Thursday 1 April 2021

Cloud Salmondland


The Scottish independence movement has now split into its gradualist wing (SNP) and its fundamentalist wing (Alba). We don’t yet know whether this will lead to a substantial increase in Scottish nationalist MSPs. In theory it might be advantageous to the independence movement, but it might also confuse voters who are not usually keen on splits. It is likely also to damage the chances of the Scottish Greens. Alba seats may be at the expense of Greens.  But although the number of independence supporting MSPs is clearly important, it won’t change the fundamentals.

Imagine the SNP fails to win an overall majority but depends on Alba seats and perhaps some Greens too. Whatever strategy the split independence movement pursues will depend on them coming to an agreement. Sturgeon’s SNP are likely to continue to try to persuade the British Government to allow a second independence referendum. But would the SNP support alternatives such as holding an advisory referendum, an illegal referendum or attempts to achieve independence without a referendum at all?

The SNP are going to have more seats than the Greens or Alba, so it will be up to Nicola Sturgeon. Neither Alex Salmond nor anyone else is going to be able to force alternative arrangements unless the majority of SNP MSPs agree. But this is no different from the present circumstance. Nicola Sturgeon periodically demands a referendum, the British Prime Minister says No, and we continue as before.

What if there were considerably more independence supporting MSPs than now and a super majority was achieved? It would depend on how it was achieved. If the SNP, Alba and Greens won 70% of the seats, but won less than 50% of the vote, it would be easy for Boris Johnson to argue that there is no majority  for a second referendum and the situation isn’t really different to that in 2014. He might also recommend a change in the voting system for Holyrood elections. Allocating seats on a simple proportional basis would be both clearer and fairer. Alba’s attempt to game the system if it succeeds will be dismissed merely as a ruse.

The problem for the independence movement is that while it might just have the numbers to win a legal independence referendum with British Government permission, it lacks the numbers to force through its alternatives. Worse it lacks the economic conditions to do so.

Scotland may well be running a 26-28% deficit this year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks so, but what do they know!  

Public spending is also 30% higher in Scotland not because taxes and other forms of revenue are higher, but overwhelmingly because of the money Scotland receives from the Treasury. An independent Scotland would have to find a way to meet the shortfall or else cut that spending. But there is no obvious or plausible explanation from the SNP how independence by itself could lead to such immediate economic growth that it could overcome the loss of revenue from the British Government.   

An advisory referendum would be boycotted by Pro UK people, but even if it wasn’t, how could it be used to force independence? The intention would be to put pressure on the British Government to grant a legal referendum, but it would be easy to portray an advisory referendum on an issue outside the remit of the Scottish Parliament as being an expensive waste of time that could be ignored. This leaves only the fundamentalist alternative of a unilateral declaration of independence leading to independence negotiations with the British Government.

Lots of countries have become independent by such declarations, far more indeed than have become independent by means of referendums. But if you are going to try to secede in this way you are going to need rather more support than Scottish nationalism has. If the overwhelming majority of Scots wanted independence then a unilateral declaration by the Scottish Parliament might work, but even if the SNP, Alba and the Greens won an overwhelming number of MSPs that would not change the support for independence.

When the Scottish independence delegation set about trying to negotiate with the British Government nothing would force the British Government to negotiate back. It could merely point out that constitutional matters are outwith the remit of the Scottish Parliament and treat the delegation as lacking the competence to negotiate.

The biggest problem however that a unilateral declaration of independence would face is that the British Government at present is responsible for paying Scotland’s deficit. If the Scottish Government declared independence unilaterally, the British Government could unilaterally cut all Treasury funding to Scotland. Try running your newly declared independent country without recognition from Britain and the rest of the world, without funding and without a method of raising taxes or paying benefits.

If independence was the overwhelming choice of Scots, we might be able overcome the challenge of setting up a state without a transition period and without help either from Britain or anyone else. We might have the unity of purpose necessary to face together the problems of not having any trade deals with anyone and to do what it takes to cut spending and raise enough revenue to pay the bills, but how quickly would voters turn on the unilateralists when they found their benefits cut, their jobs lost and the price of their houses crashing.

The EU would be outside the reach of the unilateralist nationalists, because the EU requires applicants to have a deficit no more than 3% but more importantly, they must follow the rule of law. If the former UK decided not to recognise Scotland, there would be zero chance of us joining the EU. Spain does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, which prevents Kosovo from the joining the EU. There is nothing to force the former UK to recognise Scottish independence if it deemed it to have been achieved illegally. Unfortunately using the Scottish Parliament to decide on a reserved matter such as the constitution would be as illegal as Catalonia trying to achieve independence without Spain’s permission.

But the fundamental difficulty for Scottish nationalists is not gaining large numbers of MSPs nor even gaining the support of more than 50% of the electorate.  The problem is trying to come up with a way that Scotland could afford losing the money that comes from the Treasury without seeing the standard of living in Scotland falling like a stone. The idea that a unilateral declaration of independence even if successful would make us more prosperous simply ignores the consequences of following such a course of action.

Scottish nationalists tend not to believe that Scotland runs a deficit, but their lack of belief might conflict with reality if independence were really achieved. If the overwhelming majority of Scots were in favour of independence, we might think a drop in living standards was worth it. But with about half of the population opposed to independence we would become still more divided if my poverty could be attributed to your desire to gain independence during the worst economic crisis for decades. Some Scottish nationalists faced with the economic consequences of their choice might turn on the leaders they trusted too.

If I were a Scottish independence supporter, I would focus on trying to improve the economy so that we could afford independence. At present independence even if achieved by means of a legal referendum would crash the Scottish economy. Faced with the scale of the cuts and economic turmoil the attempt would have to be abandoned. To suppose that independence could be achieved illegally isn’t so much fundamentalism as cloud Salmondland. The risk isn’t so much that Salmondland becomes independent as that the fantasies holding it up give way to the reality of it crashing down.