George Kerevan: No way are we a nation of quitters

Scots did not leave the country after Margaret Thatcher's devolution U-turn in 1979. Picture: PA
Scots did not leave the country after Margaret Thatcher's devolution U-turn in 1979. Picture: PA
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Predictions of a mass exodus by either camp after 18 September are greatly exaggerated, writes George Kerevan

Will you quit Scotland if the referendum vote on 18 September does not go the way you want it to? Certainly, I’ve “had the conversation” with quite a few folk over the past two years, so the subject is clearly under discussion, if only after a few drams.

Now, thanks to a new poll from the Panelbase organisation, we have some idea of the number of refuseniks. As many as 700,000 of us – that’s fully one in six – say they will depart Scotland if Alex Salmond is triumphant. If the Union is saved, 250,000 intransigents might leave – presumably for somewhere other than England. Three-quarters of the population intend to stay put whatever the outcome.

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How serious are these intentions to pull up sticks? My hunch is not very. The referendum debate has been relatively good-natured to date, giving little cause for any permanent social division after the count is tallied. There has been no overt violence that would lead to lasting enmity sufficient to send large numbers of folk into exile.

The SNP has gone out of its way to suggest (post independence) keeping a common head of state, the free movement of citizens, a common currency, and even (lately) joint management of North Sea oil. In fact, the No camp has spent the last three years criticising Alex Salmond for … er, offering “independence lite”. None of this seems solid political grounds for an exodus of disappointed No voters.

Thwarted independistas are even less likely to quit. After all, they have been disappointed many times before and grown a thick skin as a consequence. Margaret Thatcher promised, then brazenly reneged on, a “better” devolution package if Scots voted No in the 1979 Assembly referendum. But rather than quitting the country, Scots got their political revenge by reducing the Conservative Party in Scotland to an irrelevant rump (which it remains to this day).

Will businesses leave? On the contrary, according to the accounting firm Ernst & Young. Foreign investment in Scotland is at a 16-year high – hardly suggestive of the private sector being seriously worried by the independence debate. Last week, one of Edinburgh’s oldest global investment managers, Martin Currie, was acquired (for its expertise) by a major American outfit, Legg Mason. Clearly, Wall Street thinks it is business as usual.

What about the very public grumbling from our own Standard Life, that it might transfer operations to London if there’s a Yes vote? Could this be the very same Standard Life that bought its Glasgow-based rival Ignis Asset Management in March for a cool £380m? Again, hardly indicative that Standard Life’s chief executive, Barrhead-born David Nish, really plans to move home from Glasgow to London. True, Mr Nish could afford to buy a house in London – average price £437,608. But his 5,000 Scottish-based staff could not. Neither could Standard Life recruit local replacements, certainly not without paying a fortune to bid them away from rivals.

What about suggestions there would be a rush of cash out of Scotland after a Yes vote, as people and businesses transferred money to bank accounts elsewhere for “safety”? For starters, this hardly squares with prognostications (from the same biased sources) that interest rates will rise in Scotland after independence. And if Westminster politicians were daft enough to end the common currency, Scotland would enjoy a trade surplus because of oil and whisky exports.

Meanwhile, England’s current account deficit would double, requiring massive foreign borrowing. In those circumstances, guess which country would be safer for your money?

Are there circumstances that could cause a population exodus after the referendum? Such as not being able to watch Dr Who? (Only kidding: the good Doctor is watched regularly in more than 50 countries.)

A Yes vote might tempt some people with strong family ties to the Union to head south. Paradoxically, such a decision is more likely to be conditional on how Westminster responds to the vote. Should London impose unilateral border posts at Berwick and tear up the common currency, then it is not inconceivable that some of the half-million English, Welsh and Northern Irish people who presently live in Scotland might “go home” rather than put up with the inconvenience (albeit created by Westminster). That would be a loss for Scotland and totally unnecessary. Fortunately, I’m inclined to believe that common sense will prevail at Westminster after a Yes vote.

If there is a resounding No vote, some (few) nationalists who have fought the good fight for a lifetime might decide to seek solace in the sunshine, abroad in the Celtic diaspora or cosmopolitan Europe. They might conclude they don’t want to live out their days in a UK increasingly dominated by xenophobia, hostility to immigrants and everything European, and a London press that daily rubbishes Scottish ambitions. Another smug Tory government at Westminster might add to the queues at the airport.

However, assuming a No vote, I don’t believe the vast majority of those supporting Scottish self-determination will pack their bags. The current referendum debate has actually politicised a new generation of young supporters of self-determination – most of them on the left. Their fight will simply move on to secure full fiscal autonomy for Holyrood.

The real truth is that the one thing that historically has driven Scots from their native home is lack of opportunity caused by a failed economy. That economic failure is overwhelmingly the result of poor economic management by Westminster. It was Westminster’s imperial determination to keep Britain on the Gold Standard that triggered mass unemployment on Clydeside in the 1930s. It was the short-termism of City investors that caused Scotland’s de-industrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s – abetted by Mrs Thatcher. And it was the crony capitalism of bankers and Westminster politicians that caused the recent credit crunch.

As wise Abraham Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool Scots forever.

Personally, I’m going nowhere until Scotland controls its own economic destiny.