Johnson is quite right to say Britain could have a good future outside the EU. Yet he is practising a deception. He says he would vote for Britain to stay only in an EU that, by the time of the referendum promised by Conservative prime minister David Cameron for 2017, has radically reformed some of its policies, notably the common agricultural policy and the free movement of people. Meanwhile, he knows very well that he is setting up thresholds almost impossible to meet in such a short time.
The second reason this is a deceit is that Britain’s membership is a strategic issue, not a matter of tweaking policies here and there. This means the position of his rival, Mr Cameron, is also a deceit: you do not make such a strategic decision on the basis of a short spurt of reform negotiations.
In fact, although they too reach for deceitful claims about facts in order to pretty up their case, it is the UK Independence party and the hardcore Tory eurosceptics who have a more honest stance. They want to leave the EU regardless of what reforms occur, just as Mr Salmond wants Scottish independence regardless of whatever facts he claims. They are thinking long term: they believe Britain would be in a better position to flourish and adapt if it were to reclaim the sovereignty it has ceded to its European partners.
Personally, I disagree. Much of the reclaimed sovereignty would be purely notional, and some would be the sovereign power to mess things up – through many of the methods outlawed by the EU, such as state aid and protectionism.
This is the real basis on which the Scottish decision on September 18, and the British decision in 2017 or whenever it occurs, must be made. Margaret Thatcher understood that when, as UK prime minister in 1988, she made her “Bruges speech”. We want to make Europe better, she said, in all sorts of ways. We do not want to be run by an ossified bureaucracy. But, she added: “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.” To her, in other words, it was a strategic issue.
The writer is a former editor of The Economist