Brian Wilson: Union’s fate rests on £500 question

Arguments must be raised above mere money if we are to have a mature debate on the UK’s future

WHOEVER thought of including the £500 better-or-worse-off questions in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey about independence deserves credit for introducing a mischievous element into an ancient, well-worn debate. While it may be self-evident to hard-pressed respondents that it is indeed about the economy, stupid, the thought had clearly never occurred to protagonists on either side that the nation’s fate might all come down to 500 quid, one way or another.

Yet this is what the people have told the pollsters. Guarantee us £500 a year extra and 65 per cent of us will vote for Scottish independence. Convince us that we will be £500 a year worse off and the figure slumps to 21 per cent – a 22 per cent swing, or £22.72p per one in 100 Scots in return for the mess of pottage.

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Even allowing for distortions created by questions which beg prompted answers, and for some of the respondents having a laugh, these figures do suggest that the masses are less embedded in their loyalties than politicians might like to think. A critical number have indicated that they are open to financial persuasion at a pretty modest level.

As the Nationalist MSP Joan McAlpine noted here yesterday, this does not sit easily with her party’s rhetoric. The Bravehearts will not be voting for Freedom on referendum day but for “the price of a cheap package deal to Tenerife”. However, Alex Salmond will not care what they think they are voting for so long as they lend him their tick in the box.

The greater danger is for those who oppose separation and are persuaded by these figures that the financial argument really is the only one that matters. Strike enough fear into folks’ hearts about the economic risks of independence and the day will be won. If it is not just £500 these floating voters stand to lose but also their jobs and benefits, then the pendulum is surely bound to swing hard towards the status quo.

I wouldn’t count on it. There is nothing that would suit the Nationalists better than to reduce the argument to parameters defined by £500 a head, one way or another. As a betting man, Mr Salmond would surely agree that such a contest would reduce the odds against him succeeding from somewhere around ten to one down to not much worse than evens.

The great advantage of separatist economic claims is that while they cannot be proven, they cannot be disproven either. Hypothesis is always going to be pitted against existing reality. In these circumstances, it is the easiest thing in the world to cobble together an economic prognosis which makes everyone better off; indeed, £500 seems a modest target for such a fantasy exercise to aspire to.

Then consider the background against which these calculations will be made. The referendum will fall within a prolonged period of public spending cuts and a decline for many in living standards. With each pound of disposable income that disappears, the credibility of a constitutional elixir that promises to put two in its place is bound to increase. As reality becomes grimmer, the critical faculties applied to hypothesis grow less acute.

So how should the Nationalists’ opponents respond to the revelation that the fate of the United Kingdom may rest on whether or not people can be temporarily conned into believing that they are going to be £500 a head better off? Well, they should start by doing a lot more work on underpinning the credibility of their own alternative hypothesis with hard facts and analysis, rather than relying on assertion.

But just as important, they should hear alarm bells ringing. If, indeed, our constitutional future does all come down to a narrow calculation of self-interest, then an awful lot of important arguments have been surrendered along the way. It is long past time to resurrect them so that every voter in Scotland will be asked to support the positive concept of us being better together as part of a United Kingdom, rather than merely better off. In the 1970s, when Nationalism was running a lot harder than now and “Scotland’s Oil” was a much more seductive enticement, the wheels came off the SNP’s wagon at the most unexpected moment.

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This was not because people had done their sums and decided they would lose out personally but because they had examined the whole Nationalist offer over a period of time and decided that, on balance, it was not for them.

They had been told repeatedly, in the SNP slogan of the day, that they could be “rich Scots or poor Britons”. And they recognised that this was not only a false dichotomy but also an unjust one. There was still something called solidarity, which led them to conclude that they had more in common with their counterparts, working people and their families in Newcastle and Liverpool, than with the snake-oil salesmen of separatism.

The arguments used then were not just about money. It was much closer to living memory that the ordinary people of Scotland and England had fought together against fascism. They had built trade unions together. Forged a National Health Service and a welfare state together. Won decent living conditions and educational opportunities for their children together. Faced down the forces of privilege and reaction, Scottish and English, together. Was all this going to be rent asunder in the name of nationalism?

I do not believe that these fundamental arguments against breaking a small island into separate states have gone away; they have just been severely neglected. For most of the intervening period, the political agenda in Scotland has been dictated by those who wish us to look inwards rather than outwards. We have been reduced to quibbling about the economics of separation while failing to speak about the strengths of what binds us together.

There are vast numbers of people within Scotland who, in one way or another, benefit from being part of a bigger state while also being proudly Scottish – from the taxpayer who was protected from the folly of Royal Bank of Scotland to the Olympic sportsman who benefits from the bigger arena; the employees of a UK government supplier to the media worker of ambition who seeks a London stage. The list is endless.

Would any of these people be better served by being divided into separate states? That is a legitimate question which requires to be asked of everyone affected by the answers. The debate has to be raised above the level of £500 a head, and sooner rather than later. Are we better together or better apart?