The issues that shall really determine Scottish independence

Scott Hill

Image © Saul Gordillo

So, we now know the all-important question: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yesterday, the Scottish government published its consultation paper[1] on an independence referendum to be staged in the autumn of 2014. Within the document, which outlined a path similar to what many would have predicted, it was stated that 16 and 17 year-olds should gain the right to vote, those voting should be residents of Scotland and, crucially, the possibility of a multi-option ballot was left open, meaning that Scots may get the opportunity to vote for full-fiscal autonomy; an option they seem to prefer[2].

Whilst the document remained largely controversy-free, a few troubling queries could be forthcoming. It seems odd that the majority of sportsmen representing Scotland in rugby and football, for example, will not be permitted to vote on the future of their country. However, this is an awkward issue for which there appears to be no easy way round. Either way, somebody out there with a strong affiliation for Scotland shall miss out on the vote. Perhaps by making eligible all those who can prove that they were born in Scotland would be the best solution. Others will point to the fact, in relation to 16 and 17 year-olds voting, that individuals not permitted by law to enjoy an alcoholic beverage or puff on a cigarette have no plausible right to vote. I, however, am quite relaxed about the proposition put forward by the SNP.

Nevertheless, now that the consultation document has been published, the two sides can get on with their next moves. Let the games commence! Talk thus far has surrounded economic issues such as currency and national debt. In many respects, the anti-independence brigade has dictated the debate to this point. The main complication – or spanner in the works, so to speak – was ignited when George Osborne decided to intervene[3], suggesting that an independent Scotland would have no choice but to join the doomed euro. A few years ago this may not have seemed such a conundrum, but, since the crisis in the eurozone erupted, who knows how Europe shall look in 4 or 5 years time. Osborne is counting on average Scots becoming so concerned by the issue of currency that they will stick to the status quo for the sake of their finances.

Equally of importance is the question over national debt. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has predicted that Scotland would be burdened with a “terrifying” £110bn national debt[4] once Britain had divided up its £1tr debt. Naturally, the SNP fought back, stating that the figures are “flawed” and pointing to the fact that North Sea oil and gas is a £1tr asset; ten times the value of Scotland’s share of British debt. Both arguments are undoubtedly compelling and only time will tell whether the Scots are buying Mr Salmond’s North-Sea-reserves-will-save-the-day rhetoric. What has been of great interest is the way in which the pro-independence/anti-independence roles have reversed somewhat.

It used to be, as Gerry Hassan[5] puts it, that Scottish nationalism was seen as a “romantic, irrational, sentimental throwback and ultimately, anti-progression and unmodern”. Instead, he argues, they “have become thoughtful, pragmatic nationalists as far as you could imagine from ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Trainspotting’ sentiment”. Conversely, those defending Britain – namely, every other party – are allowing their personal and emotional attachment to the concept of the UK drive their thought process. One of their key arguments is that Britain has achieved so much together; ignoring the fact that an independent Scotland with a strong social union with England could potentially achieve just as much.

But all of this is irrelevant. Historical tribal tussling that will inevitably settle nothing. The Scottish people shall look beyond petty currency feuds and complex debt issues. Head to any beer joint in Scotland and ask the locals what matters most to them. Do they appreciate Labour’s Douglas Alexander referring to Scottish independence as “the border issue?” Are they excited about the 2012 London Olympics (an event their taxes have helped fund, yet an event that shall not benefit them in any way)? Do they welcome the fact that Westminster politicians can send Scottish troops to go and die in illegal wars fighting for causes they deplore? For these are the real talking points that shall decide this referendum; ironically, the ones being ignored.

Scottish independence used to be considered a maverick, eccentric subject; one not to be brought up in polite society. Well, no more. People from all walks of life are participating in the conversation; yet, to our detriment, some of the best opinion is hidden from public gaze. Rather than hear the voices of ordinary, everyday Scots we are treated to the uninformed, ignorant noises bellowing out of London press offices and studios. Take Melanie Phillips’ recent comments[6] in the Daily Mail: “England is fed up to the back teeth with the Scots pocketing a whacking subsidy from Westminster while constantly – and offensively – whingeing about England.” Her argument then worsens as she asserts that “if Scotland has a referendum on its independence, then, in any just universe, the rest of the UK must vote on the proposal.”

It is this kind of anti-Scottish London commentary that will lead to the break-up of the UK; not solely Alex Salmond and his merciless posse of nationalists. Firstly, the Scots resent the accusation of being subsidy junkies on account of the fact that they represent 8.4% of the UK’s total population, yet generate 9.4% of its annual revenues in tax[7]. This short, sharp fact immediately destroys Phillips’ first argument. Her second, that the populations of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must vote on Scottish independence, is as absurd as saying that France, Germany and Italy have the right to vote whether or not England be allowed to remain in the European Union. I may be wrong, but would suggest that this hypothetical would be considered highly objectionable by Ms Phillips.

The small print is what counts most in this ongoing dispute; not the big over-arching contentions. David Cameron and George Osborne would do well not to interfere in the unionist strategy and keep input to an absolute minimum. Any involvement from them, or any significant Conservative big-hitters for that matter, would play right into Mr Salmond’s hands. He is banking on unpopular Westminster politicians weighing in with their clumsy contributions. Furthermore, the London commentariat need to either bolster their seemingly marginal knowledge of Scottish affairs or quit tackling the issue altogether. Ignorance on the part of unionists is making up the minds of undecided Scots. Nationalists will always be nationalists; unionists will always be unionists; but it is the floating, undecided mass that shall have the biggest impact on the UK and it may well be distinct attitudes that sway them as opposed to distinct policies.

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