Thursday, May 31, 2012

Scottish Independence: what are the chances of an honest debate?

It's an awfully long way from mid-Suffolk to the Scottish border, about five and a half hours by train, but as the son of a Scot, I take a passing intellectual interest in the debate that so dominates all political discussion up there.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceSo, let me nail my colours to the mast. If the Scottish people, however defined, decide that their desire for freedom is such that it can only be exercised through an independent state, it is not for the rest of us to say that they can't.

However, there is a catch. A free nation is also a community of informed citizens, called upon to make decisions on the basis of rather tricky things called 'facts'. And, rather disappointingly, I'm not entirely convinced that facts are going to be a core part of the debate.

You see, freedom costs. Oh yes, the alternatives aren't cost-free either, but there is a price to be paid. Often, where people seek independence, there is a cost in blood and treasure but, at least in this instance, blood is unlikely to be spilt. But there will be financial implications, and the pro-independence campaigners seem keen to avoid that issue thus far.

In strategic terms, that's probably quite sensible, as the issue is fearsomely complex. Which currency will an independent Scotland adopt? The Euro? The Pound? Will it go it alone? The first two options mean a pooling of sovereignty, the first through Brussels - and wildly popular that's proving to be, isn't it? - the second through London - you are kidding, aren't you? The third option leaves the new nation more vulnerable to the currency markets than most, but does offer the broadest range of monetary and fiscal tools. Each option comes with risks, each needs to be properly assessed.

International relationships are important too. Yes, Scotland would get a seat in the United Nations, but would have to apply for a place in the European Union. In the meantime, vast swathes of European Union legislation, directives and regulatory frameworks would be effectively imposed by fax from Brussels - ask the Norwegians what that means - hardly the independence that is supposedly on offer. In the modern era, sovereignty is increasingly pooled, be it within a federal state, or (whisper it quietly) a federal union. Independence is not necessarily what one thinks it is any more.

Finally, the terms of a 'divorce settlement'. I was interested to hear Angus Robertson, the SNP's Parliamentary Leader at Westminster, claiming that it was unfair that Scotland was not getting its fair share of UK defence spending. He ought to be more wary about arguments like that, especially as Scotland is perceived to have benefited from some quite generous provision in other areas, including disproportionate levels of public sector employment.

But if there is a separation, there will be a slice of the national debt to be agreed, and then serviced, there will be assets to be divided up, contracts to be honoured. The definition of a fair division will be a very difficult one - who gets the debt relating to bailing out the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland, for example.

It will undoubtedly be a tough negotiation, with both parties keen to get the best deal possible for their people, but amongst the range of possibilities are some pretty grim ones for Scots - potentially huge deficits in the short term, likely austerity in any event. There are rosier scenarios but, in the context of the current state of the United Kingdom economy, rosy is merely a paler shade of grey.

The real debate is a complex one, and the question is not just, "Do you want to be free?", but, "How much are you willing to sacrifice for it?".

And that's a question that the rest of us need to give some thought to as well. What deal are we, the English, the Welsh and the (Northern) Irish, willing to countenance? As pro-Union political parties, we have to be rather more upfront about the answer, and rather more transparent about the data.

The Scottish people deserve the very best that politicians on either side of the debate can offer, in terms of rhetoric and in terms of integrity. Whilst making an unwise call in terms of a vote for independence, if unwise it turns out to be, has an obvious, visible cost, remaining in a Union which holds Scotland back, if it does, will be a hidden burden on a proud people.

And let the Scots decide!

1 comment:

Caron said...

Probably the most sensible contribution to the debate so far. You're just angling to be Returning Officer, aren't you? I'm sure it could be arranged....