Speaking in the Commons in 1922, Winston Churchill reflected on the changes which the Great War of 1914-18 had wrought across the globe. A “cataclysm” had “swept the world”, drastically changing “modes of thought” and “the whole outlook on affairs”, while imposing huge strains on institutions in almost every land. But, notwithstanding this worldwide catastrophe, some things remained unchanged. “As the deluge subsides,” Churchill famously remarked, “we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” The Irish Question that so preoccupied British politicians in the spring and early summer of 1914 hadn’t gone away.
A century on, will the Scottish Question, which so exercised commentators in the months before the Covid-19 crisis, possess the same enduring limpet-like purchase on politics? Or will coronavirus last so long, and have such transformative impacts on society and the economy, that when it is over Scots will find they have little appetite for another bout of major upheaval?
We have no idea. The recent Alex Salmond trial – puffed as the Scottish political sensation of the decade that would split the SNP – struggled for airtime as the media obsessed over coronavirus. Every Thursday evening Scots come out at eight o’clock to bang pots and clap for the NHS, just as they do in England – and with no perceptible sense that they are doing this exclusively for the NHS in Scotland. Rather an understated Britishness reigns. On the other hand, Nicola Sturgeon has been a reassuringly competent presence at the helm in Edinburgh, and the most obvious policy missteps have been those of the UK government in London. It is a standard rhetorical trope in nationalist circles to describe the UK as a “failed state”. Hyperbole, of course, but not without some traction in the bumbling Johnson era.
John Lloyd’s devastating argument against Scottish independence is predicated on pre-Covid-19 economic and fiscal realities. Of course, in our strange new normal these realities no longer constrain the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But even when the surreal pertains, there still has to be an eventual accounting. What the pandemic has done is to make the question of Scotland’s share of the UK’s ballooning government debt paramount in any future calculation of the viability of independence.
The economic prospects for independence were already dismal – as the SNP leadership knows all too well, but is reluctant to share too openly with the public. Evasion, spin and obfuscation of harsh truths are all, inevitably, part of the weather of democratic life; and there’s as much point in complaining about these as there is in moaning about grey cloud and drizzle. But sometimes the untruths involved are so enormous, their consequences and implications so devastating for the run of ordinary people, that the articulation of a big lie comes at a psychological cost to the politician.
The leading politicians of the SNP, Lloyd surmises, must experience this sort of foreboding. For they know that the first decade or more of Scottish independence, as an infant state struggles to establish its credibility with the markets, would necessarily be an era of deep cuts in public services. In particular, Scotland would no longer be the recipient of Barnett largesse; under the UK Treasury’s Barnett formula, Whitehall currently funnels to the Edinburgh government an extra £1,900 per head each year above English norms. An honest slogan for Scottish independence might be, Lloyd suggests: “It’s Scotland’s austerity.”
None of this is a laughing matter for the politicians involved. Certainly not for Nicola Sturgeon, grimly obsessed with independence from her youth, but equally committed to social justice. Does she ever wake up in the wee hours of the morning wondering whether the supposed long-run benefits of independence will make up for the certain material impoverishment of so many lives in the short to medium term? Lloyd asks whether the brightest and best in the SNP leadership “believe their vastly overconfident forecasts”. They cannot know whether an independent Scottish state will provide anything like the standards of prosperity that its citizens now enjoy as part of the sixth-largest economy in the world. “The prospect,” Lloyd conjectures, “for all their public confidence, must be, in reflective moments, terrifying for the party leaders.”
This is the SNP’s heart of darkness, the antithesis of the gleaming Scandinavian-style social democracy it outwardly promotes. Yet the horror is not confined to private nightmares. Conscious that the Pollyanna-ish optimism of the Scottish government’s prospectus for the 2014 referendum – the 2013 white paper “Scotland’s Future” – had not convinced the electorate of the viability of independence, the party commissioned a further study from its own Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC), headed by the former MSP Andrew Wilson and containing five academic economists on its 14- person board.
The report of the SGC, published in 2018, contrasted with the SNP’s 2013-14 vision of a prosperous oil-based future. Rather the SGC charted a decade of difficult slog. Although the SGC’s tilt away from milk-and-honey fantasy towards a grittier realism was tentative, and still accompanied by some selectively optimistic projections, that was enough to earn a few marks of disapprobation.
When the SGC report was formally launched at the SNP’s spring conference in 2019, its chair was not invited to speak. Moreover, the party’s hard “Scexit” zealots did not like the SGC’s recommendation that Scotland ties itself to sterling for the first decade of independence, and voted to amend the report accordingly. Not that the currency question yields any substantive positives for the nationalists. Professor Ronald MacDonald, Scotland’s leading expert on exchange-rate regimes, forecasts that the Scottish economy’s balance of payments deficit would produce a 30-40 per cent depreciation in the Scottish currency within five years of independence. The SGC’s commitment to a market economy also provoked howls of complaint from the nationalist ultra-left. The SGC report remains the SNP’s dirty semi-secret: technically in the public domain, but marginal to the national conversation.
