A hard-right Brexit is looming but that doesn’t mean separation is the least worst option, writes Richard Leonard
‘Would you say... aircraft will not fall out of the sky, ships sink or trains come to a halt?’
That was the question posed to Muir Russell, then Scotland’s most senior civil servant, by Holyrood’s Audit committee ahead of the millennium celebrations 20 years ago. Russell told the committee he would be spending Hogmanay in “the bunker” at St Andrew’s House, where a team of technicians would be ready for hand-to-hand combat with the Millennium Bug. “That is not to say that we are expecting problems,” he added, “but we are being prudent and, given my accounting officer responsibilities, it seems sensible for me to be there, to make the coffee or whatever.”
Twenty Hogmanays later, the impending approach of Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans makes the fears over that now-forgotten computing glitch seem rather quaint. A post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump’s United States would do far more damage to the NHS than the Millennium Bug ever could. And if Johnson’s Brexit means a continued failure to tackle the climate emergency, transport gridlock will be the least of our worries.
Yet in our increasingly polarised constitutional debates, there is a danger of apocalyptic rhetoric stifling the real issues over Scotland’s future. It is no longer viable to argue there is no alternative – either to the status quo, or to the simplistic solutions proffered by both the Tories and the SNP. I opposed Brexit not because I believe separation from the EU is impossible, but because I believe that we stand a better chance of improving working people’s lives inside the EU than out. Similarly, I do not dispute that the creation of a separate Scottish state is possible. But I maintain that there is greater potential for social transformation as part of the UK – and that a separate Scotland would leave us worse off, and not just materially.
In an attempt to shut down debate, Nicola Sturgeon is fond of accusing her opponents of “talking Scotland down”. But no amount of talking – up, down, or sideways for that matter – will change the fact that her blueprint for independence would result in a decade of cuts. I want a Scotland where we’re raising not rhetoric, but incomes, living standards and the very fabric of our society. And it is my firmly held belief that the SNP’s plans for separation would do the opposite.
Take the SNP’s plan for an independent currency: the recommendation of their Growth Commission, which in reality is a cuts commission.
It proposes another wasted decade with people living, surviving, struggling under the yoke of a shock fiscal deficit reduction plan. It is built on the economics of austerity at the very time when the intellectual case for austerity is bankrupt.
Their own Commission proposed a time horizon of a decade, but subsequently the message appears to be: things can only get worse. The April 2019 SNP Conference demanded a separate currency “as soon as practicable” based on a five-year time horizon. Then over the summer SNP Depute Keith Brown said that the drastic deficit reduction plan should be enforced not over five years but in “less than three years”.
This is turbo-charged austerity, greater than the shock treatment inflicted on us by George Osborne in 2010. And we know that austerity is never evenly distributed. In Scotland today, the richest one per cent own more personal wealth than the whole of the poorest fifty per cent put together.
The SNP’s plan also includes an un-costed promise to peg Scottish corporation tax to corporation tax levels in the remainder of the UK. That’s not a regaining of sovereignty – it’s a ceding of sovereignty. Policies for Scotland and the Scottish economy would be set in London, by the Bank of England, and by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a foreign government at the very point that Scottish democratic representation was withdrawn. That is not more independence – it is less.
In March of this year SNP Finance Minister Kate Forbes, who sat on the Growth Commission, claimed on the BBC that “the currency you use the day before independence will be the same currency you use the day after independence.” This is simply not true: because we will be in the precarious state of running a currency without a central bank. Moreover our economy and our public finances for three years, five years, ten years –take your pick – would be run by a government which we cannot vote out.
And the SNP’s plan for independence is based on a neo-liberal economic model which relies heavily on foreign direct investment into Scotland on large multinational corporations and labour market “flexicurity.” This is far from a plan to eradicate in-work poverty and inequality – they would be a key feature of an independent Scotland under the SNP’s blueprint.
In 2017 according to the Scottish Government’s own latest figures, 60 per cent of all of our exports, worth £48.9 billion, went to the rest of the UK.
That’s more than three times as much as we export to the whole of the European Union. And we imported £61.7 billion worth of goods and services from the rest of the UK which represents around 10 per cent of rest of UK exports. In other words, we are in a highly advanced state of fiscal but also monetary and economic union with the rest of the UK. We desperately need to transform our economy so it works for the many, but to do that will take investment that simply won’t be an option under the SNP’s plans.
Decisions on the currency of a separate Scottish state are not remote or abstract. They are immediate and real. And whatever Boris Johnson may waffle, these battles, along with the issue of Scottish independence, will be fought and won in Scotland – and not on the banks of the River Thames.
It is about whether our children get Assisted Support Needs when they need it. It’s about whether we close public libraries, or open new ones. It is about whether we can build the homes that our people need, whether we can invest to tackle climate change and whether we have a National Health Service free and available to all.
It is about whether we narrow our horizons in 2020, or broaden them. The prospect of a majority Tory government inflicting a hard-right Brexit is one that makes me fear for Scotland’s future – but it is not a reason to give up on our ambition of hope and equality. It is not a reason to accept austerity in a separate Scotland as the least worst option.
Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader and an MSP for Central Scotland