Bill Jamieson: Are we just saying Yes to spending?

The pro-independence campaign is seeking a mandate far beyond self-rule – and it looks expensive, writes Bill Jamieson

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond have twice debated independence. Picture: Getty
Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond have twice debated independence. Picture: Getty

On the ballot paper it all seems so straightforward: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It is a constitutional question. It could hardly be simpler.

But as the campaign has progressed, it has become markedly less a simple question of constitutional change as a campaign for other things. And it is these “other things” – not primarily or even mainly connected to this constitutional issue – that have become inseparably attached, so that a vote on the question alone becomes a de facto endorsement of a range of other purposes and different goals.

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A strong political colouring now marks the independence campaign. It was notably evident in the discussion and audience concerns of both TV debates this week – the cacophonous “Clash of the Titans” on Monday and the more discursive debate with finance secretary John Swinney and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont on Tuesday night.

The arguments advanced, both by the official Yes platform and its many vocal supporters, relate as much to the politics to be pursued in an independent Scotland as about the principle of independence itself.

The stated case for independence rests in large part on a set of political preferences that would follow in the wake of a Yes vote. These typically embrace a commitment to higher public spending, an extension of state intervention, more resources devoted to welfare, action to reduce income and wealth inequality, an end to the council tax freeze, abolition of the “bedroom tax”, land reform, no resort to private resources for the NHS and a pronounced aversion to “austerity” .

Such preferences will, of course, be keenly desired by many. And they should come as no surprise, as the SNP has made no secret that is a left-of-centre party. Among its long-stated policies are commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, progressive personal taxation, the eradication of poverty, an end to the bedroom tax and, more recently, a constitution of human rights that would protect, inter alia, a state-run health service.

All these may come to comprise the manifesto of an SNP government post-independence – assuming there is a Yes vote and that the SNP continues to command an overall majority in the Scottish parliamentary election in 2016. But it is a partisan view of the case for independence that is, and should be, separate from the case itself.

It is a dangerous temptation to conflate constitutional propositions with desirable spending outcomes; they are not one and the same. It is equally dangerous to believe that constitutional change will of itself, and by some alchemy as yet undiscovered, create more wealth.

This is particularly misleading now. Have we so quickly forgotten the huge debt pile that has borne down on governments here and across many advanced economies since 2008-9? And that our annual interest bill alone this year – the truth that dare not speak its name – will be £50 billion, and rising?

This inevitably raises wider questions, because the wider universe of voters, faced with the First Minister’s appeal on Monday evening for a Yes vote as a mandate, is fully entitled to ask: mandate for what, exactly?

What of those who may favour independence but who do not share these political preferences and who recoil at a national debt share walk-away? What of those who might otherwise vote Yes, but may be discouraged by the prospect of a marked move to the Left that currently appears inseparable from the independence “mandate”?

Seeking a mandate to negotiate for independence is not the same – nor should it be the same – as advancing the politics of one strand of political opinion or another.

This matters, because a clear concern of many independent economists – the National Institute of Economic & Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies prominent among them – is that the fiscal position of Scotland post-independence would be unlikely to support higher public spending on health, schools and welfare without increases in taxation or cuts in spending elsewhere.

Put another way, the wider prospectus being offered is set to prove false. Scotland might then experience a crisis similar to that has now befallen France: a radical president, François Hollande, elected on a left-of-centre platform, has had to change his Cabinet and sack the economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, in the face of a worsening fiscal deficit.

This furore has resonance here. The dissenting minister objected to remarks by the European Central Bank earlier this month that “a full and consistent implementation” of the single currency area’s fiscal and macroeconomic surveillance framework “is key to bringing down high public debt ratios [and] raising potential growth.” The European Commission has also rejected a suggestion that European Union authorities exclude infrastructure spending from the calculation of national budget deficits. An independent Scotland would almost certainly face similar constraints in any currency sharing arrangement with the rest of the UK.

There will also be a concern, particularly among many in business, that while the proposition of independence per se need not be inimical to enterprise, the political programme now inseparable from it would be markedly less so.

In a letter this week to The Scotsman, 120 business leaders set out their disquiet. How could they react otherwise? For the prospect now on offer is a Scotland where the likely governing party would be of the Left and the main opposition party would be of the Left. Moreover, radical Left fringe bodies and lobby groups, unelected by anyone will enjoy an elevation and proximity to the centre of government by virtue of their association with the independence campaign. They will create, and will claim, a political debt obligation.

All this is reinforced by a concern among many Labour Party activists in Scotland. With doubts that, having chosen Ed Miliband as the party’s UK leader, he may well fail to secure an overall majority in the Westminster elections next May, the better prospect for political survival at home would be to detach Scotland from the rest of the UK.

It is not just the extra costs and impediments to trade that are of concern to business – many large corporations have successfully expanded across a multitude of borders – but a political mindset given over to big government, higher public spending and one not evidently friendly to private saving and capital accumulation.

Moreover, there would be little in Holyrood to hold such government in check. All this would not just cement division in Scotland, but would give a major impetus to business exodus and capital flight.

A more neutral proposition and one subject to constitutional checks and balances – an obligation, for example, to submit the negotiated outcome to ratification by voters – might have helped to mitigate this. But as matters stand, the proposition is not simply independence. It is a mandate for a blank cheque proposition that comes with a commitment to potentially the biggest expansion of the cost and scope of government in peace-time. Independence is one thing. This is something else.