Strangely enough, there’s another embarrassment that the SNP scarcely talks about these days: oil. Whereas for half a century – and as recently as the 2014 referendum – the SNP banged on about oil-based prosperity, in an age of Extinction Rebellion and with the price of oil futures occasionally dipping into negative numbers, oil has slipped from the agenda, without so much as a mumbled apology. Yet, as Lloyd notes, if we remove the environmental issue from the equation, the SNP was probably right to make the case for oil in the 1970s, when, in retrospect, there was an economically robust argument for Scottish independence. Intolerable as this must be to Scottish nationalists, independence was once a viable choice, but, crucially, is no longer: “Oil was the game changer which came too early in the game. Its growth, and that of the nationalists’ support, were out of sync.” If only the “political surge” had come sooner, or the “oil discoveries” had happened later, when the SNP had become the Scottish party of government, then independence could have made Scotland, with prudent governance, almost as rich as Norway. But that is no longer an option. The long-term future for North Sea oil looks bleak, with high decommissioning costs. How long, indeed, before we hear the disconcerting refrain, “It’s England’s oil”?
Lloyd makes clear that economically the case for remaining in the Union is a no-brainer. Why, then, have nationalists and unionists been running neck and neck in the opinion polls? In December 2019, just before the general election, one poll had independence on 46 per cent, and its opponents on 47 per cent. In late January, independence was on 43 per cent, the case for the union on 42 per cent. Why have matters been so delicately poised, when the economic case seems so overwhelming?
Partly it’s because of a complicated counterfactual calculus. Middle Scotland is attached to the Attlee welfare state; but how is that best preserved? In a UK where one wing of the governing Conservative Party – though not Boris Johnson himself – wants to expose post-Brexit Britain to the full gale of market forces? Or in an independent Scotland guided by social democratic principles? There is risk involved in either option. How can Scots be sure that the Barnett formula won’t be scaled back as the Johnson government attempts to consolidate its position in the forgotten north of England? But would that be worse than the hair-raising trapeze artistry involved in running Scottish public finances in the absence of the UK safety net? Although, as Lloyd demonstrates, Scotland currently enjoys the munificence of Barnett combined with a wide measure of political autonomy, the SNP never bothers to mention that the undoubted social benefits which nationalist rule has brought come “courtesy of a large subsidy from Westminster”.
Besides, we’ve already encountered the phenomenon of an electorate voting against its own interests in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Scotland is no different. There is a widespread desire to “take back control”. The twist, of course, is that in the case of Scotland, it is EU Remainers that the SNP is wooing with the sorts of arguments that Scotland’s double unionists – the 30 per cent of the voters who are pro-UK, pro-EU – rejected both in 2014 and in 2016. It is this group of voters that the SNP hopes desperately to win over, but of which the Johnson government still seems casually and obtusely oblivious. Every time a government minister plays to an English gallery of Brexiteers, a few small-c conservatives in Scotland decide to risk the ride on the independence roller-coaster. While the Union still “serves Scotland best”, Lloyd believes that “Brexit strains it”.
The problem derives ultimately from what Lloyd calls Britain’s “no-constitution constitution”, the loose ensemble of statutes, conventions, prerogative powers and unreflective practice under which the UK is governed. However unsatisfactory to the tidy-minded, Britain’s uncodified arrangements largely worked – until Brexit, the moment when, as Lloyd argues, the long-silent English nation made itself heard. We did not realise that our multinational democracy was so fragile, that its continued success required pan-British competitiveness between parties, and the absence of stark democratic differences between Scotland and England. But that, alas, came all too vividly into focus the morning after the Brexit referendum.
Worse still, first Brexit and now Covid-19 have sucked the wind out of constitutional reform initiatives. Moreover, as both Labour and the Conservatives have become largely English-based parties, so their focus has narrowed. Does a Conservative Party strongly inflected with English nationalism really have the will, or self-interest, to unpick the UK’s lopsidedly Anglocentric constitution, especially in the wake of coronavirus, when even Brexit finds itself relegated to the pending tray?
Under Theresa May and so far under Boris Johnson, the Tory withdrawal from the EU has blithely ignored the fundamental principles of the 1997-98 devolution settlement: that whatever was not specifically reserved to Westminster under the 1998 Scotland Act falls within the remit of the Scottish parliament. Wavering unionists are under the impression – misleading or not – that the sovereign Scottish nation that voted on 18 September 2014 to remain in partnership with the rest of the UK has subsequently been, as nationalists believe, “dissed” and arguably demoted to the humbling condition of England’s vassal state.
Lloyd is right to be worried about the polarising character of any future referendum. Would a 50 per cent +1 decision give an independent Scottish government the legitimacy to tackle the crisis in the public finances with which it would immediately be faced? Moreover, how does a binary referendum even begin to capture the ambiguities of the typical Middle Scottish voter: pro-UK, pro-EU and shown nothing but disrespect by Westminster since 2016, yet whose public services are cushioned by central government at an extra £1,900 a head per year above English levels? l
Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence
Polity Press, 224pp, £20
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show