A split UK is not for a week but for ever
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On September 18 the Scottish referendum will decide whether the country in which I was born will continue to exist. I will have no vote. But this does not mean it does not matter to me. On the contrary, it matters a great deal. My parents came as refugees to Britain. When they took citizenship, they were proud to think of themselves as British. To me, “English” is an ethnic identity and “British” a civic one. I am a citizen of the world’s most successful multinational state. If Scotland were to depart, I would lose an important part of myself.
I might add that the political unity of the island we share made a priceless contribution to the freedom not just of the British but of Europe. This may seem less important today. But is that sure to be true for ever? Again, the cultural differences between the English and Scottish, which now make separation seem so reasonable, have been a source of historical strength. Out of diversity emerged something bigger than the sum of its cultural parts. This may seem unimportant now. But will that be true for ever?
This referendum must not be just about what happens in the next few years or even the next 30. This divorce will almost certainly be for ever. The choice then has to be made by the Scots on the basis of their feelings of identity. It must also reflect a belief that the benefits of following their own path outweigh those from continuing to share political institutions with the people who will always make up the bulk of the population of Great Britain.
Set against these considerations, the actual debate is depressingly – indeed, almost unbelievably – myopic and small-minded: myopic, because it focuses so heavily on the short-term consequences of a decision that must be for ever; small-minded, because it focuses so heavily on economics. Economics is not everything.
This week, we heard what sounded like pitches from rival hucksters. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, promised his people an “independence bonus” of £2,000 per household, while Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the UK Treasury, argued that the “dividend” from the union would be £1,400 per Scot.
Voters will respond to these arguments. On the short to medium-term prospects, the UK government is right to argue that the position of an independent Scotland would be hard, which is also consistent with the analyses of independent experts, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Scotland’s fiscal deficit in 2012-13 was already slightly larger than that of the UK as a whole. Moreover, uncertain and volatile receipts from North Sea oil averaged 15 per cent of notional Scottish revenue over the past five years. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility forecasts that these receipts will fall from £6.1bn in 2012-13 to £3.2bn in 2016-17, while the Scottish government claims they will be as much as £6.9bn.
Above all, this is just one of the uncertainties facing an independent Scotland. Others include the terms of separation from the rest of the UK, including the monetary system and the division of the public debt, terms and timing of membership of the EU and the terms on which Scotland could borrow, which would certainly be worse than for the UK.
The Scottish government suggests it could transform the economy by increasing the rate of productivity growth, raising labour-force participation, especially of mothers, and increasing immigration. It is indeed possible that the long-term performance of the Scottish economy would be better if it became independent than if it remained part of the UK, though the enumerated policies certainly do not ensure that result. These gains might also more than offset the benefits of pooling risks (including those from over-reliance on the financial sector or on oil and gas) within the UK.
But they are not a sure thing. The idea of an independence bonus is a sleight of hand. To take one example, more immigrants should indeed mean more revenue. They must also mean more public spending. As for productivity, the idea that we know how to raise it is a fantasy.
Yet what is more striking is how paltry the debate has become. Rather than say it favours independence whatever the costs, because it is the only way for Scotland to fulfil its national destiny, the Scottish government pretends it will be a simple, costless exercise instead of a journey into an uncertain, demanding future. Meanwhile, the UK prime minister feels unable to go to Scotland to say what seems to be essential: that, whatever the political differences between England and Scotland, he wants Scotland to stay in the union not because it makes us all a bit better off economically but because we in the rest of the UK value Scotland, the Scots and the shared and successful country these peoples have built together.
The debate over the future of the union should not be reduced to huckstering over short-term gains or to debating implausible promises. If the story is to end in separation, let us at least try to have a debate worthy of our extraordinary shared history.
Letter in response to this column:
Unity is worth protecting in Spain and the UK / From Mr Enrique Pastor de Gana