Leader: Anti-Toryism is not enough to justify Scottish independence

If there is one nationalist slogan that even the most committed unionist will admit to finding attractive, it is: "No more Tory governments. Ever" - and yet the offer is subject to three important objections.

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If there is one Scottish nationalist slogan that even the most committed unionist will admit to finding attractive, it is: “No more Tory governments. Ever.” 

For long periods in recent history, Scotland has had policies imposed on it by Conservative governments that it did not elect and could not remove. At present, as Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, writes in his essay on page 22, the country is “subject to a Westminster coalition government led by the Tories”, who “have the grand total of one MP [out of 59] north of the border”. In 1989, it was the poll tax (introduced in Scotland a year before it arrived in England) that became a symbol of Conservative callousness; today, it is the bedroom tax. On 18 September, the people of Scotland will have a chance to ensure that no government ever again will be able to impose such measures without their democratic consent.

It is an argument that Mr Salmond makes with both passion and clarity in his essay. Devolution has allowed Scotland to pursue social-democratic policies abandoned by Westminster, such as free personal care for the elderly, free university tuition and the abolition of prescription charges. Independence would enable it to go even further. Yet this nationalist offer is subject to three important objections.

The first is that large regions of England, most notably the north-east, the north-west and inner London, have similarly endured policies that they did not vote for. Since a Labour-voting Scot has more in common with a Labour-voting Englishman than he does with a Tory-voting Scot, the solution is not for the two sides to part but for them to unite in solidarity. This argument, articulated today by Labour and most of the large trade unions, could persuade many Scots not to abandon their allies across the border.

The second is that there is a better-than-average chance that the next general election will result in the formation of a Labour government committed to many of the policies championed by Mr Salmond. Ed Miliband has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax, to halt the privatisation of the National Health Service, to invest in early-years education and childcare, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. After winning 41 of Scotland’s Westminster seats in 2010, Labour, though poorly led in Scotland and trailing behind the Scottish National Party in the polls, has the chance to increase its total in May 2015 as a result of a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats. The potential for an opposition victory undoubtedly makes Mr Salmond’s task that little bit harder.

The third is that the SNP has a duty to consider not just the benefits of independence – a permanently Tory-free Scotland – but the likely costs, too. At present, as part of the UK, Scotland enjoys the use of the pound, membership of the EU and access to lender-of-last-resort facilities through the Bank of England. As has become clear these past weeks, independence would put all of this at risk. In his essay, Mr Salmond suggests that Scotland would simply use the pound without permission (just as Ecuador and Panama use the US dollar) if Westminster enacts its threat to veto a currency union. This is far from a risk-free option. “Sterlingisation” would leave Scotland with no central bank (a precondition of EU membership), no lender of last resort (who would have bailed out RBS and HBOS?) and no control over its interest rates (which would be set by a foreign country). As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman warned on 24 February, “Scotland-on-the-pound would be in even worse shape than the euro countries.” In the case of the EU, there is no precedent for a secessionist state joining the organisation and José Manuel Barroso has made it clear that Scotland cannot hope simply to inherit the UK’s membership.

Mr Salmond’s arguments increasingly amount to a case for “devo max”, an option that would allow Scotland to achieve greater fiscal autonomy while remaining inside the UK and retaining the pound and EU membership – he already favours a “social” and “monarchical” union with England. 

If they were honest, more nationalists would acknowledge that what motivates them is not that Scotland would necessarily be more prosperous alone, but that there is something both glorious and dignified about an ancient nation finally achieving self-government. In the end, the nationalists’ cry is romantic, even irrational; it comes from the heart. 

This article appears in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue