Does Scottish Independence really matter?

Thursday, 11th September 2014

As a half-Scot and half-Englishman, I never really identified as either. I grew up to believe in Britain as my father owed his career in the army and later British Aerospace to the archipelago's imperial legacy. Whenever my English mother would inadvertently confuse England with Britain, my brother would correct her. I’d support Scotland in football and in the Commonwealth Games, but Great Britain at the Olympics. Scotland remained the land of clan battles, legends, inventors, Hogmanay, Highland Games, Whisky, Billy Connolly and Sean Connery, a quaint region of post-imperial Britain. There had long been two Scotlands. Here I mean not so much the age-old Highlands / Lowlands feud, but the contrast between scientific enlightenment, embodied by David Hume, Thomas Carlyle and James Watt and later industrial decline, portrayed so brilliantly in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and fictional TV character Rab Nesbit. Scotland's best and brightest tended to emigrate, while the social ills of alcohol abuse, bad diet and some of the worst poverty levels in Europe blighted those who remained. Until this very day the UK armed forces draw a disproportionate number of recruits from Scotland. The country's strategic military importance greatly outweighs its relative proportion of the UK population. Then came the first oil shock of the early 70s and the prospect of black gold in Scottish coastal waters. Although by that time 300 miles south of the border in Southern England, my Scottish friends and relatives seemed determined to get their fair share of the coming oil bonanza to bring new life to the old country. Yet after the 1979 referendum on devolution failed to attract enough votes (a simple majority voted yes, but many more failed to vote), Scotland, alongside Northern England and South Wales, faired very badly as manufacturing industries moved abroad. Ironically, the Thatcherite revolution was not so much about Great Britishness, that was just rhetoric reinforced by her role in the recapture of the Falkland Islands, but about opening up markets and transitioning to a new service-based economy. A large strand of Scottish public opinion has until recently been conservative with a small c upholding national traditions, but also adhering to a strong Calvinist belief in prudence, self-discipline and restraint. Sadly, junk culture with its beguiling forms of multimedia entertainment has taken the country’s most underprivileged classes by storm. Not surprisingly Scotland would later become the electronic gaming hub of Europe, while other industries, including the short-lived Silicon Glen, outsourced production elsewhere. Despite a brief industrial revival in the early 1990s, under New Labour, Scotland transitioned, like its southern neighbour, to a post-industrial economy. IBM, Lexmark, Hoover and many others moved away for good, as global retail outlets spread mushroom-like across the urban landscape.

UK as an anachronism

As Glaswegian comedian, Frankie Boyle, points out, rather than invest the proceeds of North Oil in education, infrastructure and next generation engineering, the Westminster government chose to subsidise mass unemployment and later disguise it through the redefinition of disablement . All of a sudden you could be disabled not because you were crippled, blind or deaf (though modern technology can empower even the severest cases of physical disability), but because you had succumbed to drugs, booze and all the psychological traumas so common in people deprived of a true purpose in life and forced to while away their days as mere welfare dependents. While many blame Thatcher for single-handedly destroying the Scottish soul, its policies were dictated solely by the needs of multinational corporations who owed little allegiance to ordinary British people of any national persuasion, except as consumers. Indeed rather than balance the books, Thatcher’s government squandered oil proceeds on short-term priorities such as expanding welfare by letting industry move abroad and cutting taxes for the rich. Yet after 18 years of Tory rule, New Labour continued in the same vein, but rebranded as a progressive internationally minded venture. The boundaries between public and private institutions continued to blur, as bureaucracy expanded, but also outsourced services to private bidders. Former public sector organisations, like British Rail and British Steel, had been sold off and were now run by unaccountable multinationals. Power was slowly but surely slipping away from the Westminster Parliament to boardrooms and remote transnational institutions. Many on the left had initially opposed the EU, but now the new left saw it as a force for social progress, despite enforcing privatisation and fiscal restraint on all European countries. Successive treaties agreed under Conservative and Labour governments handed powers to the EU Commission. Most disturbingly New Labour supported corporate globalisation in the guise of free trade and open borders at all costs. Rather than negotiate to protect the interests of British workers, British-born lobbyists campaigned for opening up European markets to cheap goods from the Far East, thus destroying small manufacturers in much of Southern Europe, unable to compete with heightened competition. Protectionism, once supported by the labour movement, became a bad word. Only global institutions could bring about change, but the multi-billion dollar lobbying industry, with its various branches in PR, mass media and charities, can easily subvert any grassroots movements.

Rebranding Scotland as a Euroregion

However, in one important area the Scottish experience of recent social changes differs greatly from the Southern English experience. Scotland remains largely peopled by Scots. Indeed, outside a few districts of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the largest ethnic minority are the English. While the Scottish population has risen from just a wee bit over 5 million in 2001 to around 5.3 million in 2011, it has plenty of empty houses and unused land. By contrast England alone has gained over 4 million new residents in the same period with vast swathes of inner cities and market towns transformed out of all recognition. Migration has increased rapidly worldwide, more people move in all directions than ever before. As recently as the 1970s annual migration flows would see 30–50,000 people move either way, since 2001 we've seen more than a ten fold increase in migration numbers, e,g 650,000 moving to the UK (mainly England) and 450,000 moving away). Most of us on the left saw Commonwealth immigration as part of a post-colonial settlement and welcomed our new neighbours. However, in the age of cheap air travel and growing migratory pressures from the rest of the world, mass immigration can lead to social upheaval uprooting formerly cohesive communities and replacing national identities with vague and volatile regional identities. I know from my own line of work in software development, labour market instability and regular relocation has become the new norm. When young English people complain about competition from the new wave of industrious Eastern European immigrants, some politicians suggest they take advantage of open borders and migrate themselves (It seems odd to hear nothing but Polish, Portuguese, Bengali and Arabic in London, only to feel swamped by British ex-pats in Spain). Of course, many Brits do, but usually either wealthy pensioners or highly skilled professionals and business-people. If you need a plumber in Warsaw, do not expect to meet a keen Essex lad filling a gap in the handyman market, though you might meet one on an extended pub crawl. The Scottish social fabric has simply changed much less dramatically than in England. Scotland is much more Scottish than England is English in much the same way as Austria has always seemed to me much more German than Germany, which these days is surprisingly cosmopolitan.. Indeed English is spoken more widely and more eloquently in Glasgow and Edinburgh than in London, Birmingham or Manchester. In many ways Scotland reminds me much more of the Britain I once knew than modern metropolitan England.

