Three and a half years ago, the UK held a referendum on the way it wanted to conduct its politics. It was offered a new method of voting and a chance to end the current first past the post system. I remember it for two reasons. The first was that it was the first referendum I ever voted in. The second was because it was the first time that I became disillusioned with the concept that the side with the best arguments and ideas would triumph over status quo conservatism or party-political considerations.
I was wrong. By more than two to one, the voters of the UK decided that they didn’t want to use the alternative vote system. I had argued at length why this system was superior to first past the post: practically, mathematically, and morally. I had listened to the objections, many of them complete drivel (“it’s too complicated”, “it will require expensive voting machines” – and so on), and then patiently explained why these were groundless concerns. Two months out from the poll, AV still had a decent lead and I was hopeful. Yet over the following eight weeks, support collapsed and AV died a sad death.
Three and a half years later, and we are in the midst of another referendum campaign (albeit one that is profoundly more important than the AV vote). With the prospect of a ‘Yes’ vote all too possible, I cannot help but feel the same emotions that I did back in 2011. It seems like the side with the worse arguments are going to win again.
Unlike in 2011 however, I do not have a vote, for I live in England not Scotland. Yet the fact that I do not have a vote has somewhat puzzled me these last few weeks. After all, I see myself as a citizen of a single, unified country, with as much right to a say over the Cairngorms as Cornwall or Caenarfon. When a contract is signed, it takes the consent of all the parties to end it. Yet the social contract of the UK is potentially going to be torn up with less than 10% of the population having a say.
The arguments for independence are scant, and overall the package to voters appeals not to their sense of reason or decency, but to a raw emotional attachment to an ideal of a Scotland where all external adversaries, constraints and difficulties are merely wished away.
One of the political arguments for independence is that Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK, and therefore is under the yoke of an government out of tune with its people. By breaking free, Scotland will become a social democrat’s utopia. But much of its supposed left-wing image comes from its rejection of the Conservative party, a fact more driven by the decline of religious sectarianism than by a rise in left-wing sentiment. Most of the decline in Conservative popularity occurred before Margaret Thatcher (often portrayed as the Scots’ bogeyman) even took office. There are also important fundamental differences: Scotland is also more homogenous (96% white compared with 85% in England), better funded per capita and considerably less dense (Scotland has 65 people per km2, compared to England’s 400). It accepts far less immigrants than England.
Yet the idea Scotland is more left-wing than England is total nonsense. Not just wide of the mark, but completely and utterly untrue. Here is a poll from January 2013 by YouGov. In it, more people in Scotland support the government’s benefit cap, keeping benefit rises at 1% (below the rate of inflation) and ending jobseekers’ allowance for those who refuse work than in any region of England or Wales. Questions on housing benefit, the standard of NHS care or the future of the Falkland Islands score almost identically to London or the North of England. Scotland elected a UKIP MEP at the 2014 European Parliament elections, like every other region of Great Britain.
Economically, an independent Scotland would be worse off. I’ve studied Economics for 7 years, and from where I can see things there is nothing in the independent Scotland package that will favour the people of Scotland. Firstly, there is the currency issue, and secondly there is the issue of Scotland’s borrowing.
The currency issue has been much discussed, but has often generated more heat than light. Scotland has basically four options in the event of independence: currency union with the UK; ‘sterlingisation'; a new currency or the euro. These are all terrible options. A currency union would impose UK monetary and fiscal policy on Scotland – the institutions would be the same as now, except Scotland doesn’t get a vote and the Bank of England can freely ignore Scotland’s economic situation when setting interests rates. Sterlingisation (the process of keeping the pound unofficially, like Panama uses the dollar), while good for existing assets, would again deny Scotland any form of economic independence and would require great austerity to build up currency reserves to help stabilise the currency. A new currency would be best for Scotland long-term but would require again currency reserves to be accumulated through austerity. The euro, if it is not immediately obvious, is a weapon of mass impoverishment that has no proper economic justification for existing, other than it makes people in Brussels feel warm and fuzzy and it makes it easier for you to compare how much a holiday costs in different EU countries.
Scotland’s borrowing situation would be substantially different to at present. Scotland will lose a considerable source of income in the form of its net subsidy from the rest of the UK, and while it may have some oil to tide it over for a few years, this will be a mere molehill in the demographic mountain that is Scotland’s ageing population. Scotland will have an accumulating national debt from this, and it will also be a new country joining the international markets. As a smaller and less well established country to the UK, it will pay higher rates of interest on its borrowing and this will cause money to be diverted across from more useful sources of spending, such as education or healthcare. In addition, the comments of Alex Salmond suggesting that Scotland will repudiate any existing UK debt allocated to it will hardly help matters.
While it is possible that in 30 or 40 years time, Scotland might be able to more closely tailor its economic policies to better suit its local population, the enormous costs incurred by the breakup of the Union and the creation of an independent state will be so large as to render this a false economy: it would be like cutting off your leg in anticipation of receiving a box of chocolates in sympathy from your work colleagues. Scotland will suffer a dead-weight loss. You can’t just zoom out to ignore this as a teething problem, for it will affect us significantly in the here-and-now; in the long run, as Keynes helpfully reminded us, “we are all dead“:
The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.
