Why independence will disappoint the tartan libertarians

Scotland will not be forced to adopt a scorched earth approach to public spending if it leaves the UK.

The publication earlier this month of the first report by the Scottish government’s Fiscal Commission Working Group, into the macro-economics of independence, was met with a surprising degree of approval from an unlikely source. Writing for the conservative website Think Scotland, right-leaning journalist Alex Massie praised the report's apparent endorsement of austerity as the most effective economic strategy for Scotland should it leave the United Kingdom in the next few years: "[These findings] add weight to the notion that Scotland's future lies as a low-tax, flexible, nimble, enterprise…it seems quite probable that cutting public spending - for one reason or another - will be one of the first tasks facing an independent Scotland."

The idea that independence will provoke a shift to the right in Scotland, rather than to the left, as is commonly assumed, has been touted by a number of Scottish commentators for a while without having gained any real traction in mainstream debate. It tends to be composed of three parts. The first is that SNP leader Alex Salmond and his finance secretary John Swinney are closet Thatcherites who, despite their soft-left posturing on welfare and social issues, advance an aggressively neo-liberal economic agenda, as illustrated by their support for lower corporation taxes. The second is that an independent Scotland, carrying an inherited share of UK debt amounting to between 70 to 80 per cent of its GDP, will be under heavy pressure from the international financial markets (credit rating agencies, essentially) to demonstrate a commitment to ‘fiscal credibility’ in order to maintain low borrowing costs. And the third is that SNP plans for a currency union with the rest of the UK will tie Scotland to a fiscal stability pact which imposes severe restrictions on Edinburgh’s capacity to borrow, precipitating a reduction in debt-fuelled Scottish public expenditure.

Under these conditions, nationalist visions of an independent Scotland replicating the social achievements of high-spending Nordic welfare states would have to be abandoned. Instead, as Massie contends, the first independent Scottish government would need to observe strict budgetary constraints and take steps to liberate enterprise in an effort to soak up necessary public sector job losses. In this sense, independence would act as a disciplinary force against the prolifigate Scots, prying them away from their longstanding addiction to big government. (Something, ironically, successive Westminster administrations have failed to do.)

But the assumptions on which this libertarian fantasy rests are grossly exaggerated. To begin with, although there is a strong neo-liberal streak in SNP economic policy (hence the party’s position on corporation tax), Salmond and Swinney are not the Friedmanite ideologues some make them out to be. Indeed, in his repeated calls for increased capital expenditure as a means of growing the Scottish economy out of recession, the First Minister’s response to the financial crisis has followed a clear Keynesian logic. Likewise, Swinney’s decision to levy a charge on large supermarket retailers suggests a willingness to challenge commercial interests not commonly associated with free-market enthusiasts. The SNP’s aim of cutting Scottish defence spending and redirecting the savings towards more socially productive industries provides another indication of the nationalists' underlying loyalty to traditional centre-left principles.

The right’s insistence that, with independence, ‘market realities’ will amplify Scottish austerity is similarly unconvincing. According to the commission's report, between 2006 and 2011, including a geographical share of North Sea oil and gas output, Scotland’s average deficit was 5.1 per cent of its GDP. This compares favourably to the UK’s deficit of 6.4 per cent over the same period (p.158). What’s more, the report points out that by 2017, Scotland's population share of UK public sector net debt will be equivalent to 72 per cent of its GDP, five per cent lower than the UK’s anticipated share (p.170). By the standards of equivalent European countries, this represents a substantial debt burden. But it certainly isn’t unmanageable, nor does it make additional, radical cuts to public expenditure inevitable. At any rate, any future Scottish government, having witnessed the failure of the current coalition government’s deficit reduction strategy, will be acutely conscious of the effects austerity has on economic recovery.

The report also questions right-wing claims about the likely consequences of monetary union. While it concedes that any fiscal stability pact agreed between Edinburgh and London would have to enforce "discipline and sustainability" in the management of Scottish public finances, it simultaneously acknowledges the need to provide space for "national discretion to target instruments of fiscal policy to address key local challenges and take advantage of new opportunities" (p.132). In line with the lower debt and deficit levels Scotland is likely to enjoy outside the UK, this could allow for a limited programme of deficit-financed capital expenditure, with any subsequent increase in borrowing costs covered by the new sources of revenue independence would make available. These might include the aforementioned defence savings, a permanent tax on bankers’ bonuses (something Salmond has indicated he is sympathetic to) or a clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance, among other options.

Of course, the fact that Scotland’s overall fiscal position may improve slightly with independence doesn't mean an independent Scotland would escape ongoing economic difficulties. A heavy reliance on diminishing natural resources, massive inequalities of wealth and income and a burgeoning demographic crisis ensure Scotland, like the rest of the UK and most of the developed world, will be subject to severe financial pressures in the years ahead. There is, however, little to suggest those pressures are best alleviated by a scorched earth approach to public spending, and less still to back up the assertion that such an approach is necessary or unavoidable. The chances of independence transforming Scotland into some sort of socialist nirvana are slim; the chances of it turning Scotland into a libertarian paradise slimmer yet.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond holds up the signed agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence during a press conference in St Andrews House in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition