After relaunching her plea for Scottish independence this week – with speeches, a 72-page economic dossier and the promise of a referendum next year – Nicola Sturgeon had a little something to add. She does not, she says, intend to dwell on the hard border she plans to erect with England. She would deal with “Brexit implications” another day.
It’s easy to see why she doesn’t want to discuss it. Most of Scotland’s imports and exports cross the border into England, so what impact would it have to subject them all to checks, tariffs and customs controls? The SNP often talk about the damage caused by Brexit, but Scotland’s trade with England far outweighs its relationship with Europe. So ‘Scexit’, as some unionists have called it, would be ‘Brexit times 10’.
This phrase comes from one of Sturgeon’s own economic advisers – and he raises an important point. Brexit has transformed the equation. Even the most fervent nationalist can no longer deny that separation would impose massive and permanent economic disruption, a cost far greater than if both countries had been members of the EU. An independent Scotland should somehow put itself on the path to rapid economic growth. How do you do that if he chooses EU membership and massive trade friction with England?
It’s not that Scotland can’t be independent: it’s a wealthy, resourceful and confident country that could stand proudly on the world stage. Voters are certainly willing to pay the price for greater sovereignty, as Brexit demonstrated. But the price of separation now would be sado-austerity on a scale few countries have ever attempted.
Sturgeon leads a brigade of 120,000 party members (some of my family included) anxious for another referendum. They need to believe that the great battle is fast approaching, that their appointment with fate awaits them. That’s why she has set aside £20million for a referendum next year. But under devolution rules, the UK government has to agree, and it won’t. His main hope, therefore, is to take legal action, persuading the Supreme Court to back a referendum billed as “advisory” – and, therefore, not a referendum. It’s quite a long shot.
But let’s say it gets its referendum: so what? She can talk (as she did this week) about successful small countries. But none of them have the Scottish economy. Sturgeon’s own officials calculate that state spending amounted to 61% of GDP last year, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, governments in the world relative to size. from the country. And, yes, the pandemic is distorting things. But even before that, the Scots enjoyed Swedish-style public spending while paying normal British levels of tax through the regular Union dividend.
Let’s say an independent Scotland is accepted as a member of the EU. And let’s leave aside other rather serious questions, such as who pays the pensions and in what currency. According to the rules of Maastricht, it would have to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP (against 22% last year). It would be possible, but devastating. The cuts required would be greater than the post-crash austerity inflicted on Greece, Ireland or Iceland. An independent Scotland could close all schools, free all prisoners, disband the police force and still not come close to balancing its books.
When I was political editor of The Scottish, I would advocate for Scotland to achieve financial independence alongside devolution. There would be, I would say, an incentive to cut taxes and grow the economy – much better than begging for money in London and complaining when it wasn’t enough. But over time, it became clear what “fiscal autonomy” would mean: the kind of shock therapy no country should undergo.
Had Scotland been run brilliantly under 15 years of SNP rule, Sturgeon could lay claim to total control. But we saw indefensible decadence in schools with a widening gap between rich and poor (closing this was supposed to be his government’s “defining mission”). Drug-related deaths have reached the highest level in Europe. I supported decentralization on the grounds that it would solve these problems. Instead, it opened up a debate about independence that overshadowed everything else. The conservative sleaze was eclipsed by the SNP sleaze.
In what country, anywhere in the Western world, has the head of government been accused by a predecessor of conspiring to imprison him by framing him in order to eliminate him as a political threat? The full case of Alex Salmond v Sturgeon remains unpublished, due to censorship orders issued by the Edinburgh courts. He was acquitted of attempted rape, but what he admitted to when he was Prime Minister makes Boris Johnson’s birthday cake session look like a nun’s tea party. A striking proportion of SNP MPs have been accused of embezzlement, anti-Semitism, sexual harassment and more.
Five minutes into Sturgeon’s speech this week, we had another: Patrick Grady, the party’s chief whip, was suspended for inappropriate behavior with a staff member. There are plenty of good, even exceptional, SNP politicians, including Sturgeon herself. I would rank Kate Forbes, his 32-year-old finance minister, among Britain’s most impressive politicians. But as a team, they are beatable. Especially if their strategy is to shun the main arguments and fall back on “small is better” platitudes.
The request for a referendum is therefore a bluff, an act of political theatre. Sturgeon had told friends after the last referendum that it would be political suicide to call another one until separation was backed by 60% of voters. But that point never came. Even now there is a (thin) majority for the Union – and that is after Brexit, an inflation crisis, a not very popular Etonian in number 10 and the partygate debacle. Polls show that barely a third of Scots welcome his new schedule.
So Sturgeon threatens a vote most Scots don’t want with a case she can’t win and questions she can’t answer. But his job now is to scare him, to suspend disbelief. To keep the hope of his troops by demanding a new referendum. And to hope, perhaps above all, that the conservatives do not say “yes”.