Alex Massie: Time to think big on independence

Scots must consider what they would want an independent nation to look like, says Alex Massie. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Scots must consider what they would want an independent nation to look like, says Alex Massie. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE independence debate should be about something grander than the details of constitutional process – it should be about what kind of a nation we aspire to be, writes Alex Massie

POLITICIANS are often obliged to spout nonsense. Waffle and balderdash are part of the game, the inevitable consequence of being expected to have solutions for every ailment afflicting the national body politic. Nevertheless there are times when even armour-plated cynics with low expectations are taken aback.

By way of illustrating this, consider that Fiona Hyslop last week told an American audience that “the great debates and exchanges of letters that formed your constitution may find a modern echo in the discussions on Scotland’s future as we decide what kind of nation we want to be”. Indeed so, for who among us has not been struck by the thought that historians will one day rank Alex Salmond and Blair Jenkins alongside Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison?

We may scoff, rightly, at such delusions of grandeur and yet even as we do so we might pause and reflect that the independence debate should, to adapt Alasdair Gray, require us to talk as though we lived in the early days of a better nation. The referendum campaign is a chance to reimagine Scotland. If it fails to spark new thinking and fresh approaches we may one day lament a squandered opportunity.

For that reason alone, even those folk who disagree with its conclusions should salute the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project. Like the Radical Independence movement with which it is allied, the Common Weal idea, outlined in these pages by Robin McAlpine last week, is “an attempt to describe the sort of social and economic model of the Nordic countries, but in a distinctively Scottish context”.

The chief virtue of this project is that it begins with the assumption that independence offers a chance for a fresh start – from education to local taxation to the structure of the labour market – and that a truly different Scotland means something more than simply changing passports.

This is all notably more ambitious than anything produced by the SNP. Indeed, one of the odder features of this independence debate is that the people notionally leading it – the SNP – offer a remarkably timid vision for the future. Poke beneath the bluff assurances that an independent Scotland will be a land transformed and you discover that, in reality, much of the SNP prospectus is built on continuity instead of change. As a political strategy this makes some sense: the people are wary, so why scare them with change? Yet without change, what is the point of independence? This is the box in which the SNP have locked themselves.

The Common Weal analysis begins from the proposition that 30 years of Anglo-American “orthodoxy” has failed. A market-based philosophy of “competition and conflict” has run its course. Citizens, according to McAlpine, “must be allowed a clear say on what economy they want” and “if they want better jobs, it is not for self-defining markets to tell them they can’t have them”. This sounds splendid but what does it actually mean? If markets – or, rather, the private sector – are not going to create a stronger economy, who will?

Moreover, to quote McAlpine again, “people want stronger and more extensive social services, but they are told they must pay higher taxes”. This, he says, “is just myopic UK political dogma”. Or, if you prefer, elementary mathematics and accountancy. Indeed, McAlpine admits as much when he adds that we “certainly” need to take “a higher proportion of the nation’s GDP in tax”. At least this is honest. The SNP prefer to suggest that spending will be higher and taxes will be lower after independence. That’s a position as cute as it is fanciful.

Left-wing Scotland is fond of imagining that the Scottish people are enthused by the prospect of paying higher taxes. I fancy that this is wishful thinking, a variation on the pundits’ favourite fallacy that their particular preferences are shared by the electorate at large. According to the most recent Social Attitudes Survey, 57 per cent of voters think taxes will rise after independence. It is difficult to resist the thought that this suppresses enthusiasm for independence.

Moreover, the SNP’s version of independence is a heavily qualified prospectus. It may be that the monetary policy pursued by successive UK governments has been based upon the particular needs of the City of London at the expense of the wider economy. If this has hindered economic growth in Scotland, it has had even worse consequences for the once-mighty north of England. And yet if this is the case at present it will, in large part, remain true after independence so long as Scotland shares a currency – and a central bank – with the remaining parts of the UK.

There are other problems too. In the current issue of the Scottish Left Review Jim Mather, the man most responsible for the SNP’s “boardroom offensive”, endorses large chunks of the Common Weal approach. According to Mather, “a Union applying the same rates of taxes to all parts of Scotland as were applied to London and the South East would leave us unable to overcome the tendency for wealth and talent to be drawn into London”.

If that was true before the crash, he argues, it is even more obviously true today. But if this is so, Scotland cannot afford to levy punitively high taxes on either individuals or businesses. Socialism in One Country failed the Soviet Union; there’s little reason to suppose it can save Scotland. Not least because decisions made in London – on regulation, tax and much else – will inevitably restrain a Scottish government’s capacity for independent manoeuvre.

Even if you accept that an independent Scotland’s position might be relatively less parlous than the overall UK situation it scarcely follows that Scotland would not grapple choices almost as unpalatable as those facing George Osborne and his successors. Wishing it might be otherwise is no substitute for reality.

Moreover, the left’s assertion that Scotland’s future is a choice between Nordic success and solidarity and Anglo-American failure and inequality is disingenuous. There are other alternatives. Indeed, as a small but resource-rich English-speaking country Scotland has at least as much – and probably more – in common with Australia, New Zealand and Canada than with Sweden or Norway. These countries, which respectively rank 3rd, 4th and 6th on the Heritage Foundation’s index of Economic Freedom (the UK is 14th), are low-tax, free-market, competitive nations that weathered the financial crisis more effectively than most. If we are to absorb foreign lessons we might look to Wellington (where the top rate of income tax is a mere 33 per cent) or Ottawa as often as we cast our gaze across the North Sea.

Nevertheless, at least the Jimmy Reid Foundation is showing that there is still life on the Scottish left. It is asking some of the right questions even if its answers are riddled with contradictions and heroic dollops of wishful thinking. The independence debate should be about something grander than the details of constitutional process. It would, in a better country, be about the kind of nation we aspire to be. In that respect the radical left challenges SNP orthodoxy and the radical right to lift their game. If that happens there may yet be “Independence Papers” that do actually offer some faint echo of the Federalist Papers written, in large part, by that “bastard son of a Scots peddler” Alexander Hamilton.