Sunday 21 April 2013

The Union is an accident of history

A set of quite unlikely historical circumstances led to Scotland becoming part of the United Kingdom. The first of these was that Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, married James IV of Scotland, who died fighting the English at Flodden. The second unlikely circumstance was that none of Henry VIII’s legitimate children gave birth to an heir. This despite him being married so many times. What this meant was that the descendants of Margaret Tudor, through her son James V, her granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and her great grandson James VI and I eventually gained the throne of England. It was as much as anything a Scottish takeover, owing to the succession crisis left by Elizabeth I choosing to be known as the Virgin Queen.

Two other European countries were also experimenting with a union of the crowns at around the same time as these events in Scotland and England. The Portuguese King Sebastian I died in battle in 1578 without an immediate heir. This led to a succession crisis, which eventually, after the War of Portuguese succession (1580-1583)  led to the Union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain, with Philip II of Spain king of both countries. This union however, did not last. The Portuguese revolted in 1640 and fought a long restoration war with Spain, leading to the eventual Spanish recognition of Portuguese sovereignty in 1688. It is for this reason that Spain and Portugal are today two nation states rather than one.

It is entirely an accident of history that Scotland likewise, is not a separate nation state from England. The Union of the crowns in 1603 was an unlikely end to a series of unlikely events. Moreover, it might well have broken up, especially because, owing to the execution of Charles I in 1649, there was a time when the Union of the crowns was broken. For six years Britain was ruled by Cromwell’s Protectorate. At this point it is easy to imagine how history might have played out differently. With civil war being fought throughout Britain there must have been times when it seemed unlikely that a Stuart king would again rule the whole of the UK. There was nothing inevitable also in the eventual political union of Scotland and England. At any point Scotland could have gone the way of Portugal and reasserted full sovereignty.

What would have been the result of this? Scotland’s position would be rather similar to that of Portugal today. The Portuguese speak a language which is similar to Spanish, but it is not fully comprehensible to Spaniards and thus has to be translated. If Scotland had not joined the Union, or if the Union had broken up, the Scots language would have remained the spoken and written language of daily use for Scots living in the Lowlands, as it was prior to the Union, and would have diverged further from English. Scottish Gaelic would also have remained an important feature of the life of the Highlands. After all, as late as the 18th century over 20% of Scots were monolingual Gaelic speakers. Without the pressure and influence of the English language, which came with the Union, Scotland  would have been very different linguistically from the place we know today. We would have been a bilingual society, speaking the historic languages of Scotland.

Describing this Scotland that might have been is to describe something romantic that appeals to a Scottish sense of patriotism. But it is also to describe a place and a people which are unfamiliar to us. I grew up speaking Doric, the form of Scots used in Aberdeenshire, but I struggle to understand the Scots that was common even in the 18th and 19th centuries, let alone earlier. When I read Walter Scott I frequently need to use the glossary. The vocabulary of Burns is quite remote from the language we hear on the street today. Like the vast majority of Scots I hardly speak a word of Gaelic. But, even as we regret how the language of the Gaels has been lost, it is also necessary to recognise that when Scotland was a bilingual society, it was also a very divided society. The division between the Highlands and the Lowlands was a real one with mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. A Lowlander considered a kilt to be the proper dress of a thief. Which side a person took during the Jacobite rebellions was to a considerable extent determined by which language he spoke.

The language, which I speak and to a large extent the culture that I recognise as mine, would have been massively different without the accident of history which saw Scotland join the Union. It might have been, under those circumstances, that we would now be learning English as a foreign language in order to do business in a language the rest of the world could understand. Three or four centuries of being in a Union with the other parts of the UK have influenced us in ways that we are hardly even aware of. To wish that the Union had never happened is to wish that I am someone other than I am. The Scot who would be today if the Union had never happened would be someone I might even struggle to converse with. There is no resurrecting that Scotland, because it really has been lost, not least because it has few connections with who we are today.

To deny that our language and our culture has been shaped by the Union is to suppose that the Scottish people have not changed since 1707, have not grown and developed and been influenced by our historical circumstances. But once we recognise that our language and our culture has to a large extent been shaped by the Union, it begins to seem strange that we should want to break up the very thing which has most influenced how we are today. It’s as if nationalists look back to a period remote from nearly everything we are today, a period we can barely comprehend, seeking to recreate a land that was lost. But even if we could recreate that lost Scotland, we could not understand anyone who lived there. It would be quite foreign to us. Like it or not, the Union has made us British. The Scotland that would have existed without the Union is another country, where we have never lived and where we would struggle to recognise ourselves. The denial of our Britishness, which is at the heart of the independence campaign, is to deny how we have been changed by the Union. It is really to deny ourselves and to resent or regret a part of each of our identities.

Scotland is part of the UK due to an accident of history, but that accident has had consequences and has changed each and every one of us. If Henry VIII’s sister had married someone else and Scotland had remained independent, the Scotland of today would have been massively different from the Scotland that we actually live in. It would have been as different as Portugal and Spain. The gap between these two Scotland’s is the amount that the Union has influenced us in terms of language, culture and history. It is the measure of our Britishness. To deny this is to deny even the language with which I write, what is familiar to me, and what I know of my culture. All of this has been influenced by the Union, all of this would not have been without the Union. Scottish nationalists would cut each of us off from a part of ourselves, for each of us is the product of the Union, influenced and changed by the common history that we share with the people in the other parts of the UK. The accidents of history have made us what we are. We are Scottish, but we are also British. To fail to understand this is to fail to understand Scotland, its history and its people.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Could an independent Scotland avoid austerity?

There have been a lot of complaints recently from Scottish independence supporters about cuts and austerity. Leaving the UK is portrayed as a way of avoiding all of the nasty things that the Conservatives are once again doing to us Scots. Not only would we get rid of the “bedroom tax” and other such horrors, we would get rid of the Tories to boot. What’s not to like?

The Tories have become a sort of mythical hate figure in Scotland that children learn about at their mother’s knee. I’ve met lots of Scots who read the Daily Mail and agree with much of what is written there. But on the suggestion that they might be Conservative supporters, they recoil in horror. The folk memory of Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax is just too strong, almost as if she were Cromwell in Ireland. But the danger is that the sort of prejudice, which most Scots feel against Tories, will prevent us from sensibly analysing the present economic situation in the UK and the potential economic situation of an independent Scotland.

Like most people I’ve received benefits. When I was a student there were full grants, plus dole and housing benefit during the holidays. I used to spend the summers studying and had absolutely no need to look for work. It was great. I benefited. I loved it and I’m very glad that I had such advantages. I spent around 9 years studying at public expense and came out of it with a considerable profit. Having benefited so much, it would hardly be sensible for me to oppose public spending or welfare. But that does not mean that I should be incapable of trying to understand the problems of today.

Let’s all agree that it would be great if the NHS had an unlimited budget, if everyone got as much unemployment and housing benefit as they desired and that pensions were twice average earnings. Fine, but all of these nice things have to be paid for. Where does the money come from? Obviously it comes from the wealth of a country. After all, poor countries tend to have a very limited welfare state. Now let’s look at the present economic situation in the UK. We have a national debt and we have a deficit. I used to be a bit confused about these terms until I began to think of them in a more manageable way. Let’s say, I run a small shop. In order to start my business I might have had to go to the bank and taken out a loan. That’s the scale of my debt. But in running my shop if I make a profit I am running a surplus, which I can use to pay down my debt, while if I make a loss I am running a deficit, which gradually increases my debt. Would anyone call a shopkeeper who continually ran a deficit wealthy? Obviously not. But neither should we call the UK wealthy. Our national debt amounts to £1.1 trillion, or £18,000 per person. Our deficit last year, despite all the talk of austerity, was nearly £100 billion. The UK has been running a deficit since 2001, which means we’ve been making a loss for over a decade.

