Jim Gallagher, Nuffield College, University of Oxford
Modern British politics has never experienced anything like this campaign. Governments arguing on each side – indeed the whole resource of the devolved government apparently devoted to little else – producing a White Paper remarkable for its length, at least. Longer even than a US presidential election – in reality stretching back to 2011. High reported intention to vote – but so far a remarkably stolid public opinion.
One very striking feature is the willingness of today’s UK to empower the Scottish people to decide on their future by voting for a separate Scottish state. Contrast this with Madrid’s deep unwillingness to agree that Catalonia should hold a referendum at all. One might have predicted a bit more sound and fury from the UK before so radical a course of action was agreed, but the logic that Scotland alone should make this democratic choice was followed without question. The threat of secession is being contemplated in a very civilised way, though that does not imply it is in any sense welcomed.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the debate in Scotland is so instrumental. Of course there are Scots for whom nationhood is a gut question with huge emotional resonance. My taxi driver the other day who hankered after ‘the Bruce and the Wallace’ to run an independent country (honest) was perhaps an outlier, but committed nationalists are clear believers. Many, perhaps most, Scots however seem to view this as an instrumental question – what would work best, how in reality would things turn out, and how much would it affect Scotland’s prosperity? Voters’ demand is for ‘more information’, as if the referendum were a particularly important exam to study for.
The contrast with Spain is striking. In the week in which it was reported that 1.6 million people held hands round Catalonia, 8000 hardy souls climbed the Calton Hill in Edinburgh to rally for separation. The former is a mass movement.
This lack of separatist enthusiasm in the electorate might be a weakness for the independence campaign, but it also defines much of its nature, and the debate. Responses to a now notorious Scottish Social Attitudes Survey question suggest that 51% of Scots would support independence if it made them £500 a year better off, while 85% would reject it if they were £500 worse off. So debate has focused on issues that surface in retail politics – jobs, pensions, taxation and public spending – rather than principled questions of independence and statehood.
Nowhere was this more striking than in the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, published last year. It is notable for length, weight – 650 pages long and 3 pounds heavy – and lightness. Its definition of independence is about as ‘light’ as could be and still merit the name. Almost as much effort is devoted to explaining the things that would not change as to what would or might. So an independent Scotland would keep not just the Queen as Head of State, but the UK pound, the Bank of England, the Prudential Regulatory Authority, the UK Research Councils, the BBC, the National Lottery, common welfare administration…all the way down, or maybe up, to Strictly Come Dancing.
The political logic is clear: independence is inherently a deeply uncertain and risky project. That is not a campaigning point, but a statement of fact. It cannot be predicted with certainty how different life would be in an independent Scotland– that depends on decisions that would be taken by Scotland, and in large part by others in reaction to it.
For some voters, making things different may be the overriding priority. But for most, risk and uncertainty is to be avoided, not sought out. So the SNP’s political imperative is to de-risk independence in voters’ minds, and present it as simply a small, logical, step from devolution – rather than a disruptive separation. The consequent political tactic is to attack as negative or scaremongering any suggestion to the contrary, and to seek to delegitimise whoever makes it: thus the Labour Shadow Chancellor is an ally of the Tories, or Bob Dudley of BP not a business leader but a member of the elite. The suggestion that the interests of rest of the UK could diverge from an independent Scotland’s gets similar treatment. It is an iron law of political discourse that the amount of emotion and abuse used in defending an argument is in inverse proportion to the argument’s strength.
Of course this no more than quotidian politicking, and perhaps that is to be expected in the first couple of years of a campaign of extraordinary length. It began as soon as the SNP gained an overall majority in the Holyrood Parliament, and when the UK government made clear it would ensure the legal obstacles to a devolved referendum did not stand in its way. A period of SNP prevarication about what sort of referendum they wanted (one question or two, and what options) ended in the only way it could – with the referendum promised in their manifesto.
Beginning during this period, and subsequently, we have seen policy contributions from the United Kingdom government weighty in a different sense. The Scotland Analysis program is a series of papers, avowedly intended to persuade voters of the benefits of the UK, but extremely heavy in detailed legal, economic and policy analysis of the potential consequences of independence. These papers are full of expert analysis of subjects as various as international law, the effects of borders on trade, and the currency options open to an independent Scotland. Few, if any, policy questions have been subject to such intensive scrutiny.
As we approach the final couple of hundred days, and then the (long) regulated period of the campaign, voters will focus on the significance of the choice which they are to make, and the importance of its consequences. They are sure to realise that a choice to create a separate Scottish state is not just another issue of retail politics but rather a profound, and irreversible, decision about where they belong, and how they are governed.
The most significant event of the campaign so far, by some measure, has been the cross-party agreement by UK politicians that the SNP’s model of currency union post-separation is not sustainable, and would not be acceptable in the interests of the continuing UK, nor indeed in Scotland’s. This is a hugely significant issue in itself – no economic decision is more important for any country than what currency to have, and the implications of the choices which are available for Scotland’s prosperity, for incomes, employment, interest rates and so on go to the core of the economic issues in the debate. It is not surprising, therefore, that the reaction of Scottish Ministers has been one of emotive abuse.
What is perhaps more important about this intervention, however, is that it is an explicit challenge to the SNP’s depiction of independence, implying that it is not really much of a change at all. As the campaign moves into its last 6 months, candor is to be welcomed.
The intellectual foundation of the Better Together argument, however, does not lie in the incoherence of the independence proposition put forward by the SNP. Bolstered by the analytical work of the UK government, it is possible to see an intellectually coherent and compelling set of arguments for maintaining Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, as it is today with its own democratic institutions, as well as the strength, stability and security of the wider nation state.
The argument from economic union is, bizarrely, wholly accepted by the SNP. Everyone in the UK benefits from being part of a large domestic market, in which not just goods and services but workers and capital resources can move without hindrance to take advantage of economic opportunities. Independence, which most economists agree would create a ‘border effect’ of some magnitude, could only hinder that. An integrated economy, together with an effective banking union and fiscal sharing, allows the UK to sustain a single currency, not just a symbol, but an effective sign of economic union.
The UK is however more than an economic union. Economic union, and the fiscal sharing it allows, create the opportunity for social solidarity, so that individual parts of the UK gain security from being part of a larger economic whole, and can manage economic shocks and volatility in a way in which a small nation could not. This is shown particularly in the UK’s single pension and welfare benefits system, in which the circumstances of individuals, rather than where they live or their nationality, determine their pension or support. Independence would certainly end that.
Of course in voting to stay in the UK, Scots would also be voting for continuation of a form of political union which allows for very substantial, and increasing, decentralisation of power and responsibility to the Scottish Parliament, so that Scots can have greater control over their domestic affairs without abandoning the benefits of being part of a larger country. In the end, it is this positive offer which will secure the assent of Scots this September to remain inside the United Kingdom.
Professor Jim Gallagher is Gwilym Gibbon Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford and adviser to the Better Together Campaign. His book (with Ian Maclean) Scotland’s Choices was published in 2013.