Who’s afraid of Scottish independence?

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2014

Saltire - St Andrews Flag - Scotland - Some rights reserved by byronv2The last month has seen the ‘Yes Scotland’ independence campaign take a battering.

First, Mark Carney raised doubts about Alex Salmond’s plans for a post-independence currency union between Scotland and the remainder of the UK.

This warning was echoed when, with more naked partisanship, George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls teamed up to state they would each refuse to form such a currency union.

And then last Sunday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hammered in another nail when he said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.

Alex Salmond knows the risks if voters don’t feel safe voting for an independent Scotland. Collectively these interventions undermine both the economic and political case for Scotland to go it alone.

We don’t yet know what impact, if any, they have had on voting intentions for the referendum; and besides, there’s still a long way to go until September. I’ve not shifted from my view that the status quo will win and win handsomely. It usually does.

Personally, I’m much more ambivalent about the case for Scottish independence than most Lib Dems. (I’m afeard my co-editor Caron Lindsay may not speak to me again after this…)

I start from the simple principle of national self-determination. It’s up to Scots to decide if they want to remain within the UK. Just as it’s up to the people of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands to decide for themselves.

On the economics of it, no-one in truth knows how an independent Scotland would fare. It would certainly be a risk. A nation of five million is more vulnerable than a nation-within-a-union of 63 million to sudden economic vicissitudes. Similarly-sized Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden manage, though. Aren’t we liberals champions of the small- and medium-sized enterprise?

As for the currency, my guess is that – should an independent Scotland emerge – all three major parties would be more willing to negotiate than their noises-off currently indicate. After all, Scotland would remain our neighbour.

And even if they stuck firm to their pledge to veto currency union, Scotland could, if it wished, continue to use the British pound, as Sam Bowman has highlighted here.

Then there’s the politics of it. Barroso’s early move to check an independent Scotland’s ambitions to remain within the EU were inevitable. Why? Because he has to keep Spain sweet, and its right-wing government is anxious of any nationalities re-claiming their sovereignty. If Scotland can vote for independence and remain within the EU, then why not Catalonia or the Basque country or Galicia?

Such arguments are far more politically charged in Spain – a brutal civil war is likely to do that to you – than they are here, and the Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy won’t accept the principle of self-determination.

As a result, liberals should, I think, be wary of welcoming Barroso’s comments. They are made not in the interests of Scotland nor even of the UK. And, if the reality of an independent Scotland happened, then I expect not even Spain would stand in the way of Scotland joining the EU.

Devolution has worked for the Scots. As Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, has highlighted with a touch of envy: “Seven of the top 15 areas for economic growth in the UK between 1998 and 2008 were in Scotland and saw growth of over 70%. These include rural, urban and deprived areas.”

The latest ScotCen research indicates that 32% of Scots favour an extension of these powers (‘devo-max’), just short of full independence, including control of foreign and defence policy (31%). The distinction between ‘devo-max’ and full independence is far less than the rancour between the rival ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ camps would suggest, especially if an independent Scotland were to retain the pound and stay within the EU.

If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?”

Perhaps the biggest reason to oppose independence is the often unpleasant fervour of its proponents, including the notorious ‘cyber-nats’. But I don’t think we should entirely define what we are for by who we are against.

I believe in power being as close to the people as possible. Is ‘devo-max’ or full independence the best way to achieve that? That’s the key question Scots need to be able to answer by September. Ironically, it’s the one not on the ballot paper.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.