What can a government do in these circumstances? It can raise taxes, cut spending and it can hope that economic growth will bring it more profit. But there’s a tricky balance. If you raise taxes too high, it will discourage growth. Clearly, if my small shop is taxed too highly, it is unlikely to make a profit. But what goes for shops goes for people, too. There’s a limit to how high a government can raise taxes without seriously damaging economic growth. At present, UK public spending as a percentage of GDP is around 45%. But ideally it would be somewhat lower. This is owing to the fact that when public spending rises above around 25% it begins to have an adverse impact on growth. There’s a trade-off between economic growth and funding the things we want, like welfare, the NHS and education. At 25% we would have ideal conditions for economic growth, but less than ideal social provision. Therefore, it is reasonable to sacrifice a certain amount of potential economic growth in order to pay for things which make our society more pleasant. But any government has to be aware that the nice things we want come from economic growth and so a balance has to be struck. Raise public spending too high and you will do lasting damage to the welfare state, because you will damage the source of its funding. What this means is that there comes a point when a government cannot sensibly continue to raise taxes, otherwise the economy would become a planned economy along Soviet lines. That way lies North Korea, poverty and madness. Politicians can debate where to put the line, but they cannot change the reality. If you want a competitive society with economic growth, you can only raise taxes so much.

Any government faced with the present UK economic circumstances would have to cut public spending. The Labour Party are often pretty good in a national crisis. They too would be making cuts. The only question then is where the cuts fall. The difficulty is that most public spending is on things we really want. The areas we spend most on are pensions 18%, welfare 17%, healthcare 17% and education 13%. So if we are to make any sort of serious cut in public spending, it is in these areas that we have to do it. That’s why making cuts is so painful.

Could Scotland avoid all of this by becoming independent? The problem is that an independent Scotland would also have a national debt. It would retain a proportion of the UK national debt. Dividing it according to population would make it somewhere around £100 billion. If an independent Scotland were to be immediately making a profit, we could use that profit to pay down a proportion of our national debt. But just like the UK now, Scotland would be making a loss. North Sea oil would be a large contributor to an independent Scotland’s budget, but we would still be running a deficit. Both sides of the independence debate dispute the size of an independent Scotland’s deficit, whether it would be smaller or larger than the rest of the UK. But it is uncontroversial to point out that an independent Scotland would be running a deficit. No one disputes this. Given then that Scotland would have a large national debt and would have a deficit, we would face the same choice as the UK does at present. Scotland’s public spending as a percentage of GDP is somewhat higher, at around 50%, than the the UK average as we already have a larger public sector and have certain benefits which are unavailable elsewhere. An independent Scotland could not sensibly raise taxes and indeed, Alex Salmond with good reason favours cutting corporation tax. What this means is that an independent Scotland would have to make public spending cuts. Some of these cuts would have to fall in areas like pensions, health, welfare and education, as these are the areas where we spend the most. But given that we want all of these nice things, public spending cuts would inevitably have to be painful.

The biggest danger to the future prosperity of an independent Scotland is if the Scottish public voted for independence thinking that this was a way of avoiding austerity, cuts and Tories. This might mean that a future Scottish government would be unable politically to make the same sorts of attempts as are at present being made by the UK government to cut the deficit and eventually bring the UK into profit. If an independent Scotland were to fail to address the issues surrounding an unsustainable deficit and an ever increasing national debt, the markets would soon look at the creditworthiness of this new nation. That way leads to bankruptcy and the fate of small nations like Greece and Cyprus.

An independent Scotland, is perfectly viable economically. Whether we would be better or worse of is a matter for debate. But a new nation cannot be built on false promises. Trying to con the Scottish people into voting for independence as a means of avoiding austerity and cuts, which while painful, are necessary is to fail to face up to reality. Supporters of independence have to show that they are willing to make hard economic choices, as failure to do so would lead to the long term destruction of our wealth and a lowering of our standard of living. There’s nothing fair about this except for the fact that it would harm us all equally.