THE No campaign can rubbish nationalist proposals but has to convince voters to do the same, writes Brian Monteith
Destroying the SNP’s economic credibility is not enough. With every week that passes, the SNP’s white paper is taken apart and the economic case is not just challenged, it is destroyed. Stage by stage the economic case is being deconstructed to the point of being atomised.
It is not that Scotland could not be a prosperous independent nation, of course it could, but the plans for the future offered by the SNP and endorsed by the Yes campaign are so incoherent that calling it all wishful thinking is actually being kind.
So lamentable has their economic case become – on currency, the European Union, higher education, oil revenues, childcare and many outrageous promises – that under the searing heat of being exposed for being so wrong so often, if this were any usual election campaign then the SNP would be imploding, its discipline breaking and its opponents pulling ahead.
But its leadership and supporters are not losing their nerve and breaking down behind the scenes, because this is far, far bigger than any election; it is about what one believes our country should be, not just for us but for our children and their children. Because if we decide to no longer remain British, there is no going back. The Nationalists are therefore holding together, lashed to the mast, willing to go down with their proposition, even when many of them know it is the wrong ship.
We have been told the terms of obtaining a formal currency union that will give enough assurance to businesses – that want the security of the Bank of England as a lender of last resort – involve giving up much of the independence that nationalists aspire to. Ironically we would have far greater fiscal independence under devolution than independence as proposed by the SNP. But even if we were willing to accept such a poor settlement, it is beyond doubt that any British party would be unable to get it through the Houses of Parliament without there first being a referendum, which would of course seal its fate.
As Professor Adam Tomkins points out consistently, it does not matter what the politicians say, or how sincere they are in rejecting a currency union, they would not be able to convince the British people to take Scotland back under its wing after it had just rejected the Union. There was an economic case for joining the euro but that was (thankfully) ignored and the same attitude would prevail if Scotland were to come knocking at the door after a thoroughly bruising referendum when the economic risk is all with the people remaining in the UK, not those that have left it.
On the European Union it is not the question of whether or not Scotland would eventually become a member that is important – for if the EU would take Ukraine (and it would if it could) then it would certainly take Scotland. The chief question that nationalists cannot answer is what the price of membership would be.
What we can be certain about is that Scotland’s share of Thatcher’s reduced UK’s membership fee would evaporate, Major’s remaining opt-outs from Maastricht would be gone and any other derogations would become dust. The UK’s range of zero VAT rates would be reduced or disappear altogether – and Scotland would have to comply with the rules allowing English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to receive free tuition at Scotland’s universities. Applicants to a club cannot expect to become members if they say they plan to break the rules after joining.
This means that free tuition fees at our universities must be abolished or the taxpayer will have to meet an even bigger bill. Put together with losing the funding of the UK’s research councils – of which we receive more than our equitable share – and again, devolution looks a far more positive position to be in.
It is not as if we can simply turn to oil revenues to pick up the tab. The figures used by the SNP are a serious overestimate on what can be expected – so much so that John Swinney has, embarrassingly, had to go back to his abacus and start counting again.
But the embarrassment does not end there, for the SNP’s flagship policy of offering more state childcare has become the biggest joke of all, with the publication last week of research by the Scottish Parliament showing that Scotland would need 40,000 more mothers than currently exist to make the sums add up. Now I know the SNP proposes to increase immigration by 100,000 to achieve enough economic growth to fund its pension commitments – but I did not realise that half of them would be reserved for only pregnant women or those already with children.
The pain continues: just this week Tory MSP Murdo Fraser pointed out that Alex Salmond’s promise to nationalise the Royal Mail, a private company that he will have no jurisdiction over, will lead to higher postal charges – Salmond’s Stamp Tax he calls it. All of these issues together – and there will no doubt be more difficult examples to come – make the case for independence, as proposed by the SNP and accepted by the Yes campaign, more than a leap in the dark. It is skydiving without a parachute.
And yet for all the surgical dissection of the SNP’s case, I do not believe it will make a significant impact on the outcome. There are always two sides to a coin and there are many ways of looking at economic issues. What will really drive people to vote Yes or No is what, ultimately, they feel about remaining part of the United Kingdom – and in this the Better Together campaign still has a great deal to do. The latest polls bear this out. It will come down to who people are willing to believe – the SNP political leadership or the Unionist political leadership.
To some extent the answer will be tribal, but there remains a large enough group of uncommitted voters with open minds, or those just scunnered by all politicians, for the result to remain in doubt. It is for that reason it is not enough for the No campaign to destroy the Yes campaign’s proposals; it has to reach into the hearts of voters and make them feel good about remaining both Scottish and British – rather in the way Eddie Izzard made many feel on Friday night in Edinburgh. Bravo and encore, I say.