Saturday 8 August 2020

Knowing the terms of the divorce


The major problem with democracy is that we always vote on promises not on reality. No one can predict the future, nor can politicians. When we voted in the General Election in 2019, we had no idea that Covid was coming. It has made party manifestos and much of the debate meaningless.

This problem is particularly acute in Scotland, because we no longer have shared facts. In 2014 there was still a sense that a discussion between Yes and No was possible. We merely differed in our interpretation of the facts and what they meant for the future. In 2020 we have Scottish nationalists who seriously believe that Scotland subsidises the other parts of Britain, which must mean that we are running a surplus, while the rest of us point to the Scottish Government’s own figures that suggest we are running a 7% deficit. There is no possibility of debate between someone who thinks Scotland is a cash cow and that is why England refuses to let it go and someone else who sees Scottish independence as new variant mad Nicola disease. We live in different worlds.

How do you bring reality to the Scottish voter about independence and its consequences?

Some people suggest giving Scotland full fiscal autonomy in a semi federal system. All the money spent in Scotland would have to raised in Scotland. If there were a deficit it would have to be paid for by Scotland borrowing on the international markets and by Scottish taxpayers raising revenue.

This amounts to giving Scotland independence.

If there were full fiscal autonomy Scotland would have to manage. We might have to go through a decade of austerity, but we would go through it.

If you treat Scotland as being separate from the other parts of the UK, you end up with separatism. If you give ever more powers to the Scottish Parliament you are simply taking small steps towards independence. If Scotland becomes autonomous, we will manage and then we will be ready for independence. Full fiscal autonomy amounts to de facto independence. It would break the last tie binding Britain together.

The economic argument is always secondary with independence movements. The American colonists did not worry about mortgages or currency when they started their war of independence. The Lithuanians did not worry about giving up the rouble when they broke free from the Soviet Union. There is not a single independence movement in history that was stopped by an economic argument, except perhaps Scottish nationalism in 2014.

If Scotland became independent, we would manage, because we would have to. We wouldn’t go back if times were tough, for twenty, or even one hundred years. That isn’t how these things work historically. After all Ireland went through decades of poverty and partition, but the Reunification Party of Ireland still gets zero votes.

If people want independence enough, they will have it no matter what the economic consequences. Identity trumps economics. It always has. It always will.

Scottish nationalism and the SNP have appropriated the Scottish identity. It is this that enables them to distort facts, because viewing everything through the lens of identity is more powerful than the facts themselves. It gives a tartan tint to your glasses that turns a deficit into a cash cow merely because you are a patriotic Scot.  

Economic facts and figures make no difference to these glasses and anyway Scottish nationalism will invent its own figures which will be believed simply because they are more patriotic. Yours will be ignored.

But reality cannot be ignored.

I am opposed to a second independence referendum for the simple reason that if you keep offering referendums on independence you will continue to fuel Scottish nationalism to the point where you lose. The day after losing a second referendum the SNP would demand a third.

If David Cameron had simply said No when Alex Salmond asked for a referendum and carefully explained that like every other European country referendums on secession were forbidden, there would have been a lot of hurt feelings in Scotland, a lot of discussion in newspapers, but there would have been no massive rise in Scottish nationalism, nor indeed much rise in support for the SNP. That rise was caused by the referendum campaign and the possibility of independence.

The British Government can keep saying No. It would be better still to say never. But the reason we are all excited about next year’s election for the Scottish Parliament is that we fear that if there is an independence supporting majority then the British Government will give in and we will face a second independence referendum. For this reason, we need a contingency plan. It is this.

Scots need to know the reality of independence before voting for it finally. There are two ways to achieve that.

The first is to prenegotiate everything. The second is to require two referendums. One to begin negotiations for independence the second to confirm it.

Prenegotiation would involve a team from the British Government and the Scottish Government with the involvement of the international community including the EU discussing what would happen if Scotland decided to become independent. This could be turned into a legal document like the Edinburgh Agreement

The key issues that the Scottish voter would need to know would be:

1. What currency would Scotland use?

2. What share of Britain’s national debt it would have?

3. Would it be able to join the EU and under what conditions and timeframe?

4. What would happen to the border between England and Scotland?

5. Would membership of Schengen be compatible with the Common Travel Area?

6. What rights if any would Scottish citizens have in the former UK.

7. Would the former UK allow joint citizenship for its former citizens in Scotland.

8. Who would pay the state pension of Scottish workers and how would it be affected by independence.

9. What would be the trade arrangements between the former UK and Scotland, and would tariffs be applied at the border?  

10. What would happen to shared British institutions such as the armed forces and the BBC.

If we knew the answers to all these questions, we would be better able to make an informed decision about independence.

The problem with prenegotiation is that it would lack the reality of Scotland having actually voted for independence. Would it be possible for both sides to negotiate in good faith if there had not been such a vote?

We have seen with the Brexit negotiations that it was only when Britain voted to leave that serious discussion got under way. This points towards an alternative.

Just as Nicola Sturgeon argued for a confirmatory referendum on Brexit, so too the British Government could require a third referendum on independence after the terms of the divorce were known. The same ten questions and more could be asked an answered during the transition period in which Scotland would remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. Only when all issues had been resolved would there be a referendum on the terms of the divorce. Scotland could accept them meaning independence would happen or decline them meaning independence would have been rejected.

This would anyway be fair and just because having lost the first referendum an SNP victory in a second would leave the score at one all.  

There is fantasy in Scotland about Scottish independence, because the SNP can say what it pleases about the future and be believed, because too many Scots view everything through those tartan tinted glasses. What we need is a dose of reality.

How would an independent Scotland with a national debt amounting to 100% of GDP be able to borrow on the international markets with no track record of paying back debt? What would this mean for taxation, mortgages, public spending and living standards in Scotland? Well let us discover the answers to all questions in the transition period between voting provisionally for independence and finally agreeing to the divorce. Let us then vote with our eyes open rather than misted by tartanry.

I don’t want to ever have to go through a second referendum on independence. I fear what it would do to Scotland. All forms of nationalism eventually become violent.  I would urge the British Government to refuse and make such referendums illegal. But if they are not going to do that, then at least provide the conditions for Scots to know exactly what we are voting for. Prenegotiation or a confirmatory referendum would each give us the chance to try before we buy and to reflect seriously on what we would gain as well as what we would lose. The issues are only partly economic. We need to point out to Scottish voters the whole reality of what they would lose if we ceased to be British.

If the case for Scottish independence is good enough the SNP have nothing to fear. If we must have a referendum give them two.