Kevin Hague

Leaving the Union would harm Scotland more than Brexit

Leaving the Union would harm Scotland more than Brexit
Anti-Brexit badges on sale at the SNP's conference (Getty images)
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The Spectator recently ran a piece by Andrew Wilson, author of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission, under the headline 'Scotland can’t afford to remain part of the Union'. For those seeking any fresh insight into either the moral or economic case for breaking up the United Kingdom, it was thin gruel. 

Instead of coherent arguments, we were offered bold and unsubstantiated assertions. We are asked to believe that the separatists’ position is 'highly sophisticated' and that because of Brexit, 'staying in the Union is riskier than independence'. Any worries about the economic implications of leaving the UK single market, abandoning the Sterling currency union, losing the economic support offered by UK-wide pooling and sharing, dismantling our shared defence resources and unpicking our deeply integrated machinery of state can apparently be dismissed because, we are assured, 'the SNP prospectus is worked out and clear'.

While it is undeniably true that Brexit has heightened the sense of grievance in Scotland on which the separatists thrive, their dogmatic commitment to independence existed long before Brexit. Are we expected to forget that the SNP campaigned for independence in 2014 in the certain knowledge it would take Scotland out of the EU? Their enthusiasm for the EU is based on opportunism, not principle. But no matter, let’s take the SNP’s commitment to the European project at face value.

If Brexit causes economic damage by creating trade friction between the UK and the EU, placing Scotland on the EU side of UK-EU trade barriers would make things worse for Scots, not better. After over 40 years of unfettered market access, the EU accounts for just 21 per cent of Scotland’s exports compared to 60 per cent to the rest of the UK.

We were promised highly sophisticated, worked out and clear answers but, when it comes to this critical border question, the best the author of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission can offer is 'Scotland wants a frictionless one'. That’s it. No answer, no honesty or realism about what will happen, just an assertion that he wants something incompatible with the SNP’s stated aim of EU membership.

Which brings us to currency. We are told Scotland would 'retain sterling until preparations for a new currency are completed and tests are met ensuring that it is in Scotland’s interests'. You might think that is a brief summary of a detailed case which specifies and quantifies those tests, explains how they will be met and puts a timeframe on meeting them – but you’d be wrong. That sentence is effectively as deep as the SNP’s currency strategy goes. There are more words in the section of their Growth Commission report that discusses currency, but there is no more depth. The criteria are unquantified and no analysis is offered as to how and when they could actually be met.

Chapter 17 of the EU’s Acquis Communautaire specifies that any country wishing to join the EU 'shall treat their exchange rates as a matter of common concern'. This means Scotland can’t join the EU while using Sterling, so something has to give. It appears that the SNP strategy is to pitch a narrative of 'keep the pound and join the EU' in the hope that people won’t realise that this kicks the prospect of EU membership into the far distant future.

Borders and currency are not the only issues that are quickly skated over in the hope we won’t notice how thin the ice is. To satisfy the EU’s Fiscal Compact, Scotland would have to address its structural, higher-spending driven deficit. The Growth Commission itself tacitly accepted that this would require at least a decade of economic austerity, but instead of facing that issue head-on Wilson instead treats us to the following insight: 96 years ago Argentina was wealthier than Japan, but today it isn’t. There are many words I can think of to describe this approach to the debate, but 'sophisticated' certainly isn’t one of them.

The simple truth the article failed to address is this: if you believe that leaving the EU will be economically damaging, leaving the far older, deeper and closer union that is the UK would be so much worse: two wrongs don’t make a right.

We are told that that 'unionists have long stopped arguing a positive case', before being treated to several paragraphs devoted to talking down Britain and blaming Westminster for all that is wrong in Scotland (ignoring the reality of the powers that the Scottish government already wields).

Some of us were brought up to believe that it’s good to share, so we struggle with the idea that nationalists who reject the idea of pooling and sharing resources across these islands can claim they’re making the positive case. When North Sea oil boomed in the 1980s they argued it was a reason for independence; now North Sea oil revenues have collapsed and the wider UK economy sustains higher spending in Scotland, we are told this too is a reason for independence. It doesn’t seem to matter which way the money flows – nationalists just don’t like to share.

We are told too that Scotland’s deficit is somehow evidence of inequality and that it proves the UK’s economic model is failing. Yet the Scottish government’s own figures show that Scotland doesn’t suffer from poorer revenue generation, it benefits from higher public spending. In fact, Scottish public spending per head is 12 per cent higher than the UK average, higher on a per capita basis than any region of the UK other than Northern Ireland. The nationalist logic here is ridiculous: if Scottish public spending were decimated, Scotland’s deficit would come into line with the UK average and, so their argument apparently goes, the UK’s economic model would be fixed!

What Scottish nationalists are in effect arguing for is the abandonment of the solidarity and bonds of a common citizenship upon which the UK’s welfare state was built. It is a view they are of course entitled to hold, but it’s a bit rich of them to attempt to claim the moral high-ground while doing so.

When I read Wilson’s words I’m reminded of the urban myth that if you put a frog in boiling water it will leap out, but if you put it in tepid water and slowly heat it up, the frog will not sense the danger and so slowly be cooked to death. Nationalists know they can’t persuade Scots to jump into the boiling water, so instead they seek to describe separation in a soothingly tepid but wholly unrealistic way. Let’s hope that the Scottish electorate will become well enough informed to sense the danger before it is too late.

Kevin Hague is chairman of These Islands