If Scotland left, what would England be left with? Today, a poll put the Labour lead at just 2%. Who is going to deliver a fair and progressive society? Is it the same government that introduced the bedroom tax, contemplated ending disabled students support and tripled tuition fees?
What do Scottish nationalists imagine will happen in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote? That David Cameron will stand up and say “I was wrong, I repent”? Or will he say “Scotland is an independent country now, it can raise its own money”, then slash its public spending (and terminate the Barnet formula) before riding back into No 10 six months later as the English knight-in-shining armour?
Both countries will be left with governments that are more prickly and nationalistic (and therefore more internally self-absorbed and indifferent to social justice), and social progress will be put on hold while the two governments spend the next three, four, five or more years trying to squeeze as many pounds of flesh out of each other as possible. Is it any surprise to learn that some ring-wing interests are keen to see an independent Scotland emerge so they can re-establish the ‘normal terms of debate’?
A fantastic example of this ‘lose-lose’ situation – the beggar-thy-neighbour principle writ large – is that of the nuclear deterrent. The SNP are committed to moving the Trident missile system out, and therefore the people of the rest of the UK are expected to shoulder the cost of moving the nukes south of the border. Meanwhile the newly independent Scotland will joins the NATO alliance and thus gets to free-ride on the NATO nuclear umbrella of the USA, (rest of the) UK and France. End result: exactly as now, except a bunch of Scottish people will be unemployed and the UK has had to spend a few billion pounds on the removal bill, which could have been spent on plenty of other more socially useful outcomes.
The coalition of groups backing the Yes campaign are so loosely held together that they haven’t got a cats’ chance in hell of getting on after independence – can the Greens and the oil barons really have similar visions for an independent Scotland – and the ethereal concept of independence has replaced any hard discussion of what such a Scotland might look like for fear of causing division or discord. Merely by believing that independence will bring about a better Scotland won’t make it happen.
What I find most pernicious about the whole referendum debate is the idea that if you’re not both Scottish by birth and a committed nationalist, then you have absolutely no right to comment on the debate and are actively trying to undermine Scotland. JK Rowling called this behaviour “death eaterish”, which was an excellent turn of phrase. The Prime Minister and the other party leaders, instead of representing 88% of the votes cast at the last general election, are portrayed as interloping day-trippers who lack all legitimacy (Ed Miliband was later mobbed). A journalist who dares ask Alex Salmond difficult questions in an unflattering manner and gives him an equally difficult write-up is portrayed as biased and faces calls to be sacked. The Office of Budget Responsibility (composed of fair-minded and dedicated people with no axe to grind) is slanted as a grouping of incompetent buffoons. Veteran journalists describe the situation as ugly and intimidating.
Nationalism is a pointless ideology (Orwell called it “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”). It is absurd to define yourself and your political purpose solely on the basis of your nationality or culture. It inevitably leads to sectarianism, bitterness and division. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your nationality; I am proud of being British. But my Britishness no more completely defines me or my views or outlook than any other single characteristic of my personality, such as the facts that I am gay, university-educated or able to speak Spanish.
We live in a meaningless world which lacks a defining truth or moral order. Instead we have to define meaning and create for ourselves purpose through our values and ethical principles. In watching the referendum debate from afar, I have come to the conclusion that nationalism, and building barriers through borders, is not one of my values.
My values lie in a vision and belief in a society where no matter where you come from, you can rise to do great things and live a happy and prosperous life. Is this objective more achievable under independence? It is not. It will set two at-present peaceful groups at daggers for the next decade, it will bring about totally unnecessary social costs, it will make it difficult for a progressive UK government to get elected and it will garb a damaging intellectual tradition with the cloak of democratic legitimacy. For these reasons, I can only urge a No vote in tomorrow’s referendum.
The irony of the AV referendum was that it was very strongly supported by UKIP (who were at the time still a marginal and obscure footnote to elections results), meaning that if it were re-proposed now, there might be all the chance that AV would pass.
It is hardly likely that this referendum will settle things. Aside from the enormous tumult it will unleash, if the referendum is close, the likely outcome is that just over the half the population will have voted the opposite to the other (just under a) half. What are the losers expected to do? Sit on their hands? Bow down and worship the new (or old order)?
What if there are regional imbalances? The North of Scotland votes Yes, the Borders (or Shetland) votes No? Would the Borders be able to stay with the UK and the rest depart?
Margaret Thatcher, quoting Clement Atlee, once stated that the referendum is “a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators”. She argued that it was incompatible with our tradition of representative democracy, which sought to represent the views of all the people and not just the largest 51%.
It is hardly the case that referendums settle things conclusively either. In 1975, the UK voted to join the European Community by a two to one majority. Yet less than eight years later the Labour manifesto was calling for withdrawal, and a few years after that the Conservative party split in half on the issue of creating the EU as a successor to the Community. From then on the issue of Europe has never ceased to come up and continues to bubble away furiously with the rise of UKIP.
It’s interesting that Scottish people are quite favourable to independence and English people are not (opinion polls put English opinion on 81% No). How much of this is down to context? Scottish people will reap any of the (arguably few) rewards of independence, English people will suffer many of the costs. Is it morally fair to just allow Scottish people the say over whether Scotland should be independent? John Rawls, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice, argued that the only fair way of determining between (in this case) the Union or independent Scotland would be through a ‘veil of ignorance':
“If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.”