By Mike Taylor
Whatever the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, I think I’ll be able to say I enjoyed the run up to it. It’s great to see that a political issue has engaged so many.
Occasionally I think it may have gone too far – this morning I was queuing in Costa and half overheard a friend in front of me say, “oh, ok, go on, Yes”, in response to a question from the cashier. Intrigued, I butted in and asked why she was thinking that, and what had made up her mind. “Oh”, she said, a little taken aback, “I just fancied the waffles this morning”.
Yet amid all the campaigning, it seems that it’s the Yes campaign that is the noisiest – whether it’s the ongoing Facebook post bombardment or the shameless harassment of Jim Murphy. Partly, this noise comes from passion. And that’s great. But I also think it comes from the fact that it’s easier to build a hypothetical nation than it is to defend an existing one, and one that has flaws for all to see. So I thought I’d have a bash at redressing the balance and outlining why I think it’s best to vote No.
For me, the main arguments are: i) while politics can divide us temporarily, the people of this island belong together, ii) Scotland has more chance of prosperity as part of the UK than as a separate nation, iii) our institutions work better on a bigger scale, and iv) there are legitimate risks which are patronising and silly to dismiss as just ‘scaremongering’ or ‘negativity’.
The first point to make is that the debate shouldn’t be about today’s politics; it should be about deciding what makes a country for generations to come. One of the most commonly stated arguments for independence is that we should be independent so that Scots get what Scots vote for. Currently we have a Tory-led government governing a country with one Conservative MP – surely that can’t be right?
However, this is to argue that you build countries on politics, and I don’t think that’s true. Look around the world. In recent decades, New Yorkers and Californians have consistently voted for Democratic presidential candidates and Texans for Republican; yet half the time they are ruled by the other side. Closer to home, the North of England is more left wing than the South, yet there’s no call for the Independent Republic of Scousers just yet.
Thinking about it a different way, what should happen to the one independent Conservative constituency in Scotland? Under the ‘get what you vote for’ argument, it should become the Independent Republic of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. Clearly that is silly.
So, the question becomes: what should you base a nation on, if not politics? Grabbing a dictionary, a nation is defined as “A… people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”. And that’s just it, for me. There are so many more similarities than differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Millions of Scots live in England, and hundreds of thousands of English people in Scotland. We share values, and ideals like democracy and fairness. Our pastimes and sense of humour have their flavours, but are broadly similar, and our histories are entwined (World War II, for example). Why is it that I have more in common with someone from Glasgow than Newcastle, or Bristol than Shetland? Why split us apart? My point is simply that we make sense as a nation, which I view as being a community of similar people. Within that community, we are properly represented in both Westminster and by our own Parliament.
Another reason not to base a nation on current political divisions is that those divisions shift with time. Like Thomas Hardy said about marriage: “the error [of marriage]… is that of basing a permanent contract on a temporary feeling”. Political allegiances shift and change over time. Conservatives, believe it or not, weren’t the pariahs they are today, pre-Thatcher. And, in the future, can we be sure we’ll still be different to the rest of the UK? What if the English move back toward the left? We are building a country for centuries, not election cycles.
I’ve gotten a bit airy-fairy so let’s bring it down to earth. Scotland would have a stronger and more robust economic future as part of the UK. Both sides of the debate can produce economists quoting this or that figure; I wouldn’t trust any of them much. Instead, I prefer to think about it more on principles. What would an independent Scottish economy be like?
For one, more dependent on oil – an area I spend part of my day job researching. There’s nothing wrong with oil in itself, of course, but the problem comes when you consider that much of Scotland’s spending plans are based on oil revenue predictions. In my view, those predictions are worthless. Currently, the SNP assumes $100 a barrel, roughly today’s price, but since 1999 oil has traded at prices as low as $11. The price has run up hugely since, but there’s no guarantee it’ll stay high. Factors that decide the oil price – the global economy, war, OPEC policies, technology, oil discoveries round the world – are completely out of our control, so there’s no guarantee that the price won’t fall again. If the price of oil does drop, we’ll get less in tax revenue and the Scottish government will have to cut spending, or borrow more. More than that, oil companies will stop making the increasingly large investments required to get oil out of the ground (the easy stuff is gone; now it’s deeper down, and further out) – so it won’t matter how much oil is in the North Sea, because that’s precisely where it will stay. In short, it’s unwise to base your economy and spending plans on future oil revenue, which is precisely what the SNP is doing.
By contrast, being part of the UK helps to bring stability to the economy. When some areas slacken, others pick up. Britain may have an inflated financial sector and heated property market, but we got through the financial crisis in relatively decent shape. Ireland, too, had both these problems, but had less to fall back on when 2008-9 rolled around. An independent Scotland would have a narrower tax base, with fewer individuals and businesses to support spending, which makes us vulnerable. On top of this, the costly and time consuming re-entry into the EU (which will have to happen, according to Spain) will be destabilising.
On the economy more broadly, the UK brings a number of advantages to Scottish business. A large, easily accessible market, to start, combined with a consistent legal and regulatory environment that encourages investment. We’ll lose that as the economies drift apart over time. There’s also the fact of a common currency – but let’s not flog that horse much more (for what it’s worth, if Scotland did enter a currency union, we’d be controlled by spending and borrowing rules from Westminster without any representation in that government. We’d be even less independent than now!). I also think it’s valid to say that being part of the UK provides a wider job market for workers. Some complain young people are forced out of Scotland to look for work. I’m not sure I buy that, simply because many of the people I know went down south out of choice.
The last point I want to make is that many of our institutions can work better on a bigger scale. Take the NHS. A larger healthcare system gives more people greater access to specialist care. My sister, for example, was treated by experts from Manchester when diagnosed with a spinal condition. Research spending can be divided up amongst the best labs, regardless of borders, and so our science advances more quickly (hence the objection to independence from senior researchers).
In the world of sport, Scottish athletes gain access to better facilities. Chris Hoy spent much of his time training at English velodromes and the likes of Olympic gold medal winning rower and Scot Katherine Grainger train at GB facilities in England.
Aside from these benefits, an independent Scotland would have to needlessly duplicate many UK government functions at great expense. In all, you can get money more easily to where it needs to go without considering borders. It seems to me that the world needs fewer countries, and less division, not more.
I don’t mean to be negative, or to denigrate Scotland. But drawing a border across this island doesn’t make sense. As people, we are a community bound by many things, and when united can provide stability and opportunity for all citizens of the UK. I think Great Britain, for all its flaws, has achieved a lot in its history: amongst other things, the NHS and the welfare state, a comprehensive education system, and a free and open society. I expect more to come; and suspect it would be easier under one flag.