Peter Jones: Blind nationalism doesn’t add up

Getting rid of Trident would not solve the financial problems Scotland would be faced with. Picture: Getty
Getting rid of Trident would not solve the financial problems Scotland would be faced with. Picture: Getty
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If Scotland goes it alone we could end up with austerity to rival the worst of the Thatcher years, writes Peter Jones

Will we choose to launch ourselves on the world’s turbulent waters in the brave new craft of the SS independent Scotland, or stick with the venerable SS Great Britain, battered though it may be? Well, if we do choose to set sail on our own, it will be in a boat made of balsa wood lashed together with lies.

The case Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have put forward has been the most dishonest, deceiving, and duplicitous campaign I have ever known in politics, and I can go back as far as the elections of 1974.

I know that for many nationalists, the case is simple: Scotland is a nation, nations should govern themselves, so Scotland should be a sovereign nation. I also understand that on this principle, nationalists think that independence will be much better, and therefore absolutely everything in an independent Scotland will be much better.

That, however, is a matter of faith, and like religious beliefs, it cannot be questioned. It is not susceptible to rational, scientific, argument. Anybody who dares question it is a non-believer, which is why people like me who put forward fact and evidence-based arguments as to why various aspects of independence won’t work get abused as quislings and traitors.

I have no time for similarly faith-based assertions that the Union is the finest constitutional creation in human history and therefore should not be tampered with. Boiled down, that was the Thatcherite Conservative case against devolution.

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I’m interested in what delivers the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. Politically, I am a utilitarian. I’ll support and vote for what works, and that only. All ideologies, in my book, are to be distrusted because they blind believers into supporting what doesn’t work.

That’s why I have voted for Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Liberal Democrat, SNP, and Green candidates. I am the archetypal floating voter, opting for whoever I think will do the best job at the time.

I could vote Yes in some circumstances. If I was being told that it would be a hard road through tough times with difficult choices to be made, I could vote for that. I’d be prepared for some pain. Why? Because Scottish politics is a warped debate, never dealing with questions like privatisation on their own merits, preferring puerile ethnicity tests of whether policies are Scottish or an alien imposition and alibis of blaming the big horrid UK for anything going wrong.

I thought devolution would fix that. In that respect, the Scottish Parliament has been a dismal disappointment, which is why I could vote for independence. It would make Scottish politics grow up fast.

But not on Alex Salmond’s terms. His proposition is crude faith-based nationalism. Everything will be better; taxes will be cut and public spending will rise. It cannot possibly be true.

If you had a take-home income of £53,000 a year, but spent £65,000 a year, how long could you carry on doing that? You could borrow for a while, but eventually things would come crashing down in bankruptcy.

Substitute billions for the thousands in the sentence above, and you have Scotland’s public finances (including oil revenues) in 2012-13. Mr Salmond has said he will cut corporation tax and air passenger duty while also increasing public spending by 3 per cent a year instead of the UK government’s 1 per cent a year, financed by borrowing. It just is not credible.

Even if oil revenues jumped to his estimate of £7 billion a year, it still leaves a £10bn gap, not far short of the entire annual Scottish health service budget. Don’t delude yourself that getting rid of Trident solves the problem – the £100bn cost Mr Salmond cites is a UK figure. Scotland’s (population) share is £8.5bn and that’s spread over at least 20 years which means an annual saving of £400 million. It doesn’t do the job, does it?

In the UK, the present £12bn gap (which looks to have widened slightly in 2013-14) is financed by borrowing. If an independent Scotland had to finance that borrowing, every single expert who has looked at this question believes that Scotland would have to pay extra interest charges of at least 1 per cent.

If Mr Salmond was to insist on raising public spending faster than tax revenues, that premium would soar. Potential lenders would know that the debt mountain would grow faster than the taxes needed to erode it and would charge to reflect the increased risk of not being repaid.

In short, the Yes message that independence will end austerity is a lie. Austerity’s shadow would be darker and bigger in an independent Scotland. And that means the claim there will be greater social justice with independence is also a lie. The only social justice will be everybody getting equally poorer.

Yes, Scotland is a wealthy country. But it is wealthy as part of the union, and we are not being robbed of anything. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, an impeccably impartial body, estimates that public spending per person was £1,257 per person higher in Scotland in 2012-13 than in the UK as a whole. Multiplied by 5.3 million Scots, that adds up to a £6.6bn transfer from the rest of the UK.

Wealthy as we are, the fact is that government is spending more than we could afford on our own. And that means the claim independence means no more Tory governments we didn’t vote for, might be true in name, but is a lie in reality.

With big companies fleeing the country faster than they ever got shut down under Mrs Thatcher, with the need for spending cuts deeper than anything she made, any Scottish government would soon be forced to implement Thatcherite policies so harsh that it would make her time seem like minor unpleasantness.

Well, I suppose, the usual online mob will scream I am a scaremongering unionist lickspittle, etc. I’m not. Only last October, Mr Salmond told the Scottish Parliament I was a “well-respected commentator”. There are circumstances under which I’d vote for independence. But not for the dishonest mirage of moonshine and rainbows the Yes snake oil salesfolk are peddling.

That’s just how I see it. I’m not personally scared by independence, I’d muddle along. But I am scared for millions of people who would be impoverished. For them, I’m voting No.