If you thought you have been saved from an independence referendum campaign think again. The campaign to win a future independence referendum has already started and we can expect an incessant assault for the next two or three years, irrespective of the legal formalities. As ever, truth is the first casualty.
On Tuesday the Scottish Parliament will decide if it should seek the legal permission it requires to hold a second referendum on independence at the SNP’s preferred timing of between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019.
Although the SNP minority government is expected to win, thanks to the support of the Greens, we know already it will not lead to a referendum before the UK leaves the EU, because the Prime Minister has said the timing is wrong and there is no clear demonstration that the Scottish people want it. Indeed all the available evidence is that the collective mood is against it.
You might think the SNP Government must therefore return to its day job, and to some extent it must face the many crises of its own making that surround it, but that is to ignore its very real problem. The SNP behaves like a drug addict: it is hooked on campaigning for independence. It experienced its greatest high in the run-up to the referendum of 2014, but then the supply was suddenly cut off and it has been scrambling to get its regular fix ever since.
The rush of new members and the election results of 2015 and 2016 provided further highs but the law of diminishing returns is hurting and finding the next fix gets harder and harder – yet it can hardly eat, drink, think or talk of anything else than independence.
I have no doubt it does have politicians that try to think of the real problems confronting it now, and there must be ministers that want to do a good job, but independence is what drives its agenda and it is consuming the party in government in the process.
We can already see this in the latest skirmish around the economic case for independence, something that is widely acknowledged amongst many nationalists as beyond resuscitation. The reason for this is simple: from the SNP Government’s own figures were Scotland to be independent it would have the poorest public finances in the developed world, far worse than Greece and the worst in the OECD.
If Scotland had voted for independence in September 2014 and Alex Salmond had met his breathless timetable of breaking from the UK by March 2016 the country would have been bust. It would have required to be saved by an IMF loan for which the price would be public sector austerity delivering mass unemployment and large civil unrest. Instead we ducked the bullet and consequently have high employment and a growing economy.
Rather than confront the reasons why Scotland would be in such a dire state of affairs – namely that the Holyrood Government does more than it can afford, does it expensively and often for free, all while it earns too little and discourages those who could and would earn it more – the SNP is now turning towards rubbishing the only available economic statistics that reveal the truth.
Last week a number of senior SNP politicians sought in articles and on social media to rubbish the information provided by GERS, the annual publication of Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland. What is astonishing about this behaviour is that GERS is published by the SNP Government; it is an official publication overseen by impartial public servants in Scotland using statistics validated as conforming to recognised standards by international institutions. Indeed its past reports provided the basis for independence itself and formed the foundation for the SNP Government’s White Paper of November 2013.
Unfortunately the economic figures that looked attractive to Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon back then now suggest a Scottish deficit of £14.9 billion per year. With the SNP’s property taxes already falling short of projections that deficit is expected to get worse.
That starting point for independence – of finding £14.9bn or £2,800 for every person in Scotland is before any requirement for capital reserves of at least £40bn to support a separate Scottish currency or reserves to cover contingent liabilities such as increased EU membership fees, or future public sector debt servicing if Scotland is given the “junk” rating that was also reported last week.
Will the SNP Government defend its own officials or will it, without a second’s thought, sacrifice their reputations to help sow confusion in the public mind where there was once sufficient reliability and agreement to have a worthwhile debate?
So hooked have many in the nationalist movement become that they will not confront the economic cost to Scotland and its people when they have to go cold turkey. The campaigning would be over; Scotland would stand naked before the world – and with no one else to blame. This all comes with a word of caution to unionists. The UK government also lives beyond its means and has done so since 2003, when Gordon Brown put us on a trajectory towards continuing deficits and growing national debt. While the following coalition government managed to arrest this process by cutting the deficit successfully we are not expected to return to surplus until 2022. Scotland will still be in deficit at that time but with the right balance of economic policies that deliver savings in public expenditure and gains in tax revenues the day should come when it will be in surplus again.
As a unionist I want a prosperous Scotland, a Scotland in surplus – which means a Scotland contributing again to the UK pot rather than receiving from it. That is what solidarity and sharing of risk and opportunity means and I fully embrace the sharing principle. It is what being British must mean and requires. A Scotland that can help the rest of the UK in time of danger or need – just as the rest of the UK would help Scotland.
Relying upon Scotland’s current deficit to fight off independence is inherently a temporary and weak argument. What is required is an emotional and positive case to building and sharing in a better country – called Britain – and we should not wait for a referendum before presenting it.
l Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org