(It’s an oxymoron, but let that pass)
We all know that you can’t be “Independent in Europe”. You can’t be “In Europe, but not run by Europe”. Indeed if we allow the EU its ambition to create “A Europe of regions governed from Brussels”, then Alex Salmond will have achieved his objective without the trouble of a referendum.
I have a high regard for Alex Salmond. He’s a shrewd operator and a savvy politician. He was very generous to me personally, years ago, when I asked for his help with a Burns Night speech. But of course he’s utterly wrong on Europe — and on wind farms.
Scottish independence would dismember the United Kingdom, and there are those who argue that we should all have a say. But this is a very difficult furrow to hoe, from a Unionist point of view, since opinion polls suggest that there is more enthusiasm for Scottish independence south of the border than in Scotland itself.
There are three main questions, it seems to me, that Scottish voters need to address before the referendum.
Will Scotland remain in the EU? Salmond blithely assumes that Scotland will segue smoothly from EU membership within the UK to EU membership as an independent nation. But constitutional lawyers are sounding exceedingly doubtful, and some EU leaders have suggested that Scotland would need to reapply for membership (though I should have thought that the chance to leave the EU was the best argument for Scottish independence). And there is a major road-block in Madrid: Spain is robustly opposing automatic entry for Scotland, as it would create a dangerous precedent for secessionist Catalonia. Presumably Spain would be needed to support Scottish accession. And I suspect that it will be reluctant to do so.
Of course Salmond may feel that in the EU, he can rely on the funding previously supplied by London. Which brings me to my second question:
Can Scotland afford independence? Scotland has an enormously bloated, almost Soviet state sector. How is it to be funded? We in the Sterling currency union of England and Scotland (and Wales & Northern Ireland) have long recognised that in any currency union between disparate economic areas, you need long-term fiscal transfers from richer to poorer areas. We call it the Barnett Formula. You can’t rely on occasional emergency bail-outs. You need long-term, large-scale fiscal transfers, year-by-year for the foreseeable future, as the €urozone is finding out the hard way. Where will Scotland look for that money? Surely Salmond doesn’t imagine that Brussels will subsidise Scotland on that scale?
Salmond occasionally talks about North Sea oil and gas. But that is running down, and in any case it is not clear how much of it Scotland might be entitled to under international law as an independent country. How much of the UK national debt does Scotland expect to inherit on independence? And meantime the SNP is shooting the Scottish economy in the foot with its wind turbines and energy policies, which are desperately expensive and cannot guarantee security of supply. And it’s shooting the Scottish economy in the other foot with its plan to close the Trident base at Faslane, as even the Guardian admits. The closure would cause economic devastation in the area.
Will Scotland retain Sterling as its currency? Salmond insists that Scotland would keep Sterling, unless and until it decided to adopt the €uro. Note that on neither scenario — Sterling or €uro — would Scotland have its own currency and monetary policy. Will London agree to Scotland keeping Sterling? Why should it? Presumably the Bank of England at least keeps Scottish interests in mind when deciding monetary policy — but there is no reason why it should do so for an independent Scotland. And don’t even ask about bailing out Scottish banks!
I admit that I personally feel a profound emotional attachment to the UK as it is, and I fervently hope that Salmond will lose his referendum. No doubt someone will ask why I feel so strongly about keeping the UK’s political union together, while opposing the European Union. I can only draw attention to Enoch Powell’s dictum: that democracy works “between people who have enough in common, in terms of history, culture, language and economic interests, to accept governance at each other’s hands”. In my judgement, that criterion is satisfied in the UK, but clearly not in the EU.