11 June 2020

Scottish independence is one of the great confidence tricks of our time

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The paradox of Scottish nationalism is that it commands strong, even at times majority support – and yet the foundations for the movement are so weak.

Compare it to other movements of the past. In the geographically closest parallel, the achievement of Irish independence (a revolt which a late attempt at redress could not stem) had, irrespective of the horrors of the civil war it loosed, a dignity and stature rooted in the centuries’ long experience of British abuse and neglect.

The Scots have had no such experience: on the contrary, they were and remain among the winners, the co-creators of the construction of the British state. Bankrupt by the folly and greed of a failed imperial coup; riven between a partially modernising lowlands and a still-tribal highlands, the first militantly (and intolerantly) Protestant, the second cleaving to the deposed Catholic Stuart line and its insistence on divine right, Scotland signed a Treaty of Union in 1707 which, after some years of stagnation, put it on the path of rapid and wildly successful industrial growth and thriving agriculture.

The treaty ensured access to a common market, common labour conditions and, in time, a common fiscal space which roughly equalised public spending throughout the United Kingdom. Religious intolerance gradually gave way to accommodation for all faiths; and the Union gave access to the cultures of the British Isles, while encouraging and funding the continued preservation of Scots culture itself – a culture which, much more than the English, had kept the memory and performance of song, dance and story going while nursing the distinctive regional cultures such as the wit and prickly pride of Glasgow.

After more than three centuries, the Scots nation has become an integral part of the British state, so deeply integrated that its post-independence unravelling from the UK would make the Brexit separation look straightforward. A certain loss would be the £10-12bn a year subsidy which Scotland receives from the Treasury under the long lamented (by the relatively-deprived English regions) but apparently unreformable Barnett formula. They’d also lose the kind of aid routinely available in an integrated economy, such as, among others, the furlough scheme which has saved over 370,000 Scottish jobs.

Scots have been beguiled for decades by assurances from the Scottish National Party that independence would put the country into the enviable league of the Scandinavian states, whose nominal GDP per head is $10-15,000 ahead of that of the UK. As it happens, so is Ireland’s, long a beacon for Scots nationalists as showing what independence can do for national wealth. Ireland’s strong showing in the nominal GDP stakes, however, relies heavily on a low tax regime – as low as 6.25% – for tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Dell, Google and Oracle, who locate their European headquarters there. Last November the EU made moves to force multinational companies to reveal how much profit they make and how little tax they pay in the various 28 member states. The moves were blocked by a coalition of low-taxers, including Ireland, Luxembourg and the Central European states. Were Scotland to be independent, it would likely follow their example in order to survice. So much for becoming Sweden 2.0.

The consistent drumbeat of wealth through separation, however, has left the SNP impaled – so far not electorally painfully – on a dilemma. Independence usually causes a drop in GDP, not a rise. Even in the cases of former Communist states of the Soviet bloc which recovered political and economic independence in the late 1980s, GDP fell and unemployment rose sharply. The Party’s latest economic programme for an independent state  – the Sustainable Growth Commission report of 2018 – does briefly and ambiguously refer to a decade of restrained public spending after secession – but hastens to assure readers that thereafter, it’s Scandinavia all the way.

Yet how that can be likely given the country would, as the programme makes clear: keep the pound sterling or a currency tied to it and thus out of the control of the new state; lose the annual Treasury subsidy; be faced with a hard border between itself and the rest of the UK to which it presently sends over 60% of its exports; and likely be forced to endure a prolonged period of accession to an EU not keen to be seen encouraging breakaway parts of other, potentially fissiparous countries – has never been answered.

One explanation for the paradox of a vastly risky leap into what nationalist enthusiasts call “Freedom!” lies in the flattery which has been spread over the country by the SNP – and the corresponding denigration of the English. The flattery plays on an old trope of the Scots’ superior moral standing, corresponding with the miserable, narrow-minded and elitist character of English public life – one made evident by the election to the Conservative leadership of Boris Johnson and the vote for Brexit by the English, compared with the just under two thirds vote for remaining in the EU in Scotland. The large figures in Scots culture and the heroes of the nationalists  – such as the poet and polemicist Hugh MacDiarmid, the intellectual Tom Nairn and a raft of post-war writers headed by the late Alasdair Gray and the novelist Irvine Welsh – see England as “a political state, formed on imperialist hegemonic structures”.

This confection relies on the skilful, daily weaving of a web of illusions. It seeks to revive the enmity to England from centuries of warfare which 1707 made impossible, while pushing a relentless narrative of present English slights and failures. It deliberately obscures the vast hurdles facing economic independence, and clings to an unquestioning faith in the goodness of the EU. It is, in short, one of the great political confidence tricks of the 21st century: and though I would still bet that my co-nationals will once more vote against it, the ersatz passion it has summoned may yet win out – and destroy the state which gives common citizenship to a diversity of peoples, with faults but also with real success.

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John Lloyd’s “Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot: the Great Mistake of Scottish Nationalism” was published by Polity in April.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.