Sunday, May 19, 2013

The SNP tries to have its cake and eat it

When is a separate state not a separate state? Apparently, when it is proposed by the SNP. 

A leading luminary of the party, Andrew Wilson, is making the case that because British identity- a more or less positive thing in his view- comprises more than the political ties between the nations of the UK, that identity would survive the end of the common state.

For me this is the central dichotomy in the argument for separatism: for many, if not most, Nationalists, the belief in self determination stops short of a situation where border posts are erected at Berwick. At the same time, the proposals that they put forward make it almost inevitable that Scotland would face much great isolation from the rest of the UK than the SNP says it wants.

In recent weeks the Separatist argument has been utterly undermined by the total lack of honesty about what the price of independence would actually be. Even if you believe that Scottish independence is a desirable outcome, you have to accept that difficult choices must be made; that there are costs and benefits to an independent state, just as their are costs and benefits to maintaining the common state. 

At University most of us had to listen to the tedium of student nationalists explaining in great detail the fiscal and monetary policies-including who should appear on Scottish currency notes- of a separate Scotland. It almost defies belief that the SNP is in such disarray over currency. Yet having nailed their colours to the mast of the Euro- now deeply unpopular and not just in Scotland- the party was forced to row back from that position, and suggest that Scotland would keep Sterling. Yet the price of that implies a far different fiscal policy than the SNP proposes- and ignores the fact that the continuing UK would not permit the Scottish representation on the MPC that it currently already has. The third choice: a new Scottish currency is more logical and economically coherent, but it implies the end of the public spending policies that Scotland has embraced since the 1960s. It also implies a significantly more volatile currency- early on the short term increase in costs will make the new currency a far greater risk than Sterling. Even if later, the potential oil revenues provide a cushion, the fact is that a de facto petro-currency will make it much harder for the rest of the Scottish economy to compete in the global markets. The SNP knows that it can not maintain the comfort blanket of Sterling- but it refuses to admit to voters that there are huge risks in any path: the Euro or a new currency, that it chooses. 

Those risks are only increased by the utterly irresponsible comments that the ruling party in Scotland has made about repudiating its share of the debt of the UK. Nothing could be more likely to render Scottish independence an unmitigated disaster than to begin its economic record as a separate state with a debt default. It would also open up the possibility of sanctions- not just from the continuing UK, but from the international debt markets.

It is quite clear that Scotland- independent or not- needs to dramatically restructure its economy. The burden of having 60% of the economy under state control is barely supportable within the UK, and outwith the UK, it is clearly unsustainable. Indeed many Nationalists base their commitment to a separate state on the recognition that Scotland must change dramatically, and they doubt the willingness of Scottish Labour to make the changes that would benefit Scotland but weaken the political patronage that they rely on to be re-elected. Many in the SNP believe that the reform of Scotland can not be enacted inside the UK. Personally, I think reform must come first and that the complications of independence make the task of reform and restructuring much more difficult.

That difficult task extends to the very basis of independence: the ability to defend the state if it is attacked. The complacent suggest that war in Europe is unthinkable, but the fact is that there are everyday security challenges- from Russian military overflights to the poaching of Scottish fishing fields- which require a credible military force. The maintenance of this force is much cheaper within an alliance, so the cost benefits of NATO membership are significant- as the higher military expenditure in neutral Sweden and Finland well demonstrates. Yet at the same time, Alex Salmond tries to be all things to all men. Scotland can hardly maintain membership of NATO, if its first act as an independent member is to close the Faslane nuclear base- a base as important for the major power of NATO- the USA- as it is for the current UK. Many Nationalists expect an independent Scotland to renounce nuclear weapons- but the price for this, the need for more conventional defence, is rarely -if ever- discussed.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is a major threat to the global democracies and to world peace, and Scotland, situated at the entrance to Russian northern waters, is in a vital strategic position for the defence of NATO. The SNP is irresponsible to simply attempt to fudge two irreconcilable positions: armed neutrality or full NATO membership. Of course, some Nats simply suggest that the defence of Scotland could be one of the remaining shared issues with London. I think that this is naive in the extreme, since their decision to close Faslane has apprantly already been made. A choice of some kind must be made.

The same casual disregard for the facts covers the putative Scottish foreign policy. The new state would need to establish a network of representation, but the reality is that this is yet another cost burden on a new state that will need to go through wrenching restructuring as it is. The idea of giving some Scottish ambassador the kind of prestige that his UK counterpart already has will probably be deeply unpopular in Sighthill, where life in the short term will be much harder. The key relationships for Scotland will remain Brussels and Washington as they are for the UK, but the critical relationship will be in London- if there are differences between Edinburgh and London, these will need to be addressed by diplomacy, not by Parliament. YT, as Ireland already does, Scotland will need to in large measure to adapt to whatever policies London sets- there are inherent limits to independence, for always the continuing UK will have the ultimate sanction of shutting out a separate Scotland. Again the complacent argue that the EU will prevent this, yet as the rise of anti EU sentiment continues across the continent, it is by no means clear that Scotland can rely on the EU in its dealings with the continuing UK. Initially Scotland would not even be a member of the EU- that is the clear legal position, albeit one that the SNP has tried to lie about- and although we can hope that suitable transition measures can be made that minimise disruption, Scotland would need to rely on the goodwill of London in order to avoid real isolation. In the long term, it is possible that Scotland would be a member of the EU, but London not-  either way the border would not be the invisible line that it is today.

This brings us to the final SNP irresponsibility: the assumption that the process of divorce would be as simple and positive as between the Czechs and Slovaks. Firstly Czechoslovakia as a state was only founded in 1918, and was dissolved for the seven years between 1938-45, whereas the history of the United Kingdom stretches back over three hundred years. There are far more issues to negotiate between Scotland and the continuing UK- and from maritime borders, to defence, to pensions, there are huge complications arising from the slightest differences. It is hard to see that no emotions will enter into the debate. As with most divorces, it is easy to see how disputes could become very acrimonious indeed. The SNP thinks- Pangloss like- that the solutions will always be positive, simply because it is the SNP that proposes them. They do not understand the ramifications of failure.

Scotland needs to change- that has been clear for most of my life. Yet it seems to me- and to most Scots- that the SNP believes that it can gain "independence lite", where it can benefit from the things that are British: a common currency, common economy, common monarchy, perhaps even common armed forces or foreign representations, but reject the things of the menu that it doesn't like. To my mind such things must be negotiated within the framework of the United Kingdom. I see little point in "independence lite", given the incredible risks and difficulties of negotiating this. The reality is that independence will need to be a genuine independence, which inevitably carries far greater risks.

I am a Liberal and therefore I believe in home rule for Scotland. I believe that most SNP supporters also believe in some kind of continuing British identity. Scotland can, of course, become a viable independent state- and I am not afraid of it. Yet the SNP has not been open about the likely price of a separate state, and it fails to address fundamental questions about the choices that must be made in order to make a separate Scotland a success.

To my mind we should stop trying to follow the mirage of a separate state and commit to seeking change within the framework of a remade, federal UK. The majority believe that Scotland is Better Together in the UK- and even if the Nationalists do not believe that Scotland can reform within the UK, the fact is that their dishonesty and confusion as to what Scottish independence actually means is failing to persuade the Scottish people.

The SNP can not have its cake and eat it- and the likely failure of their referendum should mark the beginning of a new and real debate about the future of what we already have. 

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