Separatism would put Scotland over a barrel
'ON YER bike, Jock!' That is the trenchant message from 59% of English voters to their Scottish partners of three centuries in the Union, if a recent ICM poll is to be believed. It recorded that percentage of respondents south of the Border wishing to see Scotland independent. That is higher than the support for separatism in Scotland.
It has long been the contention of thoughtful Unionists that if the moment ever came when there were more Scottish nationalists south of the Border than north of it, that would be when we found ourselves in serious trouble. It seems that moment is now. In the facile phraseology of the SNP's latest propaganda slogan, 'It's time!'
Or is it? It would really reward us to consider this question very carefully, knowledgeably and dispassionately. The English backlash, long forecast, is now with us and we should not be surprised. Unionists have long warned both the central and devolved governments that such provocations as preferential funding for Scotland (resented by 60% of the ICM poll's respondents) and Scottish MPs voting on exclusively English matters (denounced by 62%) would strain relations beyond endurance.
Labour, for reasons of party advantage, chose to leave these grievances unaddressed. If it reaps the whirlwind by losing Scotland, it will richly deserve that punishment. Labour bereft of its Scottish feudal array would be marginalised in English politics: the party won the general elections of 1950, 1964 and both elections of 1974 with the Scottish vote, after England had voted Tory. That little-advertised 'democratic deficit' may be about to be extinguished.
For Scots there are more important issues. What would independence mean? Do we really want it? Could we sustain it? Recently there has been an eruption of gut-instinct, 'go-for-it' nationalism, either uninformed or mainlining on dodgy dossiers that purport to show Scotland as possessed of untold wealth and resources, leeched upon by England and pulsating with an ill-defined energy that would propel it through all the magnetic fields of economic reality to a Shangri-La of prosperous, globally influential sovereignty.
The kernel of Scottish separatism has always been the conviction nationalists, what might be termed the hair-shirt purists: people whose devotion to the concept of sovereign nationhood is indifferent to any resultant decline in the standard of living. They cannot be argued with, except to point out that the large majority of Scots feel too much responsibility to their families to endorse a course of action that would impoverish them. Yet such classical nationalism prevailed in Ireland which, despite the 'Celtic tiger' phenomenon of recent times, was a very poor country during its first half-century of independence.
For the rest of us, the debate revolves around two issues: economic viability and the philosophical question of whether we truly want to break up the United Kingdom. The SNP has tried to update its economic argument from the 1970s with talk of income from renewable energy (aka polluting Scotland's land mass with obscene windmills from coast to coast); but, as its most recent policy initiative - a project to invest oil revenues in a special fund the nationalists claim would be worth 90bn in 10 years' time - demonstrates, it is just the tired old 1970s mantra 'It's Scotland's oil!'
The economic case for separatism stands or falls on oil income. So, how much of the North Sea oil would an independent Scotland own? Expert opinion differs. Some Whitehall sources have claimed it might be as little as 30%, due to the north-eastwards tilt of the Scottish Border, from the Solway to north of Berwick, extended into the North Sea, subject to international law. A more plausible analysis based on the principle of equidistance, employed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), might allocate Scotland 90%.
It would not matter. While economists are right to point to the volatile nature of oil prices as an unsuitable base for a national economy, a more potent objection is the declining nature of this asset. North Sea oil production peaked in 1999-2000 at around six million barrels; production is projected to fall to around 35% of that total sometime between 2010-2020.
Alex Salmond's visit to Norway, to investigate the prospects for his 90bn oil fund, should have included exposure to that country's preparations for oil stocks running out and its conflict with ecologists as it seeks to exploit the Barents Sea as a necessary alternative to the declining North Sea. Sweden is preparing to be oil-free by 2020. These are the Scandinavian nations the SNP likes to invoke - when it suits the agenda.
In the year Labour came to power, even if the entire oil revenues had been hypothecated to Scotland, it would still have left a fiscal deficit of 3.6bn. In 2004, combined UK and Scottish Executive spending in Scotland totalled 45.2bn, of which only 34bn was raised in tax here, leaving a deficit of 11.2bn. Today, with the Scottish budget alone approaching 30bn, the folly of supplying the deficit - which oil revenues could not plug - out of our own pockets should be evident.
Beyond that, there is the vandalism entailed in breaking up a Union three centuries old, reinforced by natural sea-girt boundaries and the shared experience of World Wars. The notion that Scotland's five million people would have a stronger say in the EU - or that the Brussels empire would bail us out economically while it is absorbing eastern European basket-case states - is absurd.
Such a plunge into the unknown would be an act of madness from which we would have a rude awakening. Yet it is only a cross on a ballot-paper away, thanks to devolution, which George Robertson fatuously predicted would "kill separatism stone dead". It will probably not happen next May, but the destabilising consequence of devolution is a Scotland doomed to face vertiginous uncertainty every four years.
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