Saturday 23 August 2014

Don't trust someone who would say anything to win independence

I'm honestly not sure who will win the independence referendum. I follow polling and the odds that bookmakers give, but it is perfectly possible that they have made some huge systematic error.  We’ve never had an election like this before. Therefore I will continue to have doubts about whether my side will win right up until the final count. It’s always best anyway to suppose that your opponent has a good chance of winning. Aesop showed us this in his tale of the Hare and the Tortoise. Nationalists keep telling me that their canvassing shows that they are leading. I suspect that such canvassing has a certain inherent bias, but perhaps they are right, perhaps they are going to win. Anyway it is best for us to continue to worry and campaign as if they might. What would happen if they did?

There are two competing visions of what would happen after a Yes vote. These visions are to a large extent governed by our political persuasions. The trouble with politics is that it is rather like two lawyers in a court case. Each lawyer is trying to persuade a jury. But the ability to persuade is not necessarily related to truth. The innocent are often convicted, the guilty often go free. In any political campaign one party attempts to point out that everything would be so much better if we won and so much worse if the other side won. Thus likewise in the independence referendum the Yes camp attempts to point out the advantages of independence versus the disadvantages of remaining in the UK, the No camp does the reverse. Both sides are equally positive and negative. Sometimes both sides tend to exaggerate. All politicians in the end are about as trustworthy as lawyers. Sensible voters try to see through the spin.

There’s a tendency among nationalists to portray Westminster [i.e. whisper it softly English] politicians as uniquely dishonest. Until the independence referendum I’d never heard of the McCrone report or Alec Douglas Home’s apparent cheating of Scotland in 1979. But I find that the nationalists have been “nursing their wrath to keep it warm” all these years. At the same time if I point out aspects of their history that they would rather forget, they ask what relevance does this have to the referendum today. We know that Mr Salmond spent a large sum of public money in order to keep secret non-existent legal advice on the EU and Mr Swinney misrepresented or rather made up non-existent negotiations with the Bank of England about a currency union. So let’s admit that both Scottish and English politicians sometimes lie and in their attempts to persuade, just like lawyers, sometimes depart from the truth. Sensible voters try to see through these people and reach the truth for themselves.

Most nationalists want independence come what may. They are like the lawyer who wants to convict or acquit his client. There is nothing I can do to persuade a committed nationalist, because he would want independence even if it would make us poorer. But the task is to persuade the jury that Scotland would be richer. That’s what he would say even if he knew that it was not going to be the case. When someone is clearly desperate to persuade, it’s always worth remembering that he will try to come up with any apparently persuasive argument in order to win his case.

But would Scotland be richer? I honestly don’t know for sure. I believe that Scotland neither subsidises the other parts of the UK nor do we receive a subsidy. Of course this varies from year to year, but we come out of the arrangement about equal. How things would go with independence crucially depends on things we don’t know. In order to continue breaking even, we would need the arrangements that we have right now to continue much as they do. We would thus need a currency union, sterlingisation would leave us worse off, perhaps much worse off, we would need the UK single market not to be disrupted, we would need the EU single market not to be damaged and for us to have continued access to it and we would need negotiations with the UK after a Yes vote to be harmonious. If any one of these things did not happen independence would be liable to leave us worse off.  

Independence is clearly possible. If countries like Latvia can become independent Scotland obviously could also. But most Scots probably haven’t talked with Latvians about how independence went. If they did, they’d find out that independence was a bit of a struggle and that the struggle continues today. I’d have an awful lot more respect for Scottish nationalists if they were similarly honest and simply said independence would mean we’d have some difficult, uncertain times ahead, but in the end it would be worth it. I might not agree, but I’d respect the position.

So how would things go after a Yes vote? The SNP position with regard to the crucial issues of currency union and EU membership is that everyone else is lying but us. Again this is like in the trial; the lawyer is trying to persuade the jury that the defendant is lying, not because he necessarily thinks that he is lying, but because he needs to say this in order to persuade the jury. The biggest problem with this argument though, is that politicians depend on public opinion. It’s just about possible to maintain that the wicked English are attempting to con the Scottish public again, that after a Yes vote they would announce solemnly that they were kidding us. It’s just about possible that years later we’d find secret documents showing how they'd set out to trick the Scots. I can see the appeal of this to someone who is rather paranoid and who doesn’t much care for the English anyway. But English public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to a currency union. They are not going to vote for a politician who suddenly changes his mind after a Yes vote and says we just said it to con the Scots.

I hope that if Scotland votes Yes that the UK and Scotland would remain on good terms. It’s in the interest of both sides to do so. But there is much uncertainty about how the negotiations would go. Threats have been made and it looks as if UK public opinion is minded to drive a hard bargain if we choose to leave the marriage. The problem for Scottish nationalists is that nationalism begets nationalism. The EU does not want to see a new wave of nationalism spreading from Scotland to the continent. Places like Spain have been democracies for a relatively short space of time and do not need secession movements to add to what is at present an economic catastrophe. Closer to home there are signs that Scottish independence might encourage English nationalism. If England became independent, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to cut public spending by around 35% in order to break even. That would be some legacy for all those supposedly left-wing independence supporters, who have no sense of solidarity with their fellow citizens of 300 years.

The future is uncertain. But we know that Mr Salmond’s independence plans depend crucially on the cooperation of others especially the UK and the EU. Failure to obtain that cooperation would for a number of years put Scotland in the position of facing a struggle, as is common when countries become independent. We’d probably have to tighten our belts and face some difficult years. It’s possible of course that everything after a Yes vote would turn out as Mr Salmond promises. Everyone else may be lying. But remember he is just like the lawyer. He doesn’t have to believe it himself, he just has to try to persuade the jury. i.e. us.