Comment: No honesty about financial implications

The lines of customers waiting to withdraw savings from Northern Rock were an alarming sight. Picture: Getty
The lines of customers waiting to withdraw savings from Northern Rock were an alarming sight. Picture: Getty
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SEVEN years ago today Northern Rock was on the verge of collapse after its request for emergency funding sparked a run on the bank.

Six years ago today Lehman Brothers was preparing to file for bankruptcy and kick-start a chain of events that ended in the deepest recession for generations.

Without those events it’s doubtful that Scotland would be having a referendum this week. The fallout from the financial crisis, its impact on Scotland and the wrong-headed austerity policies of the Tory-led coalition all helped create the conditions and the appetite for change.

Yet there is at least one parallel between the events leading up to the implosion of both Northern Rock and Lehman, and what we’ve witnessed in Scotland over the past few months: the triumph of self-interest.

Both sides of the referendum debate have failed to be honest about the financial implications, negative or otherwise, of independence.

The snaking lines of customers waiting patiently on the high streets to withdraw their savings from Northern Rock were an alarming sight. Those who for several months had been warning of a potential catastrophe were dismissed as fearmongers.

Just five months earlier Northern Rock had announced a deal to “originate” sub-prime loans for – who else? – Lehman Brothers. It said the tie-up would present “no credit risk to Northern Rock”.

But anyone suggesting the good times couldn’t last was accused of scaremongering.

It’s a word we’ve become very familiar with in Scotland over the past few months – to ask questions and raise doubts has been to indulge in the politics of fear. This retort was inevitable from the moment the two governments agreed to leave the biggest questions to the post-referendum negotiations, but both sides are culpable.

Those arguing against independence have compromised their credibility by making groundless claims and sketching out every financial doomsday scenario they could think of. Some of the more desperately misleading examples have been produced over the past few days, not least around mortgage lending.

Consequently, the more reasonable points to be made about the financial repercussions of a Yes vote have been obscured and ignored. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between the best-case scenario presented by one camp and the worst-case scenario set out by the other.

Unfortunately for Scotland’s electorate, that middle ground remains relatively uncharted territory, especially when it comes to the implications for individual and household finances.

There’s been precious little in the way of honest debate over what’s at stake in terms of currency, tax, pensions, savings, investments, mortgages, household bills, regulation, consumer protection and the rest. Firm answers might not be possible, but it’s often helpful to know what the unknowns are.

The electorate has instead had its collective intelligence insulted by so-called cash promises. Vote Yes and you’ll either be £2,000 better off, under the Scottish Government’s version, or £1,400 worse off, according to the Treasury.

Those dismissing the less palatable possible outcomes will need to face up to them if Scotland votes for independence, and fast.

As for the longer-term ramifications, who knows? The astonishing reality is that the people of Scotland are being asked to make a momentous decision this week without having any real sense of what it could mean for their financial wellbeing and security.

There will be a price to pay whatever the result, because our so-called leaders (and those doing their bidding) have again planted the seeds of fear and distrust without any consideration for the consequences or for the interests of the people they serve.