Saturday 1 March 2014

The independence debate and the need for good neighbours

Like many Scots on both sides of the debate I’ve found the events of the past weeks rather scary. Perhaps it is in the nature of women not to be too keen on conflict and confrontation. But I would hope that quite a few men are also getting a bit sick of all the shouting. It’s all so pointless too for no one is listening. There’s not much chance of either side being able to explain their case if this continues. How do any of us expect to persuade our opponents or those who have yet to make up their minds if we aren’t even willing to debate sensibly? One of the problems is that the debate has suddenly become really emotional and has become less and less rational. There have been threats exchanged by politicians on all sides and these have tended towards escalation. Judging from the comment sections in newspapers, there are signs that people in other parts of the UK are beginning to notice the Scottish independence referendum. Where once blogs were dominated by Scots and often by independence supporters, now people from south of the border are giving vent to their opinions. They are rarely complementary to the First Minister and frequently quite hostile to the SNP. The general mood seems to be in favour of what George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander said about currency union. The attitude to independence is frequently one of good riddance; don’t expect much cooperation from us. In the meantime there have been a number of satirical pieces about Scotland, the SNP and Mr Salmond. I doubt Mr Salmond minds very much being mocked, not least because it may well increase his popularity in Scotland. Many independence supporters have given as good as they have got and insults have been traded over the border. It’s fair to say that many people in Scotland did not appreciate what Mr Osborne did to their best laid plans. Many people have no doubt been turned into independence supporters just to show the nasty Tory what we think of his intervention. The whole debate has come to resemble a Punch and Judy show, a pantomime where one side shouts “Oh no you can’t”, and the other replies “Oh yes we can”.

I’ve long been of the view that there is a balance of advantages and disadvantages on either side of the referendum debate. I tend to the view that it is in Scotland’s long term interest to remain in the UK. I also have an emotional attachment to the UK. But I can see the other fellow’s point of view. It is perfectly possible to put forward a reasonable case for Scottish independence and the balance of advantage and disadvantage can be made to tip decisively in favour of it when a Scot already has an emotional attachment to the goal of independence. We’re all a balance of heart and head. My disagreement with independence supporters is partly because I don’t feel what they feel and partly because I disagree with them over matters of politics and economics and the direction in which I want Scotland to go. But that’s no reason for us to fall out.

If Scotland were to become independent, I confess, I’d be sad, but like everyone else I’d get on with my life. This is my home. This is where my family and work is. I’ve nowhere else to go. I would hope that everything would work out and insofar as I could help it to work out, I’d do my bit. The most important thing for me in the event of independence would be that relations with the other parts of the UK should be as friendly and cooperative as possible. In this I’m sure independence supporters agree. I’ll confess, that I also agree with my SNP friends that if we were to gain independence, I would hope that it would be as “lite” a form as possible. Therefore I agree with their hopes that we would get to keep the pound and that there would be a currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). None of us much want our lives to be disrupted and to be honest I’m used to using pounds when I buy things. I don’t much fancy the alternative options. I suspect that most Scots on both sides of the debate feel much the same way.

The problem is that the alternative options are not ideal. Using the pound unofficially and without a central bank is incompatible with Scotland having a financial sector as large as it is and would put all of our savings at risk in the event of another financial crisis. It may also be incompatible with the Copenhagen Criteria for joining the EU. Establishing our own currency with a Scottish central bank would be the best option, but would damage our trade with rUK in a way far more damaging to us than to them. 70% of Scottish trade is with rUK, but only 10% of their trade is with us. Every Scottish business would have to pay the cost of converting currency and that cost would be passed on to us. Following Mr Salmond’s suggestion this could be called the “Alex” tax.  Moreover the size of the Scottish banking sector could overwhelm a Scottish central bank, once more putting all of our savings at risk. In the event of independence every Scot would be well advised to move their money to a bank south of the border.

It should be clear why the issue of currency has played such an important role in the debate. It is an issue that would affect our day to day lives in the event of independence and have a big influence on our individual prosperity. But it is not, I believe, the most important issue. In the event of independence, the most important priority must be to maintain as good a relationship with rUK as possible. We cannot change our geography. Our closest neighbour will always be England. If we fall out with them, life will be worse for all of us. But given that I think that it is the most important thing that we should get on with our neighbour, I also think that it is the most important thing that we should stop threatening each other. I think that if Mr Salmond wins the independence referendum, he has a right to try to persuade rUK that a currency union would be in everyone’s interest. But we in Scotland should also be willing to respect that they may disagree. I read the report that the UK government produced on currency union. It is pretty dry stuff, but the reasoning is both detailed and logical. They do not oppose currency union because they are against the SNP or even against independence. They just don’t think it is a good idea. Politicians are also constrained by electorates. It was accepted by all sides that in order to join the Euro, the UK would need to have a referendum. But if a vote on whether to have a currency union with independent EU countries was needed, then logically a vote on whether the people of rUK wanted a currency union with an independent Scotland would also be needed. Indeed every crucial aspect of the divorce negotiations would have to be in accord with the will of the people south of the border. That’s what it means to live in a democracy. But If there were a referendum on currency union with Scotland, there is little doubt that the electorate in the rUK would vote against it. They might not, of course, and Scotland would have the right to try to persuade them, but we would have to accept as democrats that in the end just as we have a right to choose our destiny, so do they.

I’m not a lawyer and even if I were I’d probably end up disagreeing with myself, but whatever the legal situation I believe we really would have to accept under all circumstances a share of the debt that we have mutually built up over the centuries. If Scotland were to become independent, it would certainly be in our national interest to do so even if we could not obtain the currency union that we wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. We don’t want to make an enemy of our nearest neighbour. If an independent Scotland were willing to accept that we needed to establish our own currency arrangements along with a share of the national debt, a prize would await us that might otherwise forever be outwith our grasp. We could have a relationship with rUK similar to that which the Republic of Ireland enjoys at present. After a difficult divorce the Republic has become one of Britain’s closest allies and friends. I know that Mr Salmond has as his ideal a relationship between an independent Scotland and rUK probably closer and even more friendly than that between Britain and the Republic. But to be honest if he wants that sort of relationship he is going about it the wrong way.

In weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of independence one of the the most important factors must be how we would get on with our neighbours. If the price of independence is poor relations with rUK, I don’t see how it could ever be worth it. Good relations would clearly entail taking them at their word, accepting it if it turns out that are not interested in currency union, while accepting our share of the national debt regardless. If the First Minister were say something along the lines that he hoped to persuade, but would never threaten, if he were to outline alternative currency plans if his preferred currency union plan did not work out, it would not mean that I would vote for independence, but I would respect his honesty and integrity as would everyone else in Great Britain. It is really vital for Scotland that the First Minister should neither be held in contempt nor turned into a figure of fun. Some of what I read in the English papers in response to Scottish nationalism really scares me. If we became independent we would really need the help of our former countrymen. Their help would make the difference between success and struggle. But at the moment they are in no mood to help us at all. This must be regretted by both sides of the debate in Scotland for whether or not we are independent it is vital that good, friendly relations be maintained with people with whom we have lived for so long. There is only one thing more vital and that is that the divisions that have arisen in Scotland should be healed. I don’t agree with my independence supporting friends, but I respect them as fellow Scots and worthy opponents. Each side must accept the result of the referendum and from then on work together.