Brian Wilson:nationalism priority not economy

Salmond's about-turn on welfare policy may be prompted by the fact that, despite the protests, polls suggest Scots are not universally the caring, sharing nation the SNP likes to portray us as. Picture: PASalmond's about-turn on welfare policy may be prompted by the fact that, despite the protests, polls suggest Scots are not universally the caring, sharing nation the SNP likes to portray us as. Picture: PA
Salmond's about-turn on welfare policy may be prompted by the fact that, despite the protests, polls suggest Scots are not universally the caring, sharing nation the SNP likes to portray us as. Picture: PA
I am a great fan of Gavin McCrone’s newly published book on Scottish Independence – Weighing Up the Economic Arguments. Indeed, it would save a lot of newsprint and airtime if a copy was delivered to every household in Scotland and people were left in peace to make up their own minds.

My enthusiasm does not stem from Mr McCrone endorsing every argument I might seek to deploy. He doesn’t. But it is as balanced an attempt at setting out facts, as opposed to propaganda, speculation or sheer fiction as is likely to be offered over the 14 long months that lie ahead.

Maybe Mr McCrone’s most important point is his opening one – that it is unusual for a separatist movement to build its case around a claimed economic rationale. “More commonly,” he writes, “when countries split to form independent states, it is because of serious grievances about they way they have been treated. Whatever the economic consequences, they take the view that they simply do not want any longer to be part of the larger state with which they have been associated.”

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He instances the break-up of the Soviet Union, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the drive for an Irish Republic for reasons that were historic rather than economic.

This accurate observation begs a very fundamental question about what is going on at present in Scotland. Is our own separatist movement really an exception to that rule, and is it truly motivated by an economic rationale rather than by “grievances” or a straightforward desire to break away regardless of the consequences?

Personally, I do not believe that any such exception exists. Scottish Nationalism, like any other, is a fundamentalist belief which demands economic argument to support it, rather than the other way round. Would Alex Salmond or John Swinney cease to be Nationalists if they could not advance an economic argument to support that philosophical starting-point? Of course they would not – and it would be honest and admirable if they would say so.

But they know, of course, that while fundamentalist Nationalism may be an honourable position, sincerely held, it is not one that is likely to command majority support within Scotland, or anything like it. So every economic argument must be adapted or distorted in order to suit a fixed conclusion – whether or not there is any rational connection between the two.

This leads to the most heroic contortions. It is not long since sterling as a potential currency for an independent Scotland was dismissed in the most scathing terms while the architects of the New Scotland grasped at the intellectual lifeline of “Scotland in Europe” and the accompanying euro. Now that rationale has collapsed, they have retreated into bold assertions why Scotland would retain sterling – even though someone else runs it.

This week we saw another series of absurdities. Having denounced the UK coalition government’s welfare reforms as the work of the devil, we have a sudden volte face and an independent Scotland is, according to Mr Salmond, to retain a benefits cap. This is not because of any new evidence that has arisen so much as a perusal of the polling.

Contrary to the mythology that the Scots are a unique tribe of caring, sharing people who wish to dispense welfare benefits at a higher rate than the effete south is prepared to tolerate, the polling suggests that Scottish opinions on these matters are very much the same as those in the UK as a whole. So suddenly policy changes, lest it might get in way of the ideology – which is not social justice but the single objective of independence via the referendum.

Then we have the latest self-contradictions on pensions. Nationalists know that people want reassurance rather than uncertainty on this subject and when even an organisation as authoritative as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland pointed out the massive problems which would be involved in converting UK pension funds into Scottish ones, their immediate response was to deny any such difficulty.

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Now, without a blush, Salmond’s answer has changed. The problem, which can no longer be denied to exist, will be overcome by an EU “derogation” – the latest in a long line of carefree assumptions about how the EU will amend every rule which binds 28 other countries, all of which will yield to the unchallengeable wisdom of allowing Scotland to do something entirely different. It is unsubstantiated nonsense.

For any rational person, the obvious conclusion is surely that the best way of safeguarding secure and reliable UK-wide pension funds is by not breaking up the UK, in which case the problem does not arise and no hypothesis about what “derogations” the EU might or might not agree to would be required. But that is not an option which is available to those whose starting point is a fundamentalist belief in the division of the United Kingdom into separate states.

McCrone’s book points in the same direction on every key economic issue. Of course there is nothing impossible about creating a separate Scottish state. Nobody, as far as I know, has argued that case. All the stuff about “too poor” is a straw man set up by the Nationalists themselves in order to knock it down. The question is not whether it could be done, but why it should be done.

And that takes us back to the motivation which drives Scottish Nationalism. If it is a deep-felt sense of grievance and a “desire to break away regardless of the consequences”, then let those who occupy that position be honest enough to say so. That is a proposition which is then available to be agreed or disagreed with.

At present, however, hordes of Scottish Government civil servants are being obliged to come up with arguments – however tortuous and contradictory of past assertions – which suit a fixed conclusion rather than to set out arguments, as McCrone has done, which invite the people of Scotland to form their own balanced opinions.

That is not the proper role of civil servants and it is not what the forthcoming White Paper should contain. As far as economic issues are concerned, McCrone has already provided the true White Paper. His successors in the Scottish civil service should be allowed to get on with their much-neglected day jobs.