Alf Young: Referendum dream could become nightmare

SNP leader Alex Salmond and deputy Nicola Sturgeon after the 2011 election. Picture: Jane Barlow
SNP leader Alex Salmond and deputy Nicola Sturgeon after the 2011 election. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE decision by the SNP to play the long game on the referendum campaign may result in their own downfall, writes Alf Young

ALONG the long, long road to referendum day, two features of our great debate on independence have remained stubbornly unchanged. The first is the measured balance of public opinion, consistently tipped more heavily No than Yes. Settled opinion seems becalmed, broadly where it sat at the outset. Even as don’t knows begin to make up their minds, that established split barely shifts a point or two either way.

The second constant is the oft-repeated cry from those who must eventually decide this question that, despite a door-stopper of a white paper and politicians who can talk of little else, there are simply not enough convincing answers about what voting Yes or No will actually mean for our everyday lives, once the votes are counted for real.

For a disengaged majority across Scotland, having lived through profound financial crisis, damaging recession and gnawing uncertainty, faith in the capacity of power elites to deliver on their promises has, it seems to me, all but evaporated. Corrosive cynicism – be it of bankers or energy bosses or newspaper proprietors or politicians – now appears to be the default setting for much of the populace at large.

Not the best of times, then, to try to win majority support for a fresh constitutional beginning for Scotland, the first western European nation to contemplate such a change since the Second World War. Many convinced Yes supporters lay all the blame squarely on what they see as the unvarnished negativity of the other side. Project Fear alchemists, presumably, huddled round their cauldron, fermenting their bitter brew, polluting the national consciousness.

However, since the question on that ballot paper in September allows only two responses – Yes or No – it’s hard to see how a degree of negativity can be avoided by those urging Scots they are better together, staying part of a 307-year-old political union. A degree of negativity matched, I might add, by a degree of at-times over-wrought positivity on the other side.

Framing Scotland’s choice in such a stark way ensured the form and texture of a newly independent Scotland would take has been determined, not by the will of the Scottish people, but by the leadership of the SNP majority government, assisted on a key issue like which currency to use, by expert advisers who, no matter how eminent, don’t in the main actually live here.

No surprise then that lots of individual voters and Scottish interest groups have lots of unanswered questions about some of the choices that already seem to have been taken in their name. Lots of questions too about advance claims being made for what these choices might, on the other side of a Yes outcome, actually deliver.

This week Labour accused the SNP of “airbrushing” the recession of 2008-9 out of its white paper calculations, ensuring a Scotland’s Future claim that, had Scotland been independent between 1977 and 2007, we would all have been £900 better off. Labour asked independent Scottish parliament number crunchers to do the same calculation for the years 1982 to 2012, the latest 30-year period for which numbers are available, ones that include that recession.

Low and behold, if Scotland had been independent over that period, we would all have been £2,500 worse off. But, of course, Scotland wasn’t independent over either period. It remained a member state of the UK. We cannot know, with any degree of numerical certainty, how much better or worse off we would have been, had we left that union, either in 1977 or in 1982.

Such calculations not only require a whole range of assumptions on how various categories of revenue and expenditure are allocated across Scotland and the rest of the UK, they are also dependent on a further assumption that Scotland would have, if independent in recent decades, matched the growth rates of other small European nation states.

However, as Brian Ashcroft pointed out in his blog Scottish Economy Watch last November, there are other growth facts to be taken into consideration here. Small states have higher per capita GDP than other states. But overall growth in small countries is neither more nor less fast than in other countries. It is however more volatile.

While 70 per cent of our exports go to the rest of the UK, only 11 per cent of the rest of the UK’s exports come here. And crucially for a newly independent Scotland, trade flows, migration flows and capital flows are significantly lower across borders than within countries, even when these countries are in a monetary union, a single market or a free trade zone.

There is no convincing way of knowing, had Scotland been independent for the past 30 years, how much richer or poorer we would have been, whether the impact of the last recession was included in the time-frame or airbrushed out. All these numbers are dubious constructs. Certainly not convincing reasons for voting Yes or No.

There was another way open to advocates of Scottish independence back in 2011 when the SNP won its majority mandate at Holyrood. The Salmond government could have proposed a simple Yes/No referendum on opening negotiations immediately with Westminster on independence. But that mandate would have been for negotiations only.

Any independence package that emerged would have had to go back to second referendum, to secure the Scottish people’s backing, before the process of becoming independent could proceed. We would all have been spared nearly two years of rather frustrating constitutional foreplay. Instead of rows about whether Scotland’s Future is airbrushed or not, after substantive negotiations we would know whether a sterling currency union could be agreed and on what terms. What the deal on EU membership might be. Or on joining Nato.

By opting for a single-stage referendum process and playing the long game, the SNP ensured uncertainty about the actual terms of independence would be hard-wired into the process right up till the day we all walk into that polling booth and beyond. They themselves made the mountain they have to climb even steeper.

The constitutional die isn’t yet cast. As Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has discovered this week, in politics, as in life, there are always unexpected forks in the road, lurking ahead, that can change any existing dynamic in profound ways. But as things stand, the Yes camp has it all to do in this referendum. And if a majority of Scots continue to resist the case for independence, its proponents may have to face up to the uncomfortable reality that their own strategic mis-judgements cost them their dream.