Last week, Boris Johnson visited Scotland in a desperate bid to quash the growing demands for Scottish independence. This gave the team at The Gower Street Journal the opportunity to think about the future of the Union. Five members of the team have penned their response to what could be the biggest issue facing our country for the next decade.
As I argued in my first article for The New Briton, the future of the United Kingdom has never been so threatened. Growing complaints of the constitutional settlement north of Berwick have ultimately provoked English indifference, and as seen recently, English opposition to the Union. Many English voters cannot understand why their Celtic cousins would want to end over 300-years of unity, or in Wales’ case 484-years of friendship. It is hard to argue with the contention that the English taxpayer and electorate have the roughest end of this deal, especially with the Barnett-formula.
Scotland will inevitably have a second independence referendum within the next decade and whatever they decide will either intensify Welsh, but perhaps more so, English notions of separatism or, in the case of a second ‘No’ vote, make such demands obsolete.
Despite an increased feeling of English indifference, fuelled partially by Brexit-induced frustration, I am a Unionist and I sincerely hope that by the end of the twenties the saltire of St Andrew will continue to fly proudly surmounted by the cross of St George. Unfortunately, I am far less confident about whether the argent and gules saltire of St Patrick will remain on the Union Jack with demographic changes and political trends making it increasingly likely that there will be a United Ireland in my lifetime.
The English and Scottish Union, a 313-year partnership that is most characteristically likened to that of a Husband and Wife. This analogy has been in use ever since the Union of these two great countries was first tendered by the coming of James I to the throne in 1603. But is it time that we ditch this analogy? The current climate surrounding the Union of England and Scotland would suggest that this would be the case. The SNP’s triumph in the last General Election in Scotland and the latest opinion polls show that a majority of Scotland want to break free. Another success for the SNP in local elections in 2021, could bring a great case for a second independence referendum.
I feel the devolved administration in Scotland would struggle to get Westminster to agree to such a referendum. However, should this referendum come around, I hope that Scotland repeats their decision in 2014. We are stronger together. Two countries intertwined in each other’s histories. But as we navigate through this troubling time for our Union, perhaps it is time we upgrade our analogies, and build on the basis of what James I started.
As an advocate for Brexit, in no small part due to the greater independence that I believe it would bring for the UK, I cannot in good conscience argue that people who feel their independence is threatened by remaining in the Union should be forced to stay against their will. Thus, if unhappy members of the union democratically vote to leave, they should be allowed to, although they should make sure they know the ramifications of what they are voting for.
However, I think that the secession of any member state of the Union would be a mistake, and should be campaigned against. Unlike the UK’s status as a net contributor to the EU; Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are all net receivers from England on a per head tax to public spending basis. This disparity between the tax base and public spending would need to be filled by any newly independent nation. Thus, these nation’s inhabitants need to understand that tax rises, public spending decreases and perhaps even a return to the unpopular policy of austerity (as theorised in 2018 by the IFS) would be necessary to make up the spending shortfall if independence were to be achieved. Unlike in the case of Brexit, it is unlikely (at least in the short term) that there will be any newly freed cash to go around, it will instead probably be the opposite. Whilst some of the tax to spending gap can be explained by features such as Scotland’s public sector water supply, even that will need to be funded by the Scottish taxpayer.
Too many people are being sold the lie that things will continue exactly as before after independence, just with an end to English tyranny. If people can evaluate the advantages they are giving up and still democratically choose freedom over better public services then I cannot fault them, although I will miss their departure. As the EU remain campaign was so insistent on saying, people should know what they were voting for.
I would have serious concerns about an independent Scotland’s economic future. There is no doubt that there are untapped fields in the North Sea but getting the crude out of the ground at such low prices makes no commercial sense. Separately, non-renewables are fast falling from grace. Building a country on crude is not sensible at the moment. Tourism, agriculture and some aspects of business and financial services could be in Scotland’s favour. That said, I suspect that the general public would not be supportive of large tax breaks to encourage wealthy individuals and corporations to settle in a newly independent Scotland. Besides should Scotland pursue EU membership, its fiscal freedom would be reduced anyway.
I am not convinced Scotland would, by itself, have the fiscal and monetary clout to manage independently. Keeping the pound would mean that monetary independence was not achieved. An independent currency would undoubtedly be extremely volatile, particularly if its value related principally to a volatile commodity. Any kind of peg would be controversial and difficult to maintain. From a fiscal perspective, in 2017/18, Scotland posted a £941m tax shortfall. The UK government provided £737m to cover the difference. I suspect that for Scotland to achieve consistent and adequate tax revenue the per capita tax burden would increase – an immediate blow to the domestic economy.
The desire for greater independence is understandable. I cannot, however, see how Scotland could achieve a viable form of independent existence in the long run.
Scotland voting to leave the union would turn England into a global laughing stock and would seriously diminish its position on a global stage. What country would pay any attention to a government that couldn’t keep its own nation together? I believe that’s why the US and President Obama were so intrigued in the 2014 Independence Referendum, because they genuinely feared for the lessened position that their greatest ally would have on the world’s stage. Although Britain’s GDP without Scotland would still place us in the top 8 economies in the world, we would still be in a lessened diplomatic position due to the lack of Scotland.
And what would be in store for the future of Scotland? We know that some strength has been given to the indyref2 movement due to Britain leaving the EU. But, Scotland would still be outside the EU if they were to leave the UK. Scotland would genuinely be on its own in the world and would be in serious economic trouble as no country on earth would choose a trade deal with Scotland above a trade deal with England, Wales and NI combined. Not even Donald Trump with his Scottish ancestry would choose an ungodly supply of Irn Bru over the world’s top financial services.
So, for the purposes of Britain’s position on the world’s stage and for the sake of Scotland’s economy, the government should be prepared to die on the hill to keep the Union together.