What would an independent Scotland look like?

I want to imagine that independence could be a success - but grubby, difficult questions about money, jobs and services are not going away.

I want to imagine a world where Scottish Independence is not the disaster some think it will be. I want to imagine a world where it is a success.

Imagine that Scotland enters a phase of unprecedented economic growth, spurred on by the oil revenues that have been diverted from it for all these years. Coupled with the lowest corporation taxes in Europe, the Scottish economy is thrumming along with luxurious healthcare, free education up to and beyond graduate level, a supportive welfare state and pensions that are the envy of the world. Tax revenues from oil and corporation tax help the budget deficit stay in check. Even though there is a heavy dependency on the oil price, the markets give Scotland the benefit of the doubt – the sovereign credit rating of Scottish government debt is higher than the UK and their government bond yields trade well below that of the UK gilt market.

Meanwhile, in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, the government badly miscalculated the benefits Scotland brought to the Union. Bereft of trade and oil revenues the provision of local and national services has gone into a rapid generational decline. Taxes are high for individuals and businesses in a vain attempt to balance the budget, which is continuing to rise to record levels, while the cuts to government spending only serve to exaggerate the decline.

People and businesses have been voting with their feet for some time now. Migration from the once prosperous South of England is increasing at an alarming rate; both businesses and the most talented people are leaving in their droves, sending English property prices, which peaked just before the referendum in 2014 into a long-term secular decline. Meanwhile, Scottish property prices continue to make new highs each month. This is causing problems not least of which is the increase in inequality of wealth distribution in Scotland as house building can’t keep pace with the growing population.

The Scottish government is struggling to control the effects of house price appreciation because it has retained the pound and tied itself to UK interest rates. Much as Hong Kong experienced when tied to the US dollar and it had US interest rates and Chinese growth rates, Scotland now has a high growth rate and generationally low interest rates. Inflation differentials are rising between Scotland and the UK; inflationary Scotland habitually has a cost of living much higher than the deflationary UK. Broad money supply is growing at an uncontrollable rate. There are concerns over Scotland’s financial institutions. There are dark mutterings about the “Darian Scheme” – the financial disaster that drove Scotland into the arms of the English in 1707.

At the same time South of England immigration is having a profound impact on the political landscape; the history of Scottish voting patterns since the Second World War shows that Scotland hasn’t always been a centre-left country as some assume. There was a time when it was split 50/50 between Labour and the Conservatives (see graph). The latent conservatism of Scotland has now been unleashed mainly because it is dissociated from English conservatism but also because the new immigrants have a tendency not to vote for Labour or Scottish Nationalists. Scotland has become Conservative while the UK, because of its problems, now habitually votes Labour, a reversal of the pre-referendum status quo.

Scotland had been exporting some 30,000 people annually until the late 1980s. However, this tailed off and as the referendum approached Scotland had already become a net importer of people. Official estimates of population growth had already expected the Scottish population to rise above 6m in the years following the referendum. But global recognition that “Scotland has done something right” has led to an influx of Scottish talent that left the country in the thirty years prior to the referendum. First and second generation Scots have returned and converted their nationality from Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and US back into Scottish passport holders, further pressurising housing shortages and claims on the state. Scotland population swells from 5.3m in to nearly 8m in just fifteen years...

It’s quite good fun to do this; to go into a world of utopian Scotland and a dystopian UK, and one could go on for some considerable time. We haven’t even imagined a Scottish financial system (would it cheapen the argument to be the first to call for the Scottish stock market index to be called the SNP500 or their government bonds Scottish Guilts?) But what does emerge is that if you think independence can be seen merely as an exercise in democratic extension, that it isn’t about grubby things like money and jobs and services, then you should think again. A fully independent Scotland will have profound effects on the very nature of Scotland for generations to come, not all of which were obvious at first sight or, ultimately, a price worth paying.

The headquarters of the Yes campaign in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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