‘Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain. The vote here makes clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union.’ Nicola Sturgeon - Scotland's First Minister; June 24, 2016
So spoke the Scottish First Minister the day after the referendum last June. Anyone puzzled as to why she yesterday announced her party’s intention to pursue IndyRef 2 should be under no illusion about what the Nats are about. They are hard coded to pursue independence at any moment of opportunity and to do so all the time. Logic, good sense and good governance come way behind their short, medium and long term pursuit of that single aim. In this context, soft or hard Brexit are simply an irrelevance. If it wasn’t this torch they would find something else. The ‘once in a generation,’ mantra during the last referendum was insincere. It was simply a tool to push undecided’s over the line.
Without question, many Scots are firmly in the independence camp and probably always will be. For some it is a rational conclusion that they have come to having weighed up their optionality. For many, it remains an emotional response in tune with how they see their position in relation to the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. Unfortunately few, especially those leading the SNP, can present an economically coherent case for independence which would underpin the political case. The SNP’s manifesto for independence in 2014 estimated oil revenues at £7.9bn. Following the fall in the oil price that number is some 90% or more lower. An independent Scotland simply could not absorb such a financial shock. The Scottish governments own figures show that they spend £127 for every £100 raised in tax, a ratio that is difficult to find anywhere else in the developed world. For every £100 pounds spent per person in England, £120 is spent in Scotland. The SNP will attempt to talk through, over or round the fact that Scotland’s deficit at 9.5% of GDP is the worst in the developed world. That number alone would keep the door to Europe firmly slammed shut even if resistance from some European countries such as Spain did not already exist. Had Scotland gained independence the country would now be staring down the barrel of slashing and burning state spending by 15% or raising taxes by 19% or a combination of the two. The quantum of those rises would be to raise the basic rate from 20% to 39% or VAT to 40%. Alternatively, an 82% cut in health spending would get them there. It is difficult to think of any country that has embarked on such a vicious austerity programme in peacetime. Regardless of oil revenues being high or low, it is a fact that Scotland has run a deficit every single year since devolution in 1999 and the deficit has deteriorated over recent years, and is now running even higher than during the aftermath of the 2008 Crash. Even in 2011-12, when the North Sea oil price peaked at $125 per barrel, Scotland's deficit was 5.7% of GDP.
So why go now? Bearing in mind that to Nat’s any opportunity is a good opportunity, the SNP are not actually in the commanding position they enjoyed three years ago. They have been in government now for 9 years and it is slowly dawning on Scottish voters that the SNP is not perhaps as capable at running a country as they are election campaigns. Despite the constant lecturing and grievance chasing it is apparent that while there is an open debate and willingness to explore new ways to improve public services efficiently in England, and which are meeting with some success especially in education for poorer children, few such improvements are evident in Scotland. Partly because the SNP are wary of upsetting some of their core constituencies, such as teachers, their solutions always veer toward more centralisation, more money, more government. The Scottish electorate are alert to this and the popularity of Sturgeon is consequently on the wane with the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, somewhat implausibly ahead of Sturgeon in the approval ratings.
Sturgeon’s move is simply irresponsible. She is putting her party’s historic political aims above the best interests of Scotland. The timing is theatrical. To demand a referendum as Brexit is being finalised will create an unnecessary distraction both to the UK and to Europe. I can guarantee the last thing the EU will want or need, if it still exists then in its current form which I very much doubt, is a small country with a banana republic sized deficit clinging to its coattails. The UK government will though acquiesce and offer a referendum but probably after Bexit, that is, after 2019. The SNP will stamp their feet and have sequential hissy fits about not being taken seriously or ‘insults to Scotland,’ but the only people who will take them seriously will be themselves. A growing number of Scots are fed up with their holier-than-thou ranting and simply want things done that matter to them and done properly. The English meanwhile are less and less animated about independence and that is more evident the further north in England you travel. As the English demographic has changed so have traditional ties to Unionism. Millennials for example, for the most part, see self-determination as an entirely fair and reasonable aspiration; ‘if you want it, have it.’ It would suit the SNP to have a much more robust response from the English but I think they will be disappointed. In fact, the quieter and more mature arguments that are presented the more likely they are to enrage them all the more which is kind of satisfying.
So, what should Sturgeon have done?
Seen through an SNP lens, I see Brexit quite simply as a lost opportunity to quietly build a firm economic platform for succession on a ten year timeline. Instead, all Mrs Sturgeon has succeeded in doing with her ill thought out announcement is to put a cap on Scottish property prices, to disincentivise long term inward investment and put a question mark over firms and central government looking at expansion in Scotland. In her stilettos, I would have done the following,
- Seen Mrs May and offered quiet cooperation in return for,
- No change to the Barnett formula
- More shipbuilding orders
- No further defence reductions in Scotland
- Inward investment incentives from Westminster for areas of special need
- HMG help and assistance overseas in capturing inward investment
- (insert other items from economic shopping list as desired)
- Stepped down from the soapbox marked ‘grievance,’ and focused on internal matters pertinent to Scots; employment, housing, education, NHS Scotland etc. Adopt a stance of industrious humility and work tirelessly to organically improve the Scottish economy
- · Stop obsessing about the single market (which, after all, was a creation of Mrs Thatcher through her former trade Secretary Frank Cockfield!). Scotland is in a single market. It is called the UK. Stop being emotional and start being pragmatic. Is it really sensible to leave the UK and then have your economic relationship with your biggest trading partner, (64%) negotiated by Brussels
- Immediately sterling was devalued thrown open the doors to the country to visitors from across the world and aggressively pursued the tourist dollar / Euro / Yen. Pursue them with a generous international marketing budget and do so on a three year view
- Dial back the incredibly short sighted pious remarks made about the US President and make friends. Usually, US Presidents go straight to Ireland and effect a sort of Plastic Paddy persona, playing to the gallery on their own East Coast and Chicago. A US President with a Scottish mother, who actually likes Scotland a lot, doesn’t come along very often. A successful visit to Scotland by Trump could unleash a tsunami of tourists from the Southern States and at least a reasonable shot at business investment.
- Raid every educational establishment in the UK and US, business and the media for the best Scots, (or other), minds available and begin to establish the intellectual and economic case for inward investment and beyond that, independence. It simply does not exist at the moment.
- Monitor Brexit and quietly learn from negotiating mistakes and inevitable errors of judgement.
- Be humble and learn from success stories such as education in East London instead of dismissing everything south of the border as irrelevant.
In summary, Mrs Sturgeon and the SNP should cease and desist generally from the hectoring Calvanistic tone adopted in every interview or speech. Scots may be proud and they may be romantic but most are also gritty realists who can see through the flannel, (the SNP’s own independence newspaper’s circulation is down 30% in 12 months). They can also see that the SNP are not making any friends. Friends that economically at least, Scotland very badly needs. The big danger for Scotland is that the rest of the UK simply gets worn down by the SNP’s incessant moaning and just gives in. That would be tragic for Scotland and tragic for the UK. Having a next door neighbour throwing itself into economic Armageddon would not be good for any of us. Referendums are unpredictable but I’ll be hoping for 3/3 and will be relying on old fashioned Scots common sense when I place my bet today. Growth in Scotland has been put on ice with a breathtaking display of selfishness and arrogance which potentially sets Scotland on a road with a destination signposted ‘Catastrophe.’ It need not be so.