Michael Kelly: The bill for independence keeps mounting

The decommissioning of oil installations is far from the only bill Scots taxpayers would face after a split, says Michael Kelly

There was surprise following the revelation on Tuesday that Scotland faces a bill of £30 billion to decommission the 470 installations after North Sea oil operations eventually run down. My respected ex-colleague Professor Alex “Joe” Kemp revealed that this cost would fall to be met by an independent Scotland some 28 years from now.

Part of the surprise was that this cost to Scotland had not been already revealed by the SNP in any of its strategy documents on future energy policy. Nor has it been included in any of its post-independence income and expenditure totals.

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But surprise was nothing to the incredulity expressed at the party’s reaction to this damning statistic. Fergus Ewing, our energy minister, argued the ludicrous proposition that the rest of the UK has a “moral responsibility” to pick up this tab – or at least the bulk of it. It is a measure of the poverty of the SNP’s economic argument that a minister as intelligent and as competent as Mr Ewing should be forced to try to blackmail the UK with ethics.

This is an England which the SNP claims has been doing down Scotland for 300 years. London government, the Nationalists argue when it suits them, has an open agenda to exploit Scotland and to discriminate against it. Yet in any negotiations on the costs of separation, the SNP imagines and portrays the UK’s stance as one that will be characterised by generous understanding of the need to give the emerging nation the best deal possible.

This schizophrenic view of England stems from the very top. Witness the reaction to the Economist’s analysis of the bleak scenario of the Scottish economy under independence; analysis acknowledged as sound by other independent commentators. The First Minister promised dire consequences for the magazine – “it will rue the day” – a typical threat to any in the media who dare to question the SNP’s articles of economic faith. Indeed, it is a threat with more than a hint of control of the press.

The revelation that the price of closing down North Sea oil is £6,000 for each Scot opens up the issue of what other exit costs the SNP is likely to be faced with in negotiations with the rest of the UK if the promised referendum, by some ill chance, results in a “Yes” answer.

If we dare intrude on the private grief the SNP is currently suffering over the agonising decision of whether to ask member countries permission to join Nato, we raise a new set of economic costs.

While it is clear to any sensible military analyst that membership of that defence organisation necessarily commits countries to a nuclear policy, again the SNP seems prepared to plead that it can have it both ways. Some want to have no part of Nato. Scotland would benefit from its general protection without bearing any costs. They want to be like many of the accession states and others in Europe who freewheel on the back of US/UK-funded protection with a little grudging help from the French. This unfairness has slipped past the notice of the British taxpayer. But they will certainly pick up their ears when they hear that Scotland wants the same free ride. Others in the SNP want to be “associate” members enjoying the benefits of group protection while enjoying the luxury of a clear conscience over weapons of mass destruction. That won’t happen.

So let us look at just one example of the complications and costs that would arise if the SNP for once sticks to its unilateral nuclear disarmament principle. That example is Glen Douglas, tucked away between Lochs Lomond and Long and serviced by a private road with no public access. Much of what goes on there is understandably secret, given the implications for national security. However, what we do know is that the Glen Douglas Munitions Depot is reported to be the largest weapons storage base in Western Europe operated by Nato. There is also Faslane and the docking facilities on Loch Long.

These complexes are probably the largest in the UK providing munitions to the British Army. Alex Salmond must know that the UK government will not easily sacrifice such an important military base, and this may well have caused his wavering over Scotland’s position in Nato. He must also be sure that if the rest of the UK is forced to build from scratch a replacement facility after independence, they will not be prepared to pay all the billions it will take to decommission the base here. A larger proportion of that cost will land at the feet of the Scottish taxpayer. And this is just one example of the unravelling that has to be done on the defence side.

One more implication of independence seems to have been overlooked: the position of the National Lottery. Since it was set up in 1994, more than £2 billion has been donated to good causes in Scotland through 45,000 separate grants, funding projects from health schemes to tourism and from land conservation to museums. An independent Scotland would be deprived of these funds, which would have to be replaced by the public sector or by charities.

Even more galling, Scottish residents would be deprived of their weekly pleasure of losing a couple of pounds, as the Lotto is only open to residents of the UK. It might be that the SNP will welcome the fact that a nation addicted to all the vices needs one less temptation. Or, in its usual pompous manner, it might announce a Scottish lottery, promising it to be bigger and better. How much can five million people raise?

Every week a stone is lifted to reveal a further weakness in the economic argument for independence. That is why, unlike others, I now welcome the fact that Alex Salmond is holding off decision day as long as possible.

The more this discussion reveals, the worse the post-independence scenario looks. By 2014, every voter will be aware how badly off they will become under the Saltire. They will be the ones who demand a second referendum once all these hidden costs are exposed by negotiations.