Margo MacDonald: Unionists must tell the truth about Scotland’s finances

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GENERAL Richard Dannatt says sternly that Alex Salmond must be honest and transparent in publishing SNP plans for Scotland’s defence before a referendum on independence.

Fantastic. The First Minister should take this at face value and promise to do as Sir Richard asks if the pro-Union parties will be honest and transparent over Scotland’s finances.

Wishful thinking? Probably, given that cabinet papers of the 70s show that otherwise decent political straight dealers like Tony Crosland resorted to destructive spin to frighten off Scots from voting for self-government. Scots were conned into believing the oil would have run dry by now, and that the Scottish economy could only prosper with the protection of Great Britain. Truth was that Westminster governments needed the oil to buttress the credit-worthiness of the UK economy, and the revenues from oil that should have transformed Scotland’s economy, were shamelessly excluded from Scotland’s GDP to encourage the Scots to believe we didn’t have the resources to go it alone.

Alex Salmond’s referendum information programme must kick off by publicising the truth about oil – because it’s still “the economy, stupid”, even though the “vision thing” is this season’s big idea for politicians struggling to understand the nature and scale of the economic turmoil ahead. Naturally, people also want to know how the SNP sees Holyrood exercising sovereign power over a Scottish defence force, but our fellow citizens are more interested in a feasible explanation of how an independent economy would work.

Strategically, defence and security needs, as a priority, will be geared to defend its oil, fishing, alternative energy resource sites and the security of our borders. This is empirically different from pro-Union strategy based on the costly fiction of the UK being a top-ranking world power in order to hang on to its permanent seat on the Security Council of the UN. That may guarantee an invitation to all the wars America wants to fight, but Scots will almost certainly prefer a relationship that allows Scottish governments to join in when it is judged to be in Scotland’s interest.

The pro-sovereignty side will want to get shot of Trident as soon as possible. There may be differences as to the time this should take, but, with some time to campaign, anti-nukes campaigners elsewhere in the UK might change opinions as to keeping redundant weapons. “Wing Commander” Angus Robertson MP might be disappointed, but Scotland won’t be a world power – not if we spend the money Westminster squandered on vainglorious weapons systems on quality health care, education and care of the elderly for example.

And that’s the clincher on whether Devo Max or anything short of sovereignty can deliver the Scottish community’s social priorities, or its preferred relationships with other countries and peoples. Future Westminster governments will spend to sustain their post-war status inside the “special relationship” as America’s junior partner. Some Scots may think the price one worth paying, but most? Probably not.

Far from being an embarrassment to the independence campaign, this is conceivably a very weak spot in the Devo Max, No More Powers or True Red White and Blue arguments. By conceding sovereignty over defence spending and policy to Westminster, those opposed to full sovereignty are asking people to choose spending scarce money on guns rather than butter.

Alex Salmond gives the impression of hedging his bets and making it easy for Scots to vote for Devo Max even though that would rob Scotland of the all-important psychological requirement of establishing legal equality with England. Due to the diminishing importance of the UK internationally, a sluggish economic performance, and falling standards of provision in social services, even if some Scots are not yet confident that with independence Scotland could do better, most now find it nigh-impossible to argue the superiority of Westminster’s record over Holyrood’s.

The First Minister should demand from his opponents the same level of detail on their proposed economic and financial processes as he must supply. Let’s have an explanation of the reasons for the Union’s track record, and an analysis of why Scotland can be expected to default on sovereign debt when our currency will be oil-based.

But above all, the record of UK sovereignty must be examined as to whether it delivers optimum results for Scots. Why are our health stats the worst in Europe? Why is youth employment so high when oil revenues alone generated billions to pay for a programme of capital projects that would have created apprenticeships, all categories of jobs, research and possible export earnings?

Alex Salmond has hinted that the referendum might test support for Devo Max, Independence Lite or Full Fiscal Autonomy. But now we know that if it’s the economy Scots want to see run from Holyrood, only sovereign powers can do that. Should the result prove inconclusive, we’ll keep the present mix of powers, plus Calman. So no need for a second question – but a definite need to explain why equality must first be established. Co-operation and new processes to serve the mutual interests of the two new, sovereign states comes afterwards.

Margo MacDonald is independent MSP for the Lothians