Wednesday 7 April 2021

What if Boris gave Salmond what he wants?


Alex Salmond apparently wants the Scottish Government to begin immediate negotiations for independence with the British Government if his Alba Party helps Scottish nationalists to gain a super majority. It would be amusing if Boris Johnson replied, there’s no need for negotiations you can have your independence immediately starting today.

The conditions for separation could be remarkably simple. Scotland would receive a proportional share, based on population, of UK debts and assets. Scots would have to choose whether they wished to be Scottish citizens or British citizens, they couldn’t be both and all Treasury funding to Scotland would cease immediately. The currency union between Scotland and the other parts of the UK would cease instantly and if Scotland chose to continue using the pound it would have to do so unilaterally in a similar way to how Montenegro uses the Euro. Failure to agree these terms would simply lead to the former UK not recognising Scotland, which would mean no one else would recognise it either. End of negotiations.

What would be the result for Scotland if this were to happen. Well Scotland would have debts that amounted to more than 100% of GDP. We would also have a deficit that was approaching 30%. The programme of vaccination in Scotland would cease. There would be no more furlough and no more support for Scottish businesses. Scotland would neither have a trade deal with the former UK nor with the EU nor indeed with anyone else. We would have to borrow on the international debt market with no reputation for paying back debt. We would be borrowing in someone else’s currency with no ability to print currency of our own. We would be trying to do so while already massively in debt and living beyond our means to the most unprecedented extent in modern times. We would in fact be immediately bankrupt.

A Scottish Government under these circumstances would have to go immediately to the IMF to request a loan, which would mean that the IMF would force the Scottish Government to implement a programme similar to the one that was imposed on Greece during the Euro debt crisis. This would mean that the IMF would be controlling the Scottish Government rather than the Scottish people. You could call this independence if you like, but the Scottish Government would have rather less room for manoeuvre than it does at present.

Of course, none of these things will happen. The Conservative Party put in its 2019 General Election manifesto that there would be no second referendum on independence in the course of this parliament. It didn’t say that this would he the case unless Alex Salmond gained a super-majority. This means that the Conservative manifesto on a reserved issue (independence), which the UK Government has a right to have a policy on, would be up against Alex Salmond’s manifesto commitment on an issue that the Scottish Parliament has no right to have a say on because it is not devolved.

It doesn’t matter how many pro-independence MSPs are elected. It doesn’t matter if they have a majority of one or a majority of thirty-one, the British Government can block a legal independence referendum for as long as it chooses and can refuse to negotiate with Alex Salmond or anyone else.

Of course, Scottish nationalists can attempt to achieve independence without the British Government’s permission. Many countries have historically gone down this route. But a super-majority in the Scottish Parliament neither helps nor hinders. If such a super-majority suggested that there was a super-majority of the Scottish public who wanted independence such tactics might succeed. But it doesn’t.

In order to be even reasonably sure of winning an independence referendum, Scottish nationalists would need 60% of the vote going into a campaign, but it’s not clear they even have a 50%. Trying to enter negotiations with a population as evenly divided as Scotland on independence would merely lead to chaos and perhaps partition.

The reason I suspect that the SNP is polling at 49% going into the Scottish Parliament election is that these voters support independence in theory, but not in practice. It’s precisely because the SNP has continually been denied a second referendum that voters including some Pro UK people think it is safe to vote for them. It is for this reason that it would be amusing if Boris Johnson gave into the Scottish nationalist demands by immediately offering independence.

“Why don’t you have a trial independence?” he might say. See how it goes for a year. You can start today with these conditions. If at any point you would prefer to go back to being a part of the UK, you just have to pick up the phone.  “Scottish independence” would not last a week.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about Pro UK tactics for the coming election. Much of it misses the point. The problem we have is that large numbers of Scottish voters support the SNP and other independence parties at a time which it is hard to imagine it being less propitious to begin a new nation state. This is a failure of opposition.

The political scandal involving Salmond and Sturgeon, plus Scotland’s dependence on Treasury money over the past year presented an open goal to Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but they missed.

With the opposition parties unable to win more than a handful of constituencies because they refuse to work together, it hardly matters if a party like All for Unity takes list seats from the Greens and Alba or from Lib Lab Con. What matters is that a message is sent to those parties that they must work together or else their MSPs will lose their cosy jobs.

The pity is that even if Alex Salmond helped achieve a super-majority in 2021, five years from now Lib Lab Con would likely still attempt the same tactics as they are using today and would still refuse to work together let alone create a single Pro UK party with a chance of winning constituencies. This is really your choice. Continually lose or try something different that could win.

The argument against Scottish independence is simply overwhelming. So much so that there is no reason to fear Alex Salmond, because his strategy is unachievable and therefore won’t be achieved.

The opposition in Scotland is pitiful not merely in terms of its personalities, but more importantly because it refuses to cooperate. It would be far better if Lib Lab Con were overwhelmingly defeated if that were the catalyst for them forming a single party.

We will depend on Boris Johnson saying No anyway whether the SNP plus Greens form a small majority or gain a super-majority with Salmond’s help. Better by far to at least try to win, than accept inevitable defeat in the long run for that is merely to be declinist.

I am less worried about Scottish independence now than in 2014. Scotland simply cannot afford it. What we need now is to build an opposition that is willing to make the argument against Sturgeon and Salmond with full force and without holding back.

Scottish nationalists would be horrified if Boris Johnson gave them independence in May and the attempt to achieve it would fail. That is how terrible the argument is. But we need a united opposition to make the case for British unity.