John Ferry

Nicola Sturgeon’s Potemkin independence bid

Nicola Sturgeon’s Potemkin independence bid
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In one sense Nicola Sturgeon’s new independence campaign launched today – which assumes there will be a second referendum within the next 18 months – does not signal anything new. Sturgeon did not unveil any new legislation. Nor did she submit a formal request for the UK government to allow a referendum to take place.

The legal and political impediments to having a rerun of the 2014 vote remain. Most people in Scotland do not want a referendum next year. Polling shows there is no majority for secession, while the constitution is way down the list of people’s priorities. There is no incentive for Downing Street to concede even an inch of ground to the SNP-Green administration’s demands for having another go at ‘Scexit’.

The press conference to kick off the new campaign was, however, revealing in two ways. First, there was the presentation of a new white paper described as a ‘scene setter’ which makes the case for exiting the UK. The First Minister also promised to publish a series of papers over the next few months that will deal with specific aspects of secession such as currency, fiscal planning, defence and so on.

The drip-feeding of content over several months, which may well stretch into next year, suggests the SNP is pursuing a strategy to keep restless supporters onside for as long as possible in the absence of any substantive change in the political and legal context that would lead to a referendum. It also hints at a delay in confronting the legal obstacles to another vote.

The other revealing point is the content of the first white paper, which has the clunky title of ‘Independence in the Modern World: Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland?’ Despite all the talk of being honest about the realities of secession, and of laying out a carefully planned roadmap so Scotland can cut away from its economic base, the paper is as misleading as previous attempts to justify independence.

The paper relies on cherry-picking a collection of small countries that do relatively well on certain economic statistics, benchmarking them against the UK, and then assuming the act of leaving the UK will magically turn Scotland into something similar. The irrationality of this approach was best summed up last year by the SNP’s own economic advisor, professor Mark Blyth, when he said:

‘The problem that I’ve seen so far is the complete lack of specificity as to “here is what the Scottish business model is now, here is where we want to be, this is how we’re going to get from here to here by doing this.” Instead of that what we’ve got is “Denmark is awesome, we should be like Denmark, if we were independent we would be Denmark.” No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark.’

As pointed out by Blair McDougall, who headed the campaign against secession in 2014, in a prescient blog published the day before the First Minister's press conference: this is the same approach the Scottish government has used in previous white papers.

Starting at the conclusion before working backwards to make your case tends to lead to unscientific methods. That’s why countries like Portugal (which has a relatively low GDP-per-capita) have been left out of the analysis.

This approach also avoids having to confront the statistical reality of examining what secession really means for Scotland. For example, there is no suggestion that any analysis is forthcoming which will accept the economic consequences of Scotland becoming fiscally autonomous sometime in 2025, leading to a projected deficit of nearly 10 per cent of GDP. And that’s before taking account of the economic starting point being even worse as money, people and companies flee for safer environs. Severe austerity is the only realistic outcome, but that is unlikely to be acknowledged.

Nor are we likely to see any realism about the implications of the new state not having a central bank in control of its currency, and the fact that leading economists warn this is likely to lead to a financial crisis. And while we might get some acknowledgement that a hard border with England will be put in place, the implications of this look set to be downplayed in the same way Eurosceptic Tories pushing Brexit pitched leaving the EU customs union and single market as cost free.

In 2017 Nicola Sturgeon infamously ‘launched’ a new ferry, the Glen Sannox, that is yet to see a single passenger grace its decks. It was a very costly PR stunt: the boat’s painted on windows were a sign that something wasn’t right. SNP launch events aren’t always what they seem. The cherry-picked data in the new white paper is the equivalent of the Glen Sannox’s painted windows. Scotland should be wary.

Written byJohn Ferry

John Ferry is a contributing editor for the think tank These Islands and a former financial journalist

Topics in this articleScotlandPolitics