Essay: Scotland has shown it can go it alone

IT MAY not always seem like it, but Scotland is a lucky country and we are a very fortunate generation. Most nations are where they are in constitutional terms through a combination of history and happenstance.

Scotland has a highly skilled population and a broad-based economy that has hugely successful firms such as Wood Group

Scotland has that rare opportunity for our citizens to come together to decide our future in an impeccably democratic manner, and in a process regarded as the gold standard internationally.

And just as those of us in the Yes campaign do not want to wake up on 19 September wishing we had done more – a sentiment I’m sure is shared by the No side – collectively as a country it is important that we are able to look back and feel that we did justice to the significance of the decision.

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As we prepare to choose that future, many respected, lamented people who helped Scotland to advance have been recognised – including John Smith and Donald Dewar in devolution terms, Margo MacDonald and Allan Macartney from an independence perspective – and all of us would benefit by having these people and others in mind as we take forward the debate. The measure of our fortune in being involved is the loss of such people from the current campaign.

The decision we took in the last referendum in 1997 – to have a Scottish Parliament, and to invest it with limited taxation powers – enshrined Scotland’s status as a self-governing country. We may have forgotten some of the rougher edges and harsher words of that debate, and younger people may find it surprising, but whether or not Scotland should have ANY devolved powers was just as heated and controversial a debate as the one we are having now about independence. Indeed, I sometimes think the only substantive difference is that it took place before the advent of social media.

Many of the arguments from the No campaign then were the same as the No campaign now, centring on the economy and affordability, and were sometimes delivered by the same people.

Just a week before the 1997 referendum, William Hague said that “devolution would make no difference to schools, to hospitals, to jobs or to business. The tartan tax would lead to foreign investors saying no to Scotland.”

It may be a truism that there can never be 100 per cent certainty about the future, but we do at least know with the benefit of hindsight that people seeking No to self-government in 1997 have been proved 100 per cent wrong.

Scotland faces considerable challenges – some of which there was a degree of denial about a generation ago, such as alcohol misuse – but having some of the tools in our box with devolution has enabled us to make some progress and a difference.

In stark contrast to much of our economic history, Scotland now has a labour market which outperforms the UK as a whole, and we currently have record levels of employment. Devolution has meant that we have held fast to the founding principles of the NHS amid the marketisation and fragmentation damaging the health service south of the Border. Inward investment has flourished, and Scotland is second only to London in attracting overseas projects.

Free tuition in Scotland has seen full-time student numbers at our universities and colleges reach a new high, while applications have plummeted in England.

In others words, the lesson of a devolved parliament is that having decision-making powers in Scotland works. And the contention of the Yes campaign is that we can do more, and Scotland will work better for all the people who live here, if we extend these powers to encompass the full range that will belong to an independent Scotland.

An economic policy decided in Scotland, instead of a Westminster austerity agenda Scots voted against, means more jobs and infrastructure investment. A welfare policy decided in Scotland means no bedroom tax and a state pension age which reflects Scotland’s demographics. A defence policy decided in Scotland means no weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde, and investment in capabilities which reflects our maritime needs and regimental traditions.

A European policy decided in Scotland means working as an equal partner to extract every available piece of EU assistance for our fishing and farming communities. It means cooperating with partners to lead a social agenda for Europe on issues such as a living wage, instead of being on the receiving end of a Westminster in/out agenda dancing to Ukip’s siren song.

And there can be no serious doubt about the viability of Scotland as an independent country, notwithstanding the No campaign’s core activity of fostering such doubt.

Scotland is by any standards an extremely wealthy country, located in a privileged part of the planet. We are no less capable than any other country of deciding policy on the economy, welfare, pensions, defence and Europe, in addition to our existing devolved responsibilities.

In economic output per head, an independent Scotland would be the 14th wealthiest nation in the OECD – ahead of France, Japan and the UK.

Scotland has generated more tax per head of population than the UK as a whole in each one of the last 33 years. Scotland’s stronger financial position compared with the UK over the period 2008-9 to 2012-13 is equivalent to £8.3 billion, or £1,600 per person.

Scotland has a highly skilled population and a broad-based economy including energy, engineering, financial services, food and drink, life sciences, and more top universities per head than any other country in the world.

In effect, if the charge is that Scotland cannot afford to be a successful independent country, then very few nations could be independent. The nation state could not be, as it still is, the foundation unit of the international system. Indeed, since 1945, the number of countries in the United Nations has grown from 51 to nearly 200.

Independence and interdependence go hand in hand in the modern world, and achieving the status of an independent country is Scotland’s passport to having a voice in the European and global forums which affect our economy and society.

The debate we are having now is about the extent of self-government in Scotland, not whether to have it or not. In that sense, the attempt by No campaigners to appeal to the heart by launching the No Borders group is bypassing both Scotland’s heart and head.

In governance terms, the line at Gretna merely delineates the ability to deliver different policies in Scotland compared with Westminster, reflecting the views and votes of those of us who live here. And there is a solid consensus now that this is appropriate and necessary in regard to health policy, education, the justice system, business support, trade promotion, housing, climate change and all of the other areas devolved to Holyrood. By placing a question mark over that, these No campaigners are questioning the very basis of self-government – and there have already been hints, for example, of wanting “consistent” health policies across the UK on the back of a No vote, which could only mean Westminster taking the lead once again.

That would surely be a step back for our country. Above all, what a Yes vote offers is an unrivalled opportunity to step forward into a new era of equality, responsibility and modernity for Scotland.

• Kevin Pringle is strategic communications director of the Scottish National Party