The Union: a gamble worth taking?

Darling is right to highlight the risks of Scottish independence, but there are risks to staying in

In an interview published in the Observer last week, former Chancellor Alistair Darling warned of the "profound risks (and) immense downsides" of Scottish secession. Not only would Scotland's separation from the rest of the United Kingdom involve considerable "trauma and expense", he said, it would also generate "uncertainties (not) worth gambling on". The "uncertainties" to which Darling referred were principally economic. If an independent Scotland chose to remain within the British sterling zone, how would it cope with the Bank of England -- an institution over which it had no control -- setting its interest rates? If it opted for the euro, would it submit to a new Franco-German regime of tight fiscal discipline? As a small country, could it withstand the financial turbulence of another global banking crisis?

These questions are hugely important and the SNP cannot afford to ignore them if it is serious about convincing a majority of Scottish voters to back its plans for independence at the ballot box in 2014. But it would be naïve to think Darling raised them simply as an intellectual challenge to the nationalists. He didn't. Rather, by employing the language of "risk" and "uncertainty", he was trying to promote the idea that independence represents a dangerous leap into the unknown, while the Union, by contrast, offers only security, continuity and comfort. The problem, though, is that this is clearly not the case. For Scotland, remaining within the UK is at least as much of a gamble as going it alone.

Take the issue of Trident, Britain's fleet of nuclear armed submarines and the largest concentration of nuclear weapons anywhere in Europe. For the last 30 years its missile carrying component has been stationed at the Faslane base on the Firth of Clyde, barely an hour north of Glasgow. Had a nuclear confrontation between the USSR and the West been sparked during the Cold War, Scotland's largest city would have been in the firing line during Moscow's first attacks. Fortunately, no such confrontation occurred. But the threat from the Faslane and Coulport installations persists. The environmental devastation wrought by, say, a spillage of nuclear waste or a collision of vessels would be enormous, as would be the effect on the large human population centres near by. Yet, an independent Scotland could force the removal of Trident from Scottish waters and rid itself of that potential source of catastrophe.
A sovereign Scotland would also have the option not to participate in the kind of British military adventurism which, in recent years, has stoked resentment in the Middle East and helped make UK citizens the targets of Islamist terrorism. Reflecting its new status as a small, northern European nation-state, it could conduct its foreign affairs in the spirit of peaceful diplomatic cooperation, discarding the more belligerent approach to international relations it was forced to adopt as part of a major, if declining, world power. It could even radically reduce its defence expenditure from the £3.1bn per year it currently contributes to the UK's annual defence budget to £1.8bn in line with the Nordic average.
Another enormous gamble Scots could avoid by extracting themselves from the British political structure is that contained within the coalition government's strategy for economic recovery. As dole queues lengthen and growth flat-lines, it is becoming increasingly obvious that George Osborne's programme of radical austerity is not going to work. Neither does it appear to be reducing the UK government's massive debt burden, which is fast heading toward £1tr. This means the longer Scotland stays part of the Union, the larger the debt pile it will inherit if it ever leaves. So separation sooner rather than later could rescue Scots from an extended period of economic hardship in the future, as well as ensure that it, rather than the UK Exchequer, takes a majority share of revenues generated by North Sea oil production in the years to come.
Alistair Darling is entitled to issue stark, headline-grabbing warnings about the risks of Scottish independence and the instability the break-up of Britain might cause. Clearly, rhetoric of this sort is going to be central to the "Save the Union" campaign. But then he and his Unionist colleagues have no right to complain if their nationalist opponents decide to focus on the hidden and not so hidden risks embedded in the constitutional status-quo.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader agreed to back down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory"approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.