The economic case for independence is dead? Good riddance.

Independence is dead. Long live independence.

The economic case for a Scottish breakaway from the UK has been mortally wounded – by no less a figure than Alex Salmond’s former head of policy.

“The dream shall never die,” Mr Salmond assured us but his own right-hand man has beaten it to death with a shovel then delivered the eulogy.

Alex Bell, one of the authors of the White Paper on which the SNP’s case for independence was based, charges that “the SNP’s model is broken”. That model has become “the cocaine of the politically active, fun to join in but dulling the senses, jabbering on at a hundred words per minute while disconnected from self awareness”. The costs of borrowing faced by Scotland would be such that “you can make no promises on what independence will be like”.

If I was Mr Bell, I wouldn’t accept any invitations to Summerisle any time soon.

It is true this isn’t his first critical intervention but as an outsider peeking in, one thing has always struck me about his admonitions to the SNP leadership. They read like sincere intellectual broadsides against the prevailing party orthodoxy rather than personal grudge-settling. Bell is a committed nationalist who has expended significant efforts in the independence cause. The essay, posted on his new politics and culture platform Rattle, delivers a knock-out blow to the current financial arguments but a wake-up slap to the overall self-determination project.

He wants more honesty about the economics of independence and more research into the costs and processes of setting up a new state. At times he is damning about the SNP’s posturing during the referendum:

“The interests of the SNP and the interests of independence have diverged. Independence needs facts and planning. The leadership fear those facts will rip the party apart. The SNP is growing comfortable in its role as the ‘Scotland’ party within a lop-sided UK, while pretending it is still fighting for independence to keep the party together…

“This is a morally dubious form of government. Posing as the defender of the poor against Tories when you have no credible alternative and don’t bother to research one is arguably immoral. More so when there is an explicit party policy not to reverse all cuts upon independence. The SNP’s ill-prepared version of independence does not plausibly offer any real alternative.”

Much of what he says has been obvious to members of the reality-based community for some time now. The SNP might defy the laws of political gravity but even in the New Scotland the rules of economics are still in place. Independence has to be paid for and the present case, growing weaker by the day, cannot survive Bell’s scathing analysis. Petro-nationalism and Nordic social democracy were always uneasy bedfellows.

Yes campaigners declaim their opponents for scaring old people during the referendum with tales of lost pensions. As Scottish HMRC staff are learning, the Union is no protection from the facts of economics. But nor is independence and sensible SNP politicians know taxes would have to rise or spending fall significantly to balance the books after a split. Still, they stalked the high-rises and the council estates last summer, promising miracles to the desperate and despondent. Promoting fear is a base tactic but selling false hope is hardly more humane.

There are two potential flaws in Bell’s thinking.

The first is the primacy of economics. “Follow the money” any smart political strategist will tell you and the Don’t Knows who decided the outcome in September 2014 likely did so with their pocketbook in mind. Another former Salmond adviser, Professor John Kay, lamented the economic rhetoric that attended the referendum, warning voters that they would be at best £500 better or worse off after a break-up.

He told an audience at Edinburgh University in 2013: “Plus or minus £500 is about the outer limits of the economic effect that independence is likely to have on Scotland. But Scottish independence is not primarily an economic issue.

“Anyone who goes to the ballot box in 2014 believing either that they should vote no because independence for Scotland would be likely to be an economic disaster or vote yes because they believe it is likely to lead to an economic bonanza, has failed to review the issues sensibly.”

Call it wishful thinking but there has to be a push beyond pounds and pence. Independence is a political question and it can only be answered by politics. As a fulfilment of The Vow, the Scotland Bill is a decent settlement. As a pay-off on promises of “home rule” and “federalism”, it is a vomit taco with extra vom. Would it be more palatable if we had a few extra quid in our pockets? The nationalist argument cannot hang on fiscal fantasies and nor should Unionists put their faith in economics alone. Oil booms come and go – and come again.

SNP fundies were once mocked as “tattie peelings nationalists” for their frequent declarations that they would “live on tattie peelings as long as Scotland was free”. In the end, they were right. Either you believe Scotland should fully govern itself or you don’t. Money matters but there is such a thing as a political sense of self.

The second tricky assumption from Bell is that independence is a question for “another generation”. This fails to take into account the outcome of the 2020 general election. Unless Labour dunts him overboard before then, the party will go to the country with a leader who advocates higher taxes, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and is uneasy about a shoot-to-kill policy for terrorists. This Labour Party faces a brutal reckoning at the hands of the voters and Scotland will once again find itself with a Tory government it didn’t vote for. That has to be worth at least another five per cent for independence.

A final point, tangential but relevant.

I agree with Iain Martin that Rattle deserves to succeed. Yes, because Alex Bell is a fine writer but also because the nationalist movement desperately needs critical thinking right now. The SNP megachurch brooks no heresy. MPs and MSPs genuflect to the leadership on all questions of doctrine; hardcore members and supporters drown irksome facts in catechisms: “Talking down Scotland.” “Bias.” “SNP bad.”

An army of cybernats menaces journalists who voice any dissent, much preferring hacks who write with pom-poms in their hands. The National reads like an experiment in what happens when you give commenters on Scotsman articles their own newspaper to run. It offers all the journalistic distance of a Doctor Who fanzine.

It must feel mightily lonely at CommonSpace, the only pro-independence outlet that consistently reports without fear or favour to any party or government. (Wings over Scotland is capable of this too, and more powerfully, but can get bogged down in the trenches.)

This might sound like snippy Scullying to true believers but in politics confidence can all too easily drift into arrogance and complacency. The SNP needs critical friends like Alex Bell to rattle their cage.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Howard Lake by Creative Commons 2.0.

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