Euan McColm: Game’s up for land of milk and honey patriots

Pro-independence supporters march through Glasgow en route to BBC Scotland, where they staged a protest against perceived media bias. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Pro-independence supporters march through Glasgow en route to BBC Scotland, where they staged a protest against perceived media bias. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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Things were simpler in the days when Scottish nationalism was unashamedly driven by grievance. You knew where you were when the SNP was almost entirely comprised of furiously angry men who hated the English and had the crimson faces to prove it.

But Scottish nationalism is no longer – according to SNP politicians, anyway – about anger with the other. These days, one supports Scottish independence because one wants a fairer society, where the poor and the disadvantaged are a priority and there will be prosperity for all.

During 2014’s independence referendum campaign, the SNP excelled at peddling this message of compassion and prosperity-to-come. An independent Scotland would be one of the richest countries in the world, according to Yes Scotland, the SNP’s faux “grassroots” organisation. This promise of wealth – which, of course, we’d use to build a better Scotland – was evidently hugely seductive, helping to take support for independence from less than 30 per cent to 45.

The problem with the claims made by the SNP during the referendum campaign is that they were fantasy. I know there are arguments to be made about the unpredictability of oil markets and the wider economy, but the fact is that the nationalists’ financial case was not an exercise in optimism but a deception.

Yet still the SNP and its supporters argue that a fairer Scotland is possible if we’d only break those chains that bind us to Westminster (that’s code for the English, in case you were in any doubt).

Surely, in the name of the wee man, it’s time for this nonsense to stop?

If your current position is that independence is needed now – or in the near future – to ensure a more prosperous country, where assistance of the vulnerable is a priority, then you have not been paying attention to the facts. If you have been paying attention to the facts and you still believe the swift break-up of the UK is required for a fairer Scotland, then you’re deluded.

The facts to which I refer have been provided by the Scottish Government. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figure published on Tuesday shows that Scotland ran a deficit of £14.9 billion in 2014-15. The difference between tax raised and the amount spent was breathtaking.

Of course, a deficit, in itself, is not unusual. Most countries run them. But the size of an independent Scotland’s deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) exposes the size of the potential problem. As a percentage of GDP, the UK’s deficit was 4.9 in 2014-15 while Scotland’s was 9.7. An independent Scotland would have the highest deficit in the European Union. This would be completely unsustainable.

Those who rail against “austerity” today might want to examine what happened in Greece and Ireland, when deficits soared. Inhabitants of those countries can tell us all about austerity.

Had Scotland voted Yes in September 2014, we’d now be on the brink of financial catastrophe. Independence Day – 24 March, according to Scottish Government proposals – would have ushered in an era of savage cuts to public spending and tax hikes to make the eyes of even the most wilfully compassionate amongst us water. Plummeting oil revenues – predicted to be £7.9bn in the independence White Paper but heading towards £100 million for 2015-16 – hammer home the case that an independent Scotland would have been in severe difficulty from the word go.

None of this is a definitive argument against Scottish independence. But it does demand of those who wish to see it happen a more honest explanation of their motivations.

On Thursday, during First Minister’s Question Time, Nicola Sturgeon was challenged over the gulf between White Paper prediction and reality. Sturgeon may tell a story about independence as a progressive step but when she had no answers, she comfortably slipped into the language of the SNP’s past. Anyone who dared criticise the SNP’s case was talking Scotland down. As her voice rose, Sturgeon looked in danger of going full Salmond. But Sturgeon put herself in that uncomfortable position by playing a key role in redefining independence. At the heart of the SNP’s modernising process, she helped develop the messages about fairness, compassion, and prosperity that have proved so very seductive to a large number of voters.

There remains strong – if not majority – support for Scottish independence. It is an issue that will remain at the top of the political agenda for a very long time to come.

Of course, there is no reason Scotland could not be independent, but it is time for those who believe it should be to explain why, without recourse to meaningless platitudes about fairness and compassion and hysterical attacks on “austerity”. The Scotland the SNP promised would not be days away had the country voted Yes. In fact, we’d be staring into the abyss. Those who believed Alex Salmond’s fairy tales about a land of milk and honey might well be a bit put out.

The late Margo MacDonald, as decent a politician as one might hope to meet, when asked why she supported independence replied that she did not know where her nationalism came from but that she had always felt Scottish and wondered how any Scot could claim nationhood without sovereignty. There was no attempt to spin a reason: Margo’s nationalism was about who she was.

This seems to me to have been a perfectly reasonable position. It was honest and clear. Many of those, I am certain, who voted No will have had a similar motivation for doing so. Being British is just what they are.

Having rebuilt nationalism as a movement for fairness and prosperity, the SNP has been punched hard by reality. This reality – this prospect of financial disaster – must mean an end, for the time being, of the argument that Scotland needs independence now in order to flourish.

There are many valid reasons for supporting the break-up of the United Kingdom but the creation of a more prosperous Scotland is not, right now, one of them.