Time for a Future Scotland of Head and Heart: A Challenge to Independence and the Union
Sunday Mail, March 22nd 2015
Scotland for many at the moment feels an exciting place. But for others there is a sense of dismay and confusion.
The latter is particularly evident in pro-union opinion. This week, ‘The Times’ commentator Magnus Linklater agreed with William McIlvanney’s recent revision of L.P. Hartley’s ‘the past is a foreign country’, referencing Scotland – ‘when you get to my age the present is a foreign country’.
Linklater agreed. He noted falling oil prices, the economic balance sheet between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and pressures on public services. These should have led to a situation where Scotland ‘turned its back even more resolutely on the issue of independence’ and left the SNP ‘licking its wounds’. Yet the opposite was the case he conceded and he was baffled why.
During the referendum several pro-union voices observed, ‘what happens if I wake up on September 19th in a different country?’ One answer is that the different Scotland is already present – here and now. But the appropriate response is to recognise the loss, anxiety and even pessimism in this about our country and future.
Some people want to dismiss such sentiments, which are more widespread than Linklater’s feeling a stranger in his own country. That part of Scotland feels grief and loss close to bereavement has to be understood, and amounts to nothing less than an existential crisis.
Some independence supporters have a not too dissimilar take of those who disagree with them. Independence for many is a statement of faith and almost a newfound revivalist spirit.
All of this can be seen in the disconnected way the economy is discussed. Last week the official Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures came out which showed that for 2013-14 Scotland raised £54bn and spent £66bn – a deficit of £12 billion which amounted to 8.1% of GDP compared to a UK figure of 5.6%.
The unionist argument is that this proves independence is risky and a threat to public spending and finances. Nationalists took from the same figures that Scotland raises more taxes per head than the rest of the UK once North Sea Oil is counted amounting to £400 per head in the last financial year.
There is a similar Scottish disconnect on the UK Government’s Budget – with it all seeming to happen in a far off distant planet called Westminster. Some of this is the increasingly technocratic way politics and government spending is discussed by politicians and experts. But there has also been a Scottish tradition of not talking about the economy, only public spending.
Here are two suggestions to move this on. Firstly, Scottish politics has to start discussing the economy rather than just talking about what is spent or cut. This is essential given the Scottish Parliament is shortly away to get powers over income tax connecting what we spend to the state of the economy.
Secondly, the independence and pro-union arguments need to engage in a bit of political cross-dressing. The independence case, if it is to win over a substantial majority, has to make an argument based on economic facts and figures, not conjecture. It has to lay out the terrain for prosperity and increased living standards under independence.
The pro-union case has to be more than a cost-benefit analysis of the perils of independence and sticking with the union. It has to tell an emotional, instinctual story, rather than leaving this ground completely unchallenged to independence.
Both face challenges. The case for independence has to deal with big economic issues such as the currency and reserve bank, and not just assert that once Scotland became independent our growth rate would automatically improve. The pro-union argument has to address the divided, unequal economic and social country that is Britain, its broken political system and self-interested elites.
Without this both perspectives leave large parts of Scotland unconvinced. Instead of serious debate we have a parallel set of conversations where both sides talk past each other and resort to faith, assertion and fear.
That’s not enough to establish a widespread consensus on the future of Scotland. Both arguments need to learn from last year their limitations and bring together facts and figures with an appeal to the emotions. Whoever can do this – combining an appeal to head and heart – will shape public opinion and make the future of our country.