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Why the Yes campaign isn't winning the economic argument in "middle" Scotland

The Yes campaign is losing the economic argument – this could be more to do with establishment unionism than seeing through the SNP's "bluff".

The referendum debate is increasingly split along class lines. Photo: Getty

The economic case for Scottish independence practically makes itself. Britain is in headlong decline. During the 1970s average economic growth in the UK was just shy of 2.5 per cent. Over the course of the last 14 years it has been closer to 1.5 per cent. In the early 1980s the UK had a trade surplus (due, in part, to the boost provided by North Sea oil). These days, its trade deficit stands at more than £20bn. Owing to the erosion of trade union power under successive Conservative and Labour governments, Britain now has the second highest rate of low pay in the OECD. Six years after the crash, average UK earnings are still some-way below inflation and won’t return to their pre-recession peak until 2020.

And it gets worse. For the last three decades, Scottish growth rates have lagged behind growth rates in the rest of the UK, as well as in other comparably-sized European states. According to one recent study, as much as 70 per cent of the Scottish economy is foreign-owned. Because of the high concentration of manufacturing jobs north of the border, Scotland has been particularly badly hit by successive rounds of (Westminster-imposed) deindustrialisation, while the increasing focus on London-based finance as the motor of UK growth has locked Scotland into a monetary policy regime which actively undermines its manufacturing exports. So anyone who seriously believes Scotland benefits from the UK needs to explain why, when it comes to Scotland’s economy (particularly its industrial economy), the UK has such an abysmal record.

Yet, despite all this, large numbers of Scottish voters remain unconvinced by the economics of independence. Earlier this month, a YouGov poll showed that just 27 per cent of Scots believe Scotland would be better off outside the UK, while 49 per cent think it would be worse off. Put simply, the Yes campaign is losing the economic argument – an argument it has to win if it is to stand any chance of securing a majority for independence in September. Unionists are acutely aware of this, which is why, on Tuesday, George Osborne challenged the SNP to lay out what independence would mean for Scotland’s deficit, for its oil and for its currency. “These are the questions that shape all our lives”, Osborne said. “They dictate our mortgage and tax bills; the quality of our schools and hospitals; the safety of our jobs and opportunities of our children. Our economic security hangs on [the] answers.”

Although the SNP insists it has answered these questions, it’s clear that the broader nationalist message – which stresses the strength and untapped potential of Scotland’s economy – just isn’t getting through. But why? Better Together’s theory is that ordinary Scots see through the SNP’s “bluff”; that, as the “risks” of independence become clearer, more and more people are retreating back into the “safety and security” of the Union. There’s probably some truth to this. Many ordinary Scottish voters are still uncertain about what independence will actually entail and (ironically) seem hesitant about “gambling” on Scotland’s future while the effects of the financial crash still linger.

But there’s another theory. As most people now accept, the referendum debate is increasingly split along class lines, with poorer Scots disproportionately supportive of independence and wealthier Scots disproportionately opposed. For obvious reasons, voters who don’t own their own homes, run their own businesses or work well-paid jobs are keen on the idea of change, while those with relatively secure lives have a much greater stake in the status-quo. Better Together speaks directly to the self-interest of this latter group. Take Alastair Darling’s interview in the Daily Mail last week, in which the former Chancellor fretted about the effect independence might have on Scottish financial institutions, dismissed Nordic social democracy (“[it means] higher income tax and VAT up to 25 per cent”) and accused the SNP of “bullying” the CBI. This is establishment unionism in its purest form, completely detached from the sort of “progressive”, centre-left unionism the Labour Party claims to represent.

So far, the No campaign hasn’t had to work very hard to keep its affluent base on side. “Middle” Scotland hasn’t felt the rough edge of Britain’s post-war decline in the same way or to the same extent as “lower” Scotland has. In fact, even as the collapse of manufacturing devastated communities in Scotland’s (now Yes voting) former industrial heartlands, the financialisation of the Scottish economy created a whole new sector for Scottish professionals to thrive in. Can the Yes campaign convince middle-class Scots, in what little time is left before September, to change their minds? Or will Scotland’s doctor, lawyers and bankers prove themselves every bit as petulant and conservative as their counterparts in other parts of the UK?

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