The economic case for independence will always be a loser

Flipping through my calendar over the weekend, my eye fell on this coming Sunday.

There was something special about it but it wasn’t a birthday or family occasion, nor had I agreed to meet up with a source to conspire over a beer or six. Then it hit me: this would have been the third anniversary of Scottish independence.

Had the Yes campaign triumphed in 2014, 24 March 2016 was to be the big red-letter day. Of course, now we know it would have been a P45 day, plunging the country into economic hardship for a generation. The kind that actually lasts a generation.

Three years on and almost five since the vote itself, I continue to marvel at the complete absence of contrition from those who brought us to the brink. Brexiteers are, with some justification, being pilloried for the chasm between the pre-referendum braggadocio about straightforward negotiations and easy trade deals and the cliff-hurtling clown car we find ourselves in.

Scottish separatists, on the other hand, appeared to have got away with their shameless chicanery. £350million on the side of a bus? Try a 650-page white paper pledging a new state in 18 months, for just £200million, with Brent Crude at $113 a barrel, and everyone better off to the tune of £1,000 a year.

It was a scam, one targeted at the poorest communities in the country. Smiling activists were sent to knock doors in places like Shettleston and Easterhouse and promise desperate people a windfall with one cross on a ballot paper. Such a cold, calculating fraud should never be rewarded.

Happily, there are growing indications that it won’t be. Independence has been back in the news, largely thanks to a BBC Scotland documentary recounting the events of 2014. Yes/No: Inside The Indyref is a so-so production and seems geared towards wooing supporters of the notoriously BBC-phobic nationalist movement. Far more illuminating have been fresh polls testing where public opinion stands today.

A poll conducted by Survation for the Scottish Daily Mail revealed that 60 per cent of voters are against another referendum before 2024. The country is keeping its options open — the Nationalists and Greens would still win a majority of seats at Holyrood — but it is far from being convinced of the case for separation.

If those results made for sobering reading at SNP HQ, another poll was downright grim. Commissioned by Scotland in Union and again carried out by Survation, it found that 40 per cent of voters are less likely to support independence if it means Scotland losing the pound.

At SNP conference next month, Finance Secretary Derek Mackay will press for a change in party policy to allow temporary use of sterling after separation followed by the establishment of a new currency, the details of which have yet to be decided.

Mr Mackay is likely to get his motion passed as the party wants to avoid any outward signs of division at this juncture. But it may be a pyrrhic victory, for the Scotland in Union poll shows that one-fifth of Yes voters would abandon independence over the currency gamble. By comparison, only three per cent of those who voted No in 2014 would switch to Yes.

I have been cautious about what the future holds for Scotland on the constitutional question. Too cautious for some readers, who are scunnered by never-ending talk of independence and want to know they can relax for a few years without having to worry about their country being dismantled. I suspect they will get their respite. Brexit has not proved a handmaiden of independence — not in the short term, at least — and whatever pains and penalties it brings, voters seem to have decided that independence would be worse.

That one-in-five independence voters from 2014 are wavering shows the limits of magical thinking. Most of us do believe in Scotland — there are no Ragman Rolls here, Mr Russell — but we are devoutly sceptical of the fantasies peddled by politicians willing to say anything to get 50 per cent plus one at the ballot box. One parliament in meltdown over a referendum is quite sufficient.

In these wild days of unfettered identity politics, economics still matter. Numbers may not be as thrilling as flags but they have a lot more say over the prosperity and security of a nation. SNP high command knows this, which is why the Sustainable Growth Commission was despatched to work up a positive economic case for separation.

What it eventually came back with was more tethered to reality than previous blueprints but only just. The Growth Commission report is the White Paper grown up, with its hair cut, and looking for a proper job. Free unicorns with extra graphs.

Economics did for the Nationalists in 2014 and will continue to frustrate their efforts towards separation. Nationalism is about identity, not numbers, and until the SNP is willing to admit that, it will be stuck fighting on its opponents’ territory. Every time Nicola Sturgeon says independence is about achieving social justice and creating prosperity, her rivals can counter in plain fact that breaking away from the UK makes those aims harder to attain.

As long as the SNP tries to sell its constitutional ambitions as a financial transaction, independence will remain a solution in hot pursuit of a problem. Yes, economic growth across the UK is still sluggish and far too many people don’t share in the wealth we do have. But most of us see the answer in reforming what we have rather than tearing it up and risking economic catastrophe.

As part of the United Kingdom single market, Scotland enjoys tariff-free access to 60 million customers, higher per capita public spending than everywhere except Northern Ireland, and a globally established currency, Why would we risk all that for a chance spin on the SNP’s roulette wheel of grievance?

To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher, the facts of life are Unionist. The Union means security and economic stability; jobs and pensions and the pound in your pocket. Where it hits turbulence, as with Brexit, it is still a safer bet than pitching off into the world alone.

A future referendum on independence is winnable but it will not be won on the economy. Until the SNP grapples with this hard truth, it will always be mourning the independence day that never came.

*****

A big-hitter has waded into the smacking debate. I say ‘debate’. MSPs have already made up their minds but it’s not every day God takes a side at Holyrood.

The Church of Scotland says the Almighty ‘would want us to give children the same protections as adults’.

Previously, the Kirk has opposed Brexit, backed Nicola Sturgeon’s call for the right to hold a second independence referendum, said Trident ‘could not be further from the peace to which Christ calls us’, and announced that Jews have no special rights to the Land of Israel — quite the plot twist if you’ve read the earlier books.

Your Church of Scotland sermon is ‘You know, if Jesus were around today, He (or She) would support…’ followed by a random sentence from the Green Party manifesto.

The proposed smacking ban strikes me as illiberal but I’m not fussed either way. What I object to is the woke rewriting of Scripture by people who think the Good News is something you read in the Guardian.

*****

Leith is Edinburgh with soul. There you’ll find the best pint, bagel and kielbasa in the city. Soon you’ll find it dug up to extend the trams east of Princes Street. Residents will spend miserable years Tramspotting as they wait for these costly, half-empty cylinders of sterility to arrive. Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose to jump in the car instead.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.ukContact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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