All five main Scottish parties (SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Conservatives) support open borders with the rest of the EU, although Scottish public opinion seems just as sceptical of the EU and the purported benefits of mass immigration as down south. More intriguingly, at least four of the main parties pander Scotland's recent conversion to the culture of welfare entitlement rather than self-reliance and social solidarity. The SNP would have us believe unshackled from Westminster's chains, optimistic oil revenues will reverse the current government's alleged cutbacks (in fact they have continued to increase public spending and made only modest changes to welfare provision, at least compared with EU countries like Greece, Portugal or Ireland). Labour, by contrast, reassure their electorate that the UK will continue to subsidise Scotland, presumably with funny money earned at the city of the London. Few Scottish people seem aware of the sheer duplicity of the career left. Ken Livingston has long claimed that London subsidises the rest of the UK, especially outlying regions such as Scotland. While Ken hopes City profits will fund more growth in London (whose population and economy eclipse Scotland's), the SNP places its hopes on massive oil profits.

Countries as disparate as Greece, Portugal, Finland and Estonia are powerless to go against the global flow, an unstoppable juggernaut of rapid technological change and social progress albeit with plenty of teething problems. Their economic policies are dictated largely outside their borders. Their local management teams can lower corporation taxes or pioneer new retraining programmes, but only within tight budgetary constraints. They spend much of their legislative time harmonising local laws and customs with new global or European standards. Would Scotland be any different ?

Aye, but with no illusions

Let me just set the record straight, I’m voting yes for two reasons. First because unlike globalists, I actually believe in self-determination. Ideally, I’d like to see some sort of loose federation of the British Isles. Let us not forget that over 90% of imports into Scotland travel via England. If the global economy implodes, we will need to be on very good terms with our immediate neighbours. Second, I’m curious to see how things will pan out. I’d love to see Trident nuclear submarines sail back to the USA. A rump UK would have diminished status on the world stage less able to help the US in its global policing operations.

However, I vote yes so with no illusions. Of course, a currency union would make Scotland subservient to the Bank of England, and without a large increase in oil revenues the SNP’s grandiose public spending plans remain uncosted. Raising income tax will just encourage the rich to emigrate, while lowering corporation tax to attract inward investment will prompt other countries to do the same thus boosting corporate profits. Scottish education has a long way to go before it can compete with Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. To revive manufacturing, the government would not only have to invest billions in new infrastructure and training, it would have to impose trade restrictions or drastically boost competitiveness and productivity.

The only way a nominally independent Scotland could succeed would be for global crude oil prices to rise enough to make new North Atlantic oil fields more profitable, but in such a scenario global demand may also shrink. To tap wind and wave energy to any meaningful degree, someone would have to invest billions and wait decades before reaping the benefits of such monumental endeavours.

However, I suspect life after the breakup of the UK will not be plain sailing. Global events will eclipse the rebranding of Scotland. The Euro-zone may well collapse and the EU may disintegrate into looser regional trading partnerships along the lines of EFTA, while the Chinese economic bubble may well burst, unable to access cheap resources to fuel further growth. How would a Scottish government behave without economic growth? Would it relocalise the Scottish economy and choose the post–1991 Cuban model of self-sufficiency? Would it seek closer ties with its Scandinavian and British Isles neighbours? Would it be forced to abandon welfarism in favour of the Calvinist tradition of hard work? How would Scottish voters react if a future bankrupt Scotland had to impose austerity on a Greek scale just to accept another loan from the EU? Greece too has enormous resources as does Sweden and Denmark. But none are able to stop the global steamroller.

Do the establishment really care?

40 years ago an independent Scotland seemed almost unthinkable. If the SNP could muster 20-30% of the vote, pundits would just write it off as a protest vote. Back then the Scottish intelligentsia, alongside the Unionist movement and Glasgow Rangers fans, were passionately pro-British. But the British ruling class has long joined the borderless global elite, more concerned with property prices in the south of France than the Scottish fishing industry. The only English politicians who can claim any genuine commitment to an ongoing social union with Scotland would also oppose handing more power to big business and transnational organisations. Yet I suspect they are merely shedding crocodile tears. Where will they station Trident ? Will they still help the US bomb the enemy du jour in the Middle East ? Who cares. Rupert Murdoch has already decided that his neoliberal globalist project can work fine in the SNP's Euro-region. Most disturbingly, the SNP have already agreed in principle to the new TTIP ( Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), claiming only they will exempt the NHS from free-trade rules. If the likes of Rupert Murdoch have their way and lobby a future Scottish government as successfully as they have in other countries, Scotland could well end up as an outpost of corporate America, with as much independence as North Carolina. The Scottish Sun, which supported the 2003 US/UK occupation of Iraq, seems set to support Scottish independence or a good location for Rupert's new private golf course. If some of the latest polls are right and a majority now support the Yes campaign,the Scottish Sun may well have played key role. Tommy Sheridan's dream of socialist beacon of enlightenment may well give way to a puppet government at the mercy of big